In the world of skills training you may hear this factoid: Did you know that only 7% of what you communicate is about the words you say? 38% of understanding comes from tone of voice and a 55% from body language.
This bold statement is often the opening to a sales pitch about non verbal communication training, voice projection and public speaking tips. All of which are essential areas of professional development, but not quite as ‘statistically significant’ as the myth would have you believe.
These numbers have been peddled for years because they create an impressive shock factor that motivates people to invest time and money into skill development. However, simple thought experiments can call into question their validity:
If you are in a foreign country and do not speak the language then you lose the words of the communication – but still can hear all of the tone and see the body language (though there may be cultural differences). If this fact is correct then congratulations, you can still understand a whopping 93% of what is being communicated to you!
Many workplaces have shifted to remote learning now. Have you been on a Zoom or Teams call where your colleagues had their cameras off? If this fact is correct then simply switching your camera off means you lose a staggering 55% of what is being communicated!
Obviously, this is not the case for either scenario. To boil our communication down to such concrete numbers is an unhelpful way to teach people about the subtleties of communication.
A piece of research was conducted in 1967 by Albert Mehrabian that investigated understanding of a message. The 7%-38%-55% rule was derived from the results of two experiments in which Mehrabian examined how female participants interpreted short messages and communications. In the first experiment participants said individual words that had an emotional association (terrible is negative, dear is positive) but they were paired with different tones and facial expressions. The non verbal elements were viewed to be more important than the word itself.
The second experiment involved participants viewing photographs of facial expressions and listening to a voice through speakers. Most of the emotional content was judged through the image rather than the tone. The two sets of results were combined to create the overall ratio.
It is worth noting that most pieces of scientific research are conducted under laboratory conditions that often don’t reflect real life. This makes it unscientific to generalise exact figures to a wider context. It is rare that we are exposed to still photos or single word communications that bear significant meaning.
At best, the study tells us that when women are judging people’s emotions and attitudes as they communicate a short message, they will process the information in the following order: body language / expression, tone and then the word meaning. Even Mehrabian said himself that this ration / communication equation could not be applied to wider contexts.
The 7% rule is a myth but there is some truth to the misguided statistic…
When you communicate it is important to pay attention to your tone of voice and non verbal communication as well as the words you speak. Many managers, public speakers and leaders invest a lot of time and resources into honing their communication skills in a range of ways:
If you are ready to take your communication to the next level then definitely address all three areas; words, tone and body language. Just be wary of training providers who use the 7-38-55 rule to promote their work – they may not truly understand the science of effective communication.
Reference: Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth
A short summary of Mehrabian’s ‘Silent Messages’
Do you want to improve your professional communication skills? The Self Leadership Initiative provides bespoke coaching and training to help individuals and teams utilise their nonverbal communication and tone to give messages with more impact. Get in touch here to discuss your needs..