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The 7%, 38%, 55% Myth Still Persists

Five years ago, I wrote a post offering up an apology to Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D. for unknowingly misrepresenting his work. It’s time to revisit the subject because the 7%, 38%, 55% myth still persists.

I recently attended an event where I heard a professional speaker and once again Dr. Mehrabian’s work was misrepresented. In this case the speaker tried to twist Merhabian’s work into the theme of charisma and liability.

Dr. Mehrabian is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He gained widespread attention for his research in the area of non-verbal communication in the 1960s. If you’re in business, have been to a communications seminar or heard a motivational speaker then you’ve probably heard Merhabian’s work misquoted as follows:

In face-to-face communication only 7% of your message is based on what you say. Your tone of voice accounts for 38% and your body language is 55%.

This prompted many people – me included – to place too much importance on body language and tone of voice during communication training. It’s certainly good to work on those areas because they can make your communication more effective. However, the problem with misquoting Mehrabian’s work is that it has people putting too much emphasis on tone of voice and body language and not enough on their actual message.

It’s amazing how a story shared by a speaker, mentioned in a book or noted on a popular blog is eventually taken as gospel truth. After all, that well-respected speaker, author or blogger wouldn’t make such a glaring mistake, would they? I certainly did early on because of the number of times I came across the 7%, 38%, 55% rule.

Once my eyes were opened to the truth it seemed as if nearly everyone was misinterpreting and misappling Dr. Mehrabian’s work. When I was prompted to read more about Dr. Mehrabian and his research I learned his work very specifically had to do with communicating feelings and attitudes. If listeners felt there was inconsistency between a person’s words and tone or body language then the listeners took more of their cues from the tone and body language.

An example you can probably relate to is an apology. Two people can utter the very same words – “I’m sorry” – when apologizing and one person might be believed while the other might not. It’s easy to say the words but we also look for sincerity. Apologies are viewed as insincere when the person apologizing has a tone of voice, facial expressions or body language that conveys a different message. Can you recall a time when someone said the right things but you knew they didn’t mean it because of certain cues you noticed in their tone, face and body?

If you go to a presentation that’s not too emotionally based you will focus more on the words used. For example; if you went to a presentation on condo versus home ownership it’s not likely you’d be assessing the believability of the message based on the speaker’s tone of voice or body language. If you contend with anything it would most likely be the facts – words – used during the presentation. There’s much less assessment of attitude or feelings in such a fact-based presentation.

Conclusion

When it comes to your ability to persuade I’m not advocating you discount tone of voice or body language because both can enhance your presentation tremendously. But don’t forget, content is still king in most presentations. Would you rather have a meeting where people remembered: a) what you wore, or b) what you said? I’m sure you want them remembering what you said. After all, the reason for a meeting or presentation is to convey ideas so everything you do needs to enhance your message.

Five years ago, I apologized to Dr. Mehrabian. I learned a good lesson and now try to set the record straight when I learn his work is being misrepresented. If you could hear and see me I’m sure you’d notice my tone of voice and body language are in line with my words. My 7%-38%-55% messaging is congruent.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, the most cited living social psychologist on the topic of ethical influence. Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses Persuasive SellingPersuasive Coaching and Building a Coaching Culture: Improving Performance through Timely Feedback, have been viewed by more than 65,000 people! Have you watched them yet? Click a course title to see what you’ve been missing.