Introducing the first in a brand new series of blogs on Training Myths.
“Only 7% of communication depends on what we say.”
You’ve probably encountered the training myth shown on the slide examples shown on the right.
If you have, it was probably while you were on a communications course. Alternatively, it may have been whilst attending during a workshop intended to polish your presentation skills.
It usually appears on a slide looking something like this:
7% spoken words
38% tone of voice
55% body language
It’s usually presented as a way of framing how important non-verbal communication is in conveying the message that you’re trying to transmit.
We should improve our body language, we are told, because it conveys more of our message than the words we speak.
You may even have heard the formula above referred to as the 7-38-55 rule. The rule implies that it’s something that always holds true, that can always be applied.
The trouble is, it’s wrong.
Not just a little bit wrong. It’s preposterously wrong.
Think about what it would mean if the formula was true. It would mean that if you turned the sound off during your favourite TV soap opera, you would still understand 93% of what was happening. It would mean that we would be able to understand 93% of every conversation we have, even if we didn’t speak the language of the person we were talking to. We wouldn’t need subtitles to watch foreign movies, because we could figure things out from the more than nine-tenths of the communication that remained. (You can bet that film studios would stop spending money getting subtitles produced really quickly)
Remember those “Hitler finds out” memes that were popular a few years ago? A clip featuring the actor Bruno Ganz in the award-winning German-language film Downfall? The reason we find the meme funny is because we rely on the subtitles to make sense of everything else. The subtitles don’t match what Hitler is actually saying, but the words on the screen override what we’re hearing (if we don’t happen to speak German). If the words only contributed 7% towards the meaning of the scene, we’d still pick up what the scene’s original message was, not the joke interpretation. We wouldn’t be laughing. We’d just be confused.
The figures can be found in a 1971 book titled Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes by Albert Mehrabian.
Albert Mehrabian is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles.
The book discusses how non-verbal communication (the bits of a conversation that aren’t speech, like our posture, or tone of voice, or our facial expressions) can either reinforce or contradict the words we say.
Silent Messages is intended to help “provide effective tools for the analysis and improvement of the various processes of social influence” (p. 163). Suggested areas where this comes in useful range from sales to romance, and from political campaigns to psychotherapy. As such, Mehrabian was very interested in the emotional content of people’s interactions. He starts with a seemingly simple question: how do we determine whether someone likes us or not? If someone tells us “You’ve done great!” are they really paying us a compliment, or are they being sarcastic? When inconsistency arises, Mehrabian says, we should judge what the underlying message is by using the following formula:
Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking
When judging how much someone likes us, Mehrabian says, we should base our assessment primarily on the person’s facial expression: implicit cues have about twelve times the power of the spoken word. Mehrabian found that a similar figure applies to expressions of enthusiasm, dominance or humility, so he modified the statement from using “liking” to “feeling.” (You can find it on page 77 of the second edition of Silent Messages). But he immediately points out that:
The figures might be the same, but the meaning is very different. At some point, someone quoting the book dropped the “feeling” or “liking” and ignored the conditions under which the equation should be used. The resultant misinterpretation gained widespread – and undeserved – popularity. The myth is now so widespread that Mehrabian has the followingdisclaimer on his website:
“Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”
The 7-38-55 rule is a training myth that needs to die. Please don’t help to perpetuate it.
Check back monthly for the latest Training Myths article. The next one tackles George Miller’s “Seven, plus or minus two” rule.
Learning & Development Consultant, ProfitAbility
eLearning specialist, musician, movie nerd, cartoonist, photographer, skier, tech author, blogger, noticer of things