The 55-38-7 rule of communication relates to a popular and widely used ratio in communication and presentation skills training, seminars and books — but one that is an unfortunate simplification, which many people now refer to as the "Mehrabian Myth."
It often starts out with being told by an author or speaker about the three essential elements of any face-to-face communication, and the relative importance of each when it comes to understanding the meaning of a message:
7% words 38% voice tone 55% facial expression/body language
Here’s a real example we’ve encountered of how this idea tends to play out:
“Did you know 93% of communication is non-verbal? 55% consists of your gestures and 38% is your tone. That means only 7% of communication comes from the actual words you speak.”
In other situations, we have seen this used to explain why people frequently misinterpret meaning in texts and emails — “because it’s missing 93% of meaning supplied by the normal communication channels.”
In other words, these facts would appear to suggest that if you are giving a presentation at work or going for a job interview, there’s a crazy amount of pressure on you to get your delivery right — much more so than what you say — because people place the greatest emphasis on tone, rate of speech, pronunciation, body language, posture, appearance and expression.
But, as this video from Creativity Works points out, wouldn’t this mean we would be able to understand nearly everything that someone means when they’re speaking in a foreign language?
The problem is these statistics are often taken out of context from the original research.
The ratio is based on the work of a researcher called Albert Mehrabian from his book “Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes.” The statistics from the book are real and were derived from two of his studies — which contained one crucial contextual detail: these numbers ONLY apply to situations relating to communications of feelings and attitudes, especially when inconsistencies between words and emotional clues appeared to be present, not to ALL communication.
For example, if a man asked his wife “Are you okay?” and the wife replied “I'm fine” but the tone indicated irritation and her arms were folded, then the non-verbal cues would be given the greatest weight: she's unhappy.
“When any nonverbal behaviour contradicts speech, it is more likely to determine the total impact of the message. In other words, touching, positions (distance, forward lean, or eye contact), postures, gestures, as well as facial and vocal expression, can all outweigh words and determine the feeling conveyed by a message.” — Mehrabian
On Mehrabian’s website, he has written the following as a statement of clarification about his research:
“Inconsistent communications... My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media. "Silent Messages" contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues) on pages 75 to 80.
Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking
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.”
This certainly doesn't discount the importance of body language, tone and how we speak in the role of communication, but just be mindful that if you are using this ratio to support these non-verbal aspects, to ensure that it is quoted properly, in context, and not as a generalisation that applies to all communication at all times.