The famous misinterpretation of the 7%-38%-55% rule in speaking

We are all used to speak since being little kids. And as we grow up we constantly improve our vocabulary, grammar and syntax to better express our wants and beliefs. Voice and body language rather seem to adapt automatically to our words. Only later, we realize that we can heavily influence the impact of what we say by the way of how we say it. And most important: we learn that it’s not only about the words we choose but also about our voice and physical appearance. And so we learn to adjust consciously our voice and body movement as we speak. We learn to modulate our volume, pitch, rate, the use of pauses and learn to tweak the position and movement of our body when we speak.

But as we continue to improve on voice and body language we tend to stop improving the words we use to deliver the message itself. It seems fine to do so as we all come across a magic rule sooner or later: “7%-38%-55%”. And most of us learn to interpret this rule in a way similar to the following:

“The way your audience receives your message is determined only by 7% by the words you choose, but by 38% by your voice and by the largest amount (55%) by your body language.”

So what I always understood was something like this: No matter what you say, if you have a convincing voice and a strong presence on stage people will take for granted what you say.

How misleading the interpretation of statistics can be without knowing the context! If you trace back where this rule originates you will come across a man called Albert Mehrabian. He is a former professor of psychology who has become famous for his studies on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal communication done in the late 60ies. These studies have also been published in his book “Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes”(you may find a copy from the early 70ies on Amazon or order a pdf version on Albert Mehrabian’s website).

In his book Albert Mehrabian states the following formula:
“Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking”

Did you notice the first common misinterpretation already? Albert Mehrabian does not talk about “55% body language” but the 55% relate to the “facial” expression solely. When people tell me about body language improvement they always talk about how to better use gesture, how to positioning my body, how to move on stage and to have proper eye contact with the audience. But aside from sporadic little advices like “put a smile on your face more often” nobody ever told me to really work on my facial expression.

But the real wake-up call is the note Albert Mehrabian himself states 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.”

So this formula relates only to the communication of feelings and emotions (e.g. liking or disliking another person). And according to other sources those studies have been limited by another fact: It relates only to women as men did not participate in the study. So unless you’re talking about your feelings and emotions (and in addition you and your opponent are women) you should be cautious before relying on this formula to much.

Gone are the times when you could hide away behind “big show on stage”. Your message does matter! And so do the words you wrap your message in. It certainly does help if you have a voice like Sky Du Mont or Amy Winehouse and have a stage appearance like George Clooney or Oprah Winfrey. But we better all find and nurture our message and keep improving our verbal speaking techniques to be convincing.