In just about every book I’ve ever read on human communication, I see the figures 7%, 38% and 55% being attributed to the three modes of communication.
The three modes being Words, Tone of Voice and Non Verbal Communication or as it’s become more commonly known Body Language.
Our Words supposedly convey only 7% of the whole message being communicated. Tone of Voice in which we deliver our chosen words makes up 38% of this message so a simple subtraction of 7% and 38% leaves us with 55%.
This 55% is given over to our Non Verbal Communication, our facial expressions, hand movements, the angles and distance we use in relation to others and many other things all Non-Verbal.
Now these figures 7 / 38 / 55 are always attributed to Albert H Mehrabian. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about him.
Albert Mehrabian (born 1939 in the Armenian family in Iran, currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA), has become known best by his publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. His findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes have been quoted throughout human communication seminars worldwide, and have also become known as the 7%-38%-55% rule.
However, these figures have been forever misinterpreted and they will continue to be until trainers, self-help gurus, the NLP industry and many others stop quoting them out of context without giving the full facts.
The full facts are that these figures were extrapolated from two separate studies that dealt only with emotional, feeling statements. Therefore, anything that does not have an emotional state change cannot be taken as part of these figures.
What do I mean by this?
People will often react to things with Non Verbal communication when statements and questions have an emotional content element. IE: Something that has an emotional connection with them, something they have a feeling about either positive or negative.
Therefore if there is no emotional content then whatever Non Verbal communication is being expressed cannot necessarily be considered as meaning anything.
If for instance you are at work and someone comes in and says “Sorry I just hit a car in your car park”. Immediately you are likely to think “Is it my car?” so you are very likely to express some Non Verbal behaviour that would indicate your fears and if it’s not your car then you will show Non Verbal signs of relief.
You might add some choice words if it is your car! Whilst these figures are not exactly what they might seem at first glance they are not far off the reality of what is transmitted through Non Vernal behaviour.
When dealing with people we are all essentially trying to work out whether or not we can trust them both in our personal relationships as well as our business relationships.
In the closest of personal relationships we reveal things about ourselves that we don’t necessarily want everyone else to know and if you can’t trust your partner, close friends and family to keep certain things private then the relationship is pretty much doomed.
In business, which essentially consists of selling things whether it be a service, product or concept, we need to know whether the person/company we are dealing with and investing our time and money in will actually live up to what they said in their presentations.
Going way back in our ancestry Man did not speak had no formal language, so understanding Non Verbal messages was crucial to our survival.
Now we have thousands of different languages across the globe and if these figures were correct none of us would ever have to learn another language ever again, as we could just get by with Non Verbal Communication.
Well, I know from experience you can get by quite a long way with just Non Verbal Communication but you simply cannot communicate properly with people from a foreign land without knowledge of their language.
Mehrabian’s rule and the puzzle that is presenting (I like this way of putting it “In whatever bubble that experiment took place in, I’m sure his findings were appropriate. We don’t live in that bubble though, at least not in respect to presentations. “)