How many times have you read this in an article about communication or public speaking:
* 7% of communication comes from our words
* 38% of communication comes from our tone of voice
* 55% of communication comes from our body language?
Or, in other words, "our words make up only 7% of the meaning of our communication."
These statistics supposedly come from Albert Mehrabian's book "Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes," a book about nonverbal communication and body language.
However, Mehrabian's research is, most of the time, misunderstood and misinterpreted.
For example, his statistics are mistakenly applied to public speaking (and all communication in general), and speakers are told that their words are practically meaningless, because only 7% of communication is transmitted verbally. That is, your nonverbal communication is much more important because 93% of the meaning of your presentation is transmitted nonverbally. Or, speakers are told that they should use PowerPoint or visuals "because 55% of communication is visual."
Mehrabian was studying incongruent verbal and nonverbal communication when a person is expressing feelings. He looked at how subjects responded to images with different facial expressions and recordings of a voice saying a single word with different inflections conveying like, dislike and neutral emotion.
Here's what Mehrabian says about his research being applied outside of the parameters in which he intended it:
"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. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages -- these are the original sources of my findings."
Here's an article by Dr. Judith E. Pearson, explaining in more detail how this research has been misused.
I'm writing this today not to suggest that speakers change the way they present or to suggest that we put less emphasis on nonverbal communication.
I'm more interested in making sure that you, as a speaker, retain your integrity and credibility by not throwing around statistics that aren't true. If that means you have to go to the source to confirm a statistic that you're using, then do it. I've said this before: back up your facts.
Using a story or statistic that is incorrect, just because everyone else uses it, is lazy. And unoriginal.
(ETA: See my follow-up post here.)