August 20, 2007

The truth about 7% - 38% - 55%

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.)

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16 comments. Please add yours! :

Qurioux said...

This is news to me! Thanks Lisa for this post.

I had several times suspected the suggestion that presentations should be full of visuals and entertaining. Does it not imply audience is dull witted or juvenile?

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Qurioux, I wouldn't say that this negates the necessity of visuals for an audience. In order to appeal to all learning styles, a presentation should include auditory, visual and kinesthetic methods of teaching. It helps people learn and retain information better when it's presented in several different ways.

But the data has definitely been manipulated to mean whatever the writer has wanted it to mean, and the truth is, the study was very specific and didn't apply at all to public speaking!

Qurioux said...

Lisa, nor was i saying visuals have no place. Just the excessive emphasis on them. Extremes are not good anyways.
Like Jonathan Swift said "All generalisations are dangerous, including this one."

Anonymous said...

I think this statistic is valid in the context of coaching, if applied to the person (his or her visual and vocal appeal) and not to the peripheral visuals (PowerPoint and other visuals). The point being how they appear and sound will substantially effect how their content is perceived or received. This interperatation is consistent with the research findings.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Lynn, I agree that how a person looks and sounds has an impact on how the audience perceives their content, but Mehrabian was studying incongruent verbal and nonverbal communication specifically when a person is expressing feelings.

A speaker would have to be saying something about her feelings or attitudes and using an incongruent facial expression or body language, for example, for this research to apply. Most speakers are not talking about their feelings in their presentations, and if so, only for a small percentage of the time.

Mehrabian's quote I posted, "Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable," is pretty clear on this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clear explanation of what Mehrabian's work was about.
Even before I read the study (which is now more than 2 decades ago), I questioned its validity. It didn't pass the reality test.
So long as content is properly organized and is relevant to the audience, the words can have a significant impact on the audience.
Strong delivery helps, but regardless, words can penetrate the soul.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa... nice to see this (by the way I've been ranting about it less coherently than you: so thanks for a calmer version of things! :)

I have a horrible feeling that sometimes the people who cite this kind of statistic are doing so in the (at least partial) knowledge that it's rubbish: it's a convenient hook on which to hang a self-publisising article on the web or whatever. It's that kind of "deliberate ignorance" that really, REALLY gets me annoyed!

I'm never quite sure what to do about it when I meet the statistic however - do I point out to the speaker at the time that they're talking rubbish?!?! ;)


Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comments, Simon. It's a tough fight!

Joey Asher said...

Lisa, this is a great post.
So often this study is misapplied. I actually use it in our programs. But I point out that the only thing to take from it is that how you look and how you sound matters.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for stopping by, Joey. It's all about consistency; does your body language match what you're saying? That's a reasonable application for this research. Drives me crazy, though, the misapplications!

Unknown said...

It makes for an interesting read - this and other similar articles. I have been given a training presentation which discusses these statistics. I am glad I did my own research first!!!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

It's so true, Felicity. You really can't trust statistics that people throw out there; you really do have to do your research every time!

Sarah Gershman said...

Thank you for this clarification. I often quote that statistic and I now see what he was really talking about. I do think it is incongruent communication that diminishes the power of words. If speaker's voice and body are congruent with the message, then the words end up capturing much more of the audience's attention.

Much thanks,
Sarah Gershman

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment, Sarah!

Stephen Presentation Skills Trainer said...

Thank you so much for this! I was beginning to think i was alone in the world!
These statistics are useful but only for congruency of message. I still teach this statistic but only in relation to engaging your audience and being believable.
When it comes to standing up in front of a crowd and speaking then it is important to understand that how you look (including posture and body language) forms a large part of your communication. Congruence is king; if you look and sound bored nothing you have to say will matter because your audience will be bored too. In terms of presentation and communication skills i think that is as far as these stats can be used.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Stephen it does sometimes feel like we're alone in the world, when we see this statistic abused so frequently! But more and more speakers and trainers are learning the truth and passing the word along. Let's keep it up!

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