7-38-55: Fact or Fiction?

Have you ever been on any communication training, well I could almost say any type of training at all, where they haven’t mentioned that communication is composed of 7% words, 38% tone of voice and 55% body language?  This ‘fact’ seems to pop up at the least opportunity, even on courses where you would never think it could sneak in.  Many trainers seem to love those three numbers so much that they just can’t resist getting them in somehow.  I’ve seen these numbers appear in a host of different places – from training on outsourcing best practice, to leadership training, through to my NLP training. 

I was starting to feel that perhaps these numbers were being overused,  misused and maybe even generalized and extrapolated beyond what the data supported in the original research study.  So I started to wonder where did these numbers come from and what do they really mean?

The work that produced these famous numbers was performed and published in 1967 by Albert Mehrabian, a social psychologist who is currently a writer and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA.  In his studies Mehrabian drew two conclusions: that there are three basic elements in any face-to-face communication – words, tone of voice, and non-verbal behavior (e.g. facial expression); and second that the non-verbal elements are important for communicating feelings and attitudes. 

The importance of the non-verbal elements was particularly important if the messages from the words, the tone of voice and the non-verbal behavior were incongruent i.e. they were not all sending the same message.   If the words being spoken disagreed with the tone of voice expressing those words and/or the non-verbal behavior, then people tended to believe the tone of voice and the non-verbal behavior rather than the words.

The original experiments which produced the “7%, 38%, 55% rule” dealt with communication of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like–dislike).  So unless a person is talking about their feelings or attitudes towards something or someone, these numbers are not necessarily applicable.  It is certainly not the case that non-verbal communication conveys the bulk of the message in every context.

So now we know where these numbers come from and in what circumstances they were generated, what now?  Well whether these much used numbers are right or wrong, whether it’s 38% tone of voice in one situation or 70% tone of voice in another,  it is obvious that we all communicate on a variety of levels or you could say through a number of different channels.  Those channels can be: the specific words that we use; our voices – in terms of tone, timbre, volume, or even the speed at which we talk; and our non-verbal behavior – our facial expression or other aspects of our body language. 

The challenge for you is to absorb all this diverse information being broadcast from the different channels and to identify when you’re receiving a single clear congruent message from all of them or when one or more channel(s) is sending a different message.  In different circumstances and contexts one channel may play a more important role in conveying a message than another.  And remember – it may be relatively easy for someone to control what they say with words, but it may be far harder for them to control what they unconsciously broadcast via their body language.

So what is the conclusion here?  Well 7-38-55 certainly makes a useful point in that we need to be sensitive to all forms of communication, both verbal and non-verbal, but perhaps those exact numbers shouldn’t be applied to every situation.  When you’re next talking to someone try consciously tuning in to what’s being broadcast on the different channels and see if it’s the same message on every channel or if they’re running different programs!  Perhaps you’ll even become aware that sometimes you’re broadcasting a variety of different messages yourself….    

© Jacqui Gatehouse and NLP THIRTEEN, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacqui Gatehouse and NLP THIRTEEN with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


One response to “7-38-55: Fact or Fiction?

  1. Pingback: 1000 Views of Blogland | NLP THIRTEEN

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