We’ve all heard it so many times: “Only 7% of the meaning of what you say is in the words; 55% comes through body language, and vocal tone and modulation account for the remaining 38%”. And the formula has been perpetuated for more than 40 years through word of mouth, unscrupulous trainers and, of course, the internet.
Stop and think about it for a moment. If the ‘93% myth’ were true, Shakespeare would surely have had Mark Anthony calling on his Friends, Romans and Countrymen to lend him their eyes rather than their ears. The telephone would be a fairly useless tool. The radio industry would be out of business and, would there be much point even in reading?
So what gave rise to the 93% myth? It all goes back to the 1960s when Professor Albert Mehrabian, based at the University of California, conducted research into body language and non-verbal communications. The focus of his study was discovering how emotion was communicated. His tests would therefore include people saying something like “that’s nice”, but in an angry tone of voice or with threatening body language.
|Professor Albert Mehrabian|
The results can therefore be more fully and accurately summed up as:
7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
38% of meaning pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way words are said)
55% of meaning pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression
It is that crucial phrase pertaining to feelings and attitudes that has gone missing in action over the years. It’s frustrating for us Presentation Skills coaches that the over-simplification has taken hold and it clearly gets to Mehrabian too because his web site (www.kaaj.com/psych) includes a bolded disclaimer as follows:
Please note that this (7/55/38%) and other equations regarding the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (ie like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings and attitudes, these equations are not applicable.
There you have it – from the originator himself. Clearly body language and vocal tone play a crucial part in effective communication, but these are to enhance the words that must – after audience focus - remain at the top of the communication hierarchy.