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Words are worth 7%? Really?!

· communication,public speaking,Research

In the world of soft skills training this is a number I hear a lot…

Did you know that only 7% of what you communicate is about the words you say? The remaining percentages are 55% body language and 38% tone of voice.

This ‘fact’ is usually followed by some sort of pitch or article explaining why it is so important to make sure that you develop your understanding of non verbal communication, voice projection and public speaking tips. All of which are valid areas of learning, but not quite as statistically significant as the myth would have you believe.

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A thought experiment

These numbers have been spread and peddled for years because they are conveinet, but a simple thought experiment can immediately call them into question. Imagine that you are in a foreign country and you do not speak the language – this means that you do not understand the words. It’s not like they are important any way. Just by listening to the way people speak, watching their gestures and expressions, you can understand 93% of what they are saying…

Ludicrous.

I can’t put it into an actual percentage because it is so difficult to do. In the above scenario you may be able to gather emotions from facial expressions and volume. Perhaps you would be able to follow directions by picking out key words alongside peoples pointing and signalling. But to understand 93% just does not make any sense at all.

Where did the myth come from?

A piece of research was conducted in 1967 by Albert Mehrabian that investigated understanding of a message.

The 7%-38%-55% rule was derived from the results of two experiments in which Mehrabian examined how female participants interpreted short messages and communications. In the first experiment participants said individual words that had an emotional association (terrible is negative, dear is positive) but they were paired with different tones and facial expressions. The non verbal elements were viewed to be more important than the word itself.

The second experiment involved participants viewing photographs of facial expressions and listening to a voice through speakers. Most of the emotional content was judged through the image rather than the tone. The two sets of results were combined to create the overall ratio.

What do Mehrabian’s findings really mean?

It is worth noting that all pieces of research are conducted under certain circumstances, and that if these do not reflect real life then it is unscientific to generalise to a wider context. It is rare that we are exposed to still photos or single word communications that bear significant meaning.

At best what we can say is that when women are judging people’s emotions and attitudes as they communicate a short message, we will look to body language / expression, then tone and then the word meaning to help us interpret the emotion. But the specific nature of the numbers is also inaccurate as it is difficult to mathematically combine the results from two different experiments.

What about my public speaking?

If you are trying to improve the way you communicate then by all means look at all three factors. Making sure that you can vary your voice tone to keep listeners engaged and use gestures to emphasise points is a great way to deliver an excellent presentation. But whatever you do, do not ignore the importance of what you say. And if someone is using the 7-38-55 rule to promote their work you might want to be wary of their research skills.

Mehrabian's research summary for 'Silent Messages'

Thomas Hawk, 2006, language

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