Three elements of communication – and the so called “7%-38%-55% Rule”

You’ve probably come across this ‘rule’ on a communication seminar or course somewhere. I’ve heard it repeated many, many times but I do not agree with it as the figures are invariably quoted OUT OF CONTEXT.

As a professional speaker (to accountants and business people) I cannot afford to rely on inaccurate theories as to what constitutes effective communication. I learned long ago that the words I use are far more important than is suggested by the simplistic percentages quoted in this rule. As the subject came up again in conversation recently I thought it would be helpful to share the related clarification more widely.

The original research to which everyone refers was undertaken in 1971 by Albert Mehrabian (currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA). He reached two conclusions:

1 – There are basically three elements in any face-to-face communication:
• words
• tone of voice and
• body language.

2 – These three elements account differently for the meaning of the message:
– Words account for 7%
– Tone of voice accounts for 38% and
– Body language accounts for 55% of the message.

It seems that many people who quote Mehrabian’s research seem unaware that this second conclusion was NOT a general observation relevant to all communications.

Mehrabian reached this second conclusion in the context of experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes. Thus the often quoted disproportionate influence of tone of voice and body language is only really true when someone says they like/dislike something/someone but their tone of voice or body language implies the opposite. Commonly this will mean that two or more of the three elements are ambiguous. Such ambiguity appears mostly when the words spoken are inconsistent with the tone of voice or body language of the speaker.

This would be the case for example when someone says “I do not have a problem with you!” whilst at the same time their closed body language says the opposite and they avoid eye-contact and sound anxious.

In such situations Mehrabian’s research showed that the receiver of the communication will accept the predominant form of communication, the non-verbal (38% + 55%), rather than the literal meaning of the words (7%).

Let’s face it – that conclusion IN CONTEXT is not really a surprise is it?

On his website Mehrabian specifically states: “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.”

My view, despite this clarification, is that it’s important to be congruent when we communicate. That is, our body language and tone of voice should be consistent with the words we use. Otherwise we can confuse people and reduce the prospect of getting our message across so that it is understood. We have to take responsibility ourselves for any failure to communicate effectively. It’s OUR fault and not the fault of our listeners.

The words we choose to use ARE generally more important than is often assumed. Certainly, when making a presentation we need to pay just as much attention to the words we say as we do to the way in which we will present them – how we will move and the variations in our tone of voice.

This is good news as most people will spend far more time working out WHAT they are going to say, than rehearsing HOW they are going to say it and HOW they will move when they are talking. Speaking personally I tend to focus on all aspects of my presentations and talks. I consider each of them to be a performance. I want to inform, inspire and entertain my audiences. And feedback suggests that I’m generally pretty successful in this regard.

Perhaps one reason why Mehrabian’s research is quoted so often though is that body language and tone of voice are evidently important aspects of communication. And in the absence of any other validated research we have to quote Mehrabian to make the point – even if we do so out of context. Such quotes are generally effective though – maybe because of the tone of voice the speaker uses and their body language when they tell us about the “7%-38%-55% Rule”.

Now all I have to do is to communicate the benefits of my Tax Advice Network more effectively!

Added October 23 2009:

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Mark Lee

Mark is a speaker, mentor, facilitator, author, blogger and debunker. Mark Lee helps professionals who want to STAND OUT and be remembered, referred and recommended using his 7 fundamental principles to create a more powerful professional impact, online and face to face.
15 replies
  1. DocEdge
    DocEdge says:

    I am active in Toastmaster and this quote is misused quite often. I believe that any professional speaker find success by spending most of their time researching content and writing innovative scripts.

  2. Mike Truman
    Mike Truman says:

    I have always found that so-called ‘rule’ very surprising, so I’m glad to find the true context – particularly since words (maostly written, but sometimes spoken) are my business. Thanks, as usual, Mark.

  3. Mark
    Mark says:

    Mark, Thanks for clearing this up. I’ve certainly heard this quoted many times during my corporate life, and not once was the context provided. I have to confess it never felt quite right in a corporate environment, and this would, at last, explain why.

    AGATHA says:

    you have really explained face to face communcation.
    we really sometimes tend to confuse people through the way we communicate to them and they end up not getting the message intended. Therefore, we should be careful when communicating to people. point taken.

  5. Gareth Kane
    Gareth Kane says:

    If the 55/38/7 rule did apply to understanding, we would never need to learn a foreign language but we could never use the telephone.

    It’s amazing how the myth survives!


    Words really matters. Because it certainly makes communication more effective.
    Keep It Simple. Provide an Example. Use Clear, Direct Words. Respect Your Listeners. Repeat Your Main Idea. Check for Understanding,” I’m not sure I said that clearly; let me hear what you think I said”.


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