Has anyone told you that the meaning of communication is derived 7% from the words spoken, 38% from the tonality, and 55% from body language? Recently? The fact that these percentages come from the wrong interpretation of some research is not new. I am a bit mystified when I hear people continue to misconstrue the study. I read the incorrect interpretation again this morning in an article and decided to alert you to the myth.
Professor Albert Mehrabian's research merely looked at what listeners relied upon when the meaning of the communication was ambiguous -- not all communication. I have to admit that in the distant past I used this myth in training programs and talks. When I learned of the inaccuracy, I read the original research and was very dismayed that I had not done so before. A great lesson learned!
By now, many people have commented on the inaccuracy out there on the Internet. For example . . .
This statistic has grown into a very widely quoted and oft-misunderstood urban legend. Many communication skills teachers and image consultants misuse this data to indicate that your intonation, speaking style, body language, and other non-verbal methods of communication overpower your actual words.
People who cite these statistics mark themselves as ignorant, and their ability to teach communication should be immediately suspect. And, yes, I hate to say this, but even Toastmasters (certainly a reputable but somewhat over praised group) is known to throw these numbers about.
Mehrabian has stated that he never intended his results to be applied to normal conversation (and probably not to public speaking either). . . . Thus, his research has useful, albeit limited applications, which have been blown out of proportion.
Mehrabian is very careful in these books not to generalize beyond the specific context of his research . . .
Note (added March 23, 2007, 2:39 PM Mountain): Here's "Three elements of communication - and the so called '7%-38%-55% Rule'" a post at Book Mark Lee on the Mehrabian research.
Note (added May 8, 2007, 5:20 PM Mountain): Take a look at Busting the Myth 93% of Communication is Nonverbal at PsyBlog.
Note (added October 29, 2007, 2:40 PM Mountain): Click to see that people are still misusing the Mehrabian research.
Note (added November 27, 2007, 2:00 PM Mountain): In this article, "How to Seal the Deal In Seven Seconds," the author Lydia Ramsey misuses Mehrabian. Makes me wonder if any of her references to research are accurate.
Note (added April 27, 2008, 3:37 PM Mountain): Mehrabian again used incorrectly, in this article: "One gesture can be worth 1,000 words" (The Express-Times - New Jersey).
Note (added July 13, 2008, 9:10 AM Mountain): Here's a promo for a new book that leads off with the inaccurate 93% nonverbal "statistic." The book contains several other questionable "facts" but one cannot check them as there are few references.
Note (added July 31, 2008, 12:10 PM Mountain): I wonder why the book is featured here? Perhaps the person making the choice does not know about the Mehrabian myth?
Note (added August 2, 2011): Yes, people are still misquoting the research after all these years! Here it is misused by an outfit called online pr media: "Why Video Conference?"
Note (added August 25, 2009): Two blog posts about the myth:
- Busting the Mehrabian myth: Is anyone still using that inaccurate 55/38/7 communication fiction? (idealawg)
- Why the stickiest idea in presenting is just plain wrong (Speaking about Presenting)