This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
You have probably heard this type of statement: “Effective personal communication is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and only 7% content of the words you use.” However, these widely quoted figures (181,000 results from a Google search) are just an urban myth and represent a fundamental misinterpretation of limited experimental results.
When you think about it, the words in personal communication logically should carry much more weight than a mere 7%. But this formula has been twisted and distorted, and has become a common factoid (a false statement asserted as a fact).
These percentages have been used over and over by communication consultants, body language ‘experts,’ media interview trainers, speech delivery coaches and HR instructors. How comforting it must be for them to quote such exact and scientific figures. But they have been taken out of context!
Unfortunately, the 7% 38% 55% statements continue to pop up as fact in published works:
Do a Google search for yourself and you can find variations on the same statement in many locations.
The two original research projects on which this information is based, actually found something decidedly different. UCLA psychologist, Dr Albert Mehrabian, and fellow researchers came up with quite narrow and limited findings, as many research projects do, in their experiments going back to 1967.
The result only occurred where contradictory messages are being conveyed simultaneously by words and other behaviors of a speaker – we may express something verbally while our facial expressions, postures and positions, tone of voice or gestures indicate the opposite.
As a communicator by profession I was determined to find out what the facts were, and so I went to the trouble of buying Mehrabian’s book, Silent Messages, directly from him.
Sure enough, Mehrabian’s claims were much more modest than the sweeping conclusions others have drawn from his work.
He said, “Is there a systematic and coherent approach to resolving the general meaning or impact of an inconsistent message? Indeed there is. Our experimental results show:
“Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking” [page 76]
“This can also be:
“Total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 38% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling” [page 77]
“These assertions…are limited to feelings (pleasure, arousal, dominance) and like-dislike.” [page 79]
But “Numerical values in this equation are only approximate.” [page 77] “Implicit cues have about 12 times the power of verbal cues.” [page 78]
“In a recorded message or phone conversation, if the vocal expression happens to contradict the words, then the former determines the total impact. This can work either way: the words may be positive and the vocal expression negative, or the vocal expression may be positive and the words negative.” [page 76]
“Obviously implicit expressions are not always more important than words,” stated Dr Mehrabian on page 79. Implicit communication deals mainly with feelings and like/dislike or attitudes.
In many conversations, implicit messages are not even present, eg “I will meet with you at 2 pm next Wednesday.” However, if you say “I’m looking forward to meeting with you again at 2 pm next Wednesday,” with a pained facial expression or if you avoid looking at the person when saying the words, your expression will convey a stronger implicit message than your explicit message (your words).
From all this, when you hear someone self importantly quoting spurious interpretations of Dr Mehrabian’s work, just laugh in their face. I’m sure your facial expression and tone of voice will be consistent with your words.
In addition to the misinterpretation of results, the experimental studies have limited applicability to real life:
Albert Mehrabian. Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes. Second edition, 1981.
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