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.


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.

5 Tips for Persuasive Presentations

In June, I had the pleasure of giving a
keynote presentation to about 200 members of HRACO (Human Resources of Central
Ohio). It went really well and the best thing I can say is I persuaded many
people to try some of the influence tips I shared.
Often people ask me what I do to prepare for a
presentation. I’ll start by telling you what I don’t do – wing it. I always put
in lot of time, effort and practice. Here are five tips you might find helpful
next time you want to give a persuasive presentation.
1. Preparation – Vince Lombardi,
Hall of Fame coach of the Green Bay Packers, said, “Most people have the will
to win but few have the will to prepare to win.” This can’t be overstated
enough. Nobody would expect an athlete to perform with excellence without
countless hours of practice so why should you expect to give a great
presentation without plenty of practice?
When I do the Principles of Persuasion workshop
I stress this point – what you do before
the thing you do quite often makes your attempt at influence much easier. I’ll
spend at least an hour a day for weeks on end practicing my presentations. As I
do so I’m timing myself to make sure I stay within the allotted time. I work on
hand gestures, head movements at key times and voice inflection.
When I’m alone in the car I turn the radio off
and use the down time to practice. When I’m working out alone, between
exercises I practice parts of the talk. I’ll even record myself so I can hear
how it sounds.
2. Visual

– I use Power Point as a visual aid to almost all of my presentations and I’ll
have a handout for those who like to take notes. I highly recommend two books that
really influenced how I use this tool – Presentation Zen and The Presentation Secrets ofSteve Jobs.
I’ve moved away from traditional text-filled
slides, bullet points and lists. If I use words it’s usually one or two in very
large font to drive home a key point. Other that that I go almost entirely with
pictures because that’s how people think and best remember things.
I must tell you this; the first time you
present without the text and bullet points it’s a little scary because you
can’t glance at the screen for a reminder of what to say next. However, there
are several great reasons to go this route:
  • It forces you to know your material inside and
    out which makes you look more like a professional.
  • If you do miss something no one is any wiser
    because they’re not thinking, “He didn’t cover that last bullet point.”
  • It keeps the audience focused on you rather
    than the screen.
3. Questions – I ask lots of
questions. There are two reasons you want to do this. First, you can physically
engage the audience by asking for a show of hands if they agree or disagree.
The more you can physically involve people the more attention they’ll pay.
The second reason is people feel compelled to
answer questions. When you ask questions, even without asking people to do
something like raise their hands, they’ll get involved. You’ll see it with the
head nodding. Even those who don’t nod, I’ll bet they’re answering the question
in their heads so they’ve moved from passive listeners to active.
4. Introduction – A strong
introduction is key because it sets the tone for why people should listen to
you. This means you need a bio of less than 200 words so the event host can
introduce you. This leverages the principle of authority because people pay
attention to those they view as having superior knowledge or wisdom.
When I speak there are two critical
differentiators I want people to know. First, I make sure people know I’m one
of just 27 people in the world certified to train on behalf of Robert Cialdini,
the world’s most cited living social psychologist. In addition to authority this
also leverages the principle of scarcity which says people value things more
when they think they’re rare.
I also want audience members to know people in
185 countries have taken time to read my blog. That’s a great “Wow!” factor
that incorporates the principle of consensus. I want those in attendance to think, “If so many
people around the world are reading his stuff he must be pretty good.”
5. Take Away

– I want to make sure my audience has tangible ideas for each of the principles
I talk about. It’s nice if they find the material interesting but the bottom
line is showing them how it can help them enjoy more professional success and
personal happiness. To do this I clearly state, “And here’s the application for
you,” then I share with few ways they can use the principle I just discussed in
every day situations.
Whole books are written on the subject of
presentation excellence so there’s no way to do it justice in a short blog
post. However, I hope you find these tips helpful. I know focusing on them has
helped me make great strides in giving more persuasive presentations and I’m
confident they can help you do the same.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT® 
Chief Influence Officer
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.