You’ve probably heard this somewhere before: “Only 7% of what you communicate is verbal. The rest is your body language and your tone of voice.” Or “93% of all our communication is non-verbal.”
I’ve heard it, read it, seen it – and even before I found out that these numbers are a gross misinterpretation of a scientific study done in the 1970s – I always thought it was nonsense.
You see, I have lived in 5 different countries and had to learn 3 languages besides my native one. If only 5% of my communication was words, why did I need to learn those languages? Wouldn’t I be able to communicate 95% of my thoughts through my body language and my tone of voice?
I hate you! I love you!
These percentages don’t hold up to the simple logical examination. That is because they are a misinterpretation. The original study was done by Professor Albert Mehrabian at the UCLA. The study – or actually, several studies – focused on communicating feelings and attitudes in the specific cases where the words, the tone of voice, and the facial expressions are not in alignment. An example of such a misalignment is when someone says “I love you” in an angry voice.
Notice the focus on feelings and attitudes (like or dislike) and the misalignment in communication. It is NOT about communicating information in general.
Here’s what Professor Mehrabian had to say about this in an interview with the BBC:
Professor Mehrabian: […]Whenever I hear this misquote or misrepresentation of my findings, I cringe because it should be so obvious to anybody would use any amount of common sense that that’s not a correct statement. If I were to tell you that the pencil you are looking for is upstairs in the desk drawer of the bedroom, three drawers down, I could not do that non-verbally. I could try to point, but that would hardly locate the pencil. Whereas I could do that very precisely with words.
There is no question that you cannot extrapolate my findings to communication in general.
The magic numbers
So where do the numbers come from? Well, that is not exactly clear. Professor Mehrabian performed two separate studies.
The first study compared the relative importance of a word’s meaning and the tone of voice. In this study, participants had to listen to 9 single spoken words. Three neutral words (maybe, oh, really), three positive words (dear, thanks, honey), and three negative words (brute, don’t, terrible). When the tone of voice was not consistent with the meaning of the word, the study’s participants relied more strongly on the tone of voice to derive the speaker’s meaning.
In the second study, participants heard a single neutral word “maybe” spoken in different vocal tones. At the same time, they were shown different facial expressions on photographs. The study showed that when the tone of voice was not consistent with the facial expression, participants relied more strongly on the facial expression to derive the speaker’s meaning.
Professor Mehrabian and his team mathematically combined the results of those two studies to arrive at the 7 / 38 / 55 formula. However, they did not show exactly how they arrived at those percentages, nor did they ever perform an experiment that combined all three aspects.
When it comes to training
You might hear these percentages during communication or presentation courses, but now you know better. Focusing solely on presentation skills will lead to a training course where the presenter looks and sounds good, while the training itself lacks in substance: poor structure, lack of purpose, lack of participant engagement and learning.
Although I do not have scientific studies or statistics to back me up, my experience tells me that when it comes to training, both the Content and the Delivery have an important part to play. It is not an either-or game. They are interdependent and interrelated. It is for this reason that I place a great emphasis on designing training programs and on coaching my clients towards an effortless delivery.