Mehrabian is often quoted as saying that the meaning of a message is communicated by:
- Your words 7%
- Your tone of voice 38%
- Your body language 55%.
This interpretation of Mehrabian has been comprehensively debunked many times, but still it persists. In this post, I’m going to:
- Describe the experiments Mehrabian carried out, and
- Identify the limitations of Mehrabian’s research
The Mehrabian formula comes from two studies in nonverbal communication carried out by Mehrabian and two colleagues in 1967.
To summarize, Mehrabian’s studies asked participants to judge the feelings of a speaker by listening to a recording of a single word spoken in different tones of voice.
Yes, one single word.
In the first study, the participants had to rate the feelings of the speaker after listening to each of nine different words. The words spoken were often inconsistent with the tone of voice used. For example, the word “brute” spoken in a positive tone. Each time they had to make a rating just on the single word they had listened to.
In the second study, only one word was used. It was chosen to be as neutral as possible: the word was “maybe”. They listened to a recording of the word “maybe” said in different tones and at the same time were shown photos of different facial expressions.
It’s from these experiments that Mehrabian suggested – but did not prove – the formula. If you’d like more detail, I’ve described the experiments in more depth on this page: Mehrabian’s studies in nonverbal communication.
The limitations of Mehrabian’s formula
Mehrabian has himself attempted to limit the application of this formula:
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.
In a personal email to Max Atkinson, reproduced in Max’s book “Lend me your Ears” Albert Mehrabian said:
I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise. (31 October 2002)
So if we limit the formula to the specific conditions of the experiments, it is only applicable if:
- a speaker is using only one word,
- their tone of voice is inconsistent with the meaning of the word, and
- the judgement being made is about the feelings of the speaker.
In other words, in the real world, Mehrabian’s formula is almost never applicable.
What do other researchers say
Mehrabian’s findings were frequently discussed in the psychological literature on nonverbal communication through the 1970s and 1980s. Researchers have made the following critiques of the methodology of his studies:
- They only used two or three people to do the speaking for the experiments.
- They take no account of the extent to which the speakers could produce the required tone of voice.
- They were artificial situations with no context.
- The communication model on which they were based, has now been shown to be too simple.
- They take no account of the characteristics of the observers making the judgements.
- The purpose of the experiments was not hidden from the participants.
For more detail on these critiques go to Mehrabian’s studies in nonverbal communication and scroll down.
The importance of delivery
I’m not saying that speech delivery is unimportant – it is. I think it can have a large impact on the credibility and persuasiveness of a speaker. I also consider content to be critical to credibility and persuasiveness. But I don’t think that their respective influences can be reduced to a formula.
Campaign to “Stop the Mehrabian Myth”
The main group of people who have propagated the Mehrabian myth are presentation trainers, public speaking coaches and other communications consultants. As a presentation trainer, I’m embarrassed that these figures are still being trotted out on a regular basis, when there is no substance to their real-world application. It’s damaging to the credibility of the training industry.
I’m also concerned about the persistence of the Myth because of the impact on presenters:
- The Mehrabian Myth puts unwarranted pressure on people who are nervous about speaking. They’ve been led to believe that their delivery can make or break their presentation. This is just not true. If they prepare well-organized valuable content and deliver it at least adequately they are likely to get their message across.
- The Mehrabian Myth leads some “wing-it” presenters to under-prepare their content under the misapprehension that so long as they can deliver with energy and dynamism they’ll get their message across. Again, not so.
That’s why I’m starting the “Stop the Mehrabian Myth” campaign.
Stop the spread of the myth
Many presentation trainers and public speaking coaches are doing their bit to stop the spread of the myth. These are the ones I’m aware of who have posts about it:
Lisa Braithwaite – The Truth about 7%-38%-55%
Andrew Abela – 93% of communication comes from non-verbal signs… or does it?
Joey Asher – Does what you actually say matter as much as how you look
Susan Trivers – Public speaking mistakes
John Windsor – Sacred cow tipping
Steve Denning – Dr Condoleeza Rice tells her story – form vs content
Laura Fitton – The 3Vs disease
Jeff Bailey – Everything that you know about Mehrabian’s Rule may be wrong
Max Atkinson – Body language and nonverbal communication (Max has a brilliant cartoon demonstrating the absurdity of the myth)
Jon Thomas – 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. “)
Martin Shovel – Mehrabian Nights – a tall tale about communication, in which common-sense is stretched almost to breaking point
Phil Jones – Mis-use of Mehrabian statistics
Simon Raybould – My 7% rant! (But 93% of it won’t work……apparently)
Andy Smith – 7%38%55% – The facts
MJ Plebon – It is all about the story
Chris Witt – Words, tone of voice and body language reconsidered
Bob Mathers – Mehrabian’s Myth – does bullshit kill or just discredit
Michael Parker- What you say or the way you say it
Stephanie WestAllen- What is the biggest communication myth – perhaps this one?
John Turner – Verbal, Vocal, Visual: Is Mehrabian Relevant?
Presentation experts against the myth (without a current blog post):
What can you do
If you come across a blog post or article on the internet which quotes Mehrabian’s formula as if it were true, comment on the post or write an email to the author. If you don’t have time to go into detail, just refer them to this post.
When you’re speaking with colleagues, should the myth ever be quoted, speak up and let people know the Mehrabian myth is false.
If you’d like to be added to the list above, let me know (write a comment below, e-mail me or tweet me). If you’ve got a post I can link to, do include that.
Write a post with your views on the Mehrabian myth, and let me know so that I can link to it.
Deliver a speech on the Mehrabian myth to your club.
Update: I’ve written an extra post to respond to a secondary misinterpretation of Mehrabian that has come through in the comments: The secondary misinterpretation of Mehrabian’s research
How to Tame your Fear of Public Speaking
In this video-training series (plus workbook with transcripts) you’ll learn:
- The three things you must know BEFORE you begin to tackle your fear of public speaking
- Why the positive-negative thought classification doesn’t work for fear of public speaking
- The two powerful self-talk tweaks that can make an immediate difference.
thank you for taking the time to post these clarifications and the links. i am one of those who has been fed on the myth and i was astonished and confused when i first saw the % break up. like somebody pointed out it completely debunked the content and played momentous emphasis on non verbal. thank you once again. for me finally my personal experience is validated
Just a note to say I blogged on this a while back, too: http://ascotttraining.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/max-atkinson-de-bunking.html
I work a lot in Universities, and found on a flipchart as I entered a training room… you guessed it:
Words: 7% (etc)
In a Research-intensive University!
Words fail me (but you should see my gestures!)
Obviously there is a huge movement against the misinterpretation/misuse of the 7/38/55 finding, but it seems to me that an important part of communication is congruency between what you say and how you say it, ie tone and body language and the feeling from many of the commentators and “mehrabian knights”, not just here, is now the opposite, that is as long as you have great content it doesn’t matter how you say it, you’ll get you message across effectively. My experience suggests that’s not completely correct either.
What research is there on the value, or lack of value, in congruency?
As most of the commenters have, I also heard a lot of people talking about the 7%. Most of the time I sent those people to your website, but since last week I decided te write my own article about it. If you want you can at the article to your list, but it is written in Dutch. It’s easier to convince people in their own language 😉
Thanks in advance!
On a similar note, there is a commonly heard statistic saying that two thirds of communication is non-verbal. I have never been able to find a source for this statistic. Any ideas where it came from?
Thank you so much for sharing this article.
I actually have a website that promotes the study of nonverbal communication and body language to improve one’s communication skills. But, I was always baffled myself by this mysterious formula.
Because I didn’t found any reliable source to prove it, I never referred to the significance of body language in our communication in terms of numbers.
I still do believe that body language plays a very significant role in face to face communication, but it’s purpose is often quite different: if the main aim of the verbal message is to provide the exact technical info, the nonverbal signs are used deliver a certain “flavor” to that content, not to actually replace it.
Again, thank you for this share, I will post myself an article to spread the word.
Although you are completely right with the fact that mehrabian 7, 38, 55 is misunderstood i still think that body language and tone of voice makes all the difference in (sales)communication. As a face-2-face sales trainer i teach people the same stuff over and over again. My experience is that the way you present a verbal message can make it exciting, boring, crystal clear or misunderstood…
Head nodding, a 45 degree body angle, smiling, a firm stance and palms up are key elements in a perfect sales pitch.
What about a new experiment? Which one is more effective? A poor verbal salespitch with excellent non verbal communication versus a verbally perfect salespitch with poor non verbal communication?
I’ve studied Merhabian’s work and experiments, and you are no doubt factually correct about how he conducted the research and its limitations. The difficulty you, and all your followers have, is that you don’t have a viable alternative for what is commonly referred to as the 55% body language element. Instead, you use euphemisms such as ‘deliver with confidence’……. But how does one (non-verbally) demonstrate confidence….? Body language, peut-être?
With more than 30 years as a corporate L&D manager and director, I have yet to see a better, substantiated model which helps people appreciate the importance of congruence….. getting the body language, the tone of voice and the words acting in harmony with each other…. and the relative importance of each. The percentages may or may not be absolutely perfect, but the relative importance, in my experience, is not far off.
For example, I have been horrified by the number of University lecturers I have witnessed (to site just one example) – all good, intelligent, clever people with important messages to convey – failing abysmally to engage the audience. Quite simply, they would have made more impact if they had simply written the message down and given it to the audience….. which is what a lot of them do!
If you want to appreciate the impact of non-verbal communication, read Tricia Pricket’s great piece of research demonstrating the ‘power to influence’ of a ‘good handshake’. A short summary of her research is as follows…..
“Tricia Prickett decided that she wanted to use the interview videotapes and the evaluations that had been collected, to test out the adage that “the handshake is everything.”
She took fifteen seconds of videotape showing the applicant as he or she knocks on the door, comes in, shakes the hand of the interviewer, sits down, and the interviewer welcomes the person,” Then, Prickett got a series of strangers to rate the applicants based on the handshake clip, using the same criteria that the interviewers had used. Once more, against all expectations, the ratings were very similar to those of the interviewers. “On nine out of the eleven traits the applicants were being judged on, the observers significantly predicted the outcome of the interview. The strength of the correlations was extraordinary.”
The full document can be found at http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_05_29_a_interview.html
So while I have sympathy for your argument, I cannot fully buy into it, until you, or one of your followers comes up with something better…….. at which point you will no doubt be in line as next Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA. 🙂
I can tell you that 5000 MPH is too high for the speed limit in a city and you’d agree, right. I don’t need to be able to tell you it’s 20 MPH or 30 MPH for us to agree that 5000 MPH is wrong.
Why do you need us to be able to tell you what the *right* percentage is, once we’ve shown that 7% is wrong. There’s no logic to that position.
I can see you broader point though, which is, as I understand it “Okay, if it isn’t 7%, what is it? Anyone got any better statistics?”. The short answer is “It depends on context too much to generalise like that”… just as the good prof himself says! 😉
An interesting hypothesis, Simon….. To continue using your own analogy…..
There was recently a nationwide advertising campaign on UK TV which sought to control the speed of cars in built-up areas to maximum 30 MPH. It had extremely disturbing visuals, with a very uncomfortable sound track. At more than 30MPH the child is hit by the car and dies a twisted wreak of a body. All in slow-motion. The exact same scene is then repeated with the car travelling at less than 30 MPH (interestingly, with a different sound track!) and the child, whilst injured, survives with relatively minor injuries – a broken leg.
If the words alone were sufficient “Drive at less than 30MPH to ensure a child doesn’t die when you hit them”, then there would be no need for the graphics (visuals, non-verbals, body language – call them what you will) or sound track. The point is, that the receiver must not only hear and understand the message (words), they have to believe and act on it. The visuals reinforce the message. Congruence.
Take the word “Fire” for example. If I walk slowly out of my office quietly saying ‘Fire’ in a pleasant, controlled, gentle, polite manner, most people would not move a muscle – at least not immediately. My tone of voice and body language do not support the words….. and therefore, they do not act on / believe my words. The message that the body language and tone of voice are giving the receiver, overwhelms the words – by a huge margin. No congruence.
If, however, my intention is to get them off their seats and out the door pronto, then I not only say the word ‘Fire’, but I also use a tone of voice (loud, urgent) and a body language (running???) that supports the word I am saying. They get up and leg it. Congruence.
So whilst the detail of the Merhabian’s numbers may not be fixed for every situation (take away the visuals when using a telephone, for example), it does give insight into the relative importance of the three elements in many (not all) situations.
And that really, is all that I am pointing out. Don’t dismiss Merhabian’s work on the sterile grounds that it was just a laboratory experiment. My 30 plus years in this game suggests that there is quite a lot that we can postulate from that one small experiment. And the people who suggest otherwise should put some effort into building, modifying, updating or replacing his results…. rather than simply dismissing it as irrelevant or invalid. 🙂
You’re setting up an Aunty Sally. I’m not dismissing the Prof’s work (he seems a nice chap by the way) because it was just a laboratory experiment. Far from it. My own background is 24 years in research so I fully understand the pros and cons of research better than most!
What we’re saying here is that it was a great lab experiment but that was all it was. Prof Al himself says you can’t generalise from the lab to the real world with this particular bit of work.
No one has pretended that words are everything. Why are you saying we are? All we’re doing is reacting against the bollocks spouted by many (NLPers, for example) that the 7% thing is *right*. It might be right, we simply don’t know. No one does. I’m on top of this research at the moment, ‘cos of staying in touch withe my research friends and you’d be amazed at how complicated it all is.
On a different note, though related – your example above is a good one, for emotional content. That’s fair enough, ‘cos that’s what Al was looking at in his experiments but that’s not what people who propound the 7% myth are saying: they’re pretending that 7% of ALL meaning is not in the words… not just the emotional meaning.
As that’s not what the research says, what annoys me about these people is that they’re simply lie-ing. (Or stupid! 🙂 )
Steve says, “The percentages may or may not be absolutely perfect, but the relative importance, in my experience, is not far off.” He implies that the issue is with the accuracy of the numbers Mehrabian assigned to each aspect of communication, or with “dismiss[ing] Merhabian’s work on the sterile grounds that it was just a laboratory experiment.” These are not the reasons the Mehrabian Myth is a myth.
Let us be clear:
The myth represents a generalization for which there is no basis. After reading Steve’s comments and rereading some of the other comments, I have become aware of something I did not appreciate when I commented on this thread several years ago. In that comment, I implied that Mehrabian was largely to blame for the myth because he had stated a potentially misleading interpretation of his results in a popular journal.
I now understand that Mehrabian was not to blame. He simply assumed, as any scientist would, that his readers would understand the concept of nongeneralization. To anyone with scientific or rhetorical training, that is a fundamental principle, the violation of which is a clear fallacy (specifically, a hasty generalization).
But not everyone is a trained scientist or rhetorician. Hence…the Mehrabian Myth.
Therefore, I will state an axiom of experimental science: The results of an experiment are confined to the specific context of the experiment and may not, without some other experimental basis, be extended to other or broader contexts.
A corollary to this rule: If the researcher himself defines the limitations of the experiment, it is not scientifically valid, nor is it respectful of the researcher, to ignore those limitations and create your own.
As stated in the original blog post, Mehrabian said:
“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.”
That’s the bottom line. It is not about accuracy. It is not about “dismiss[ing] Merhabian’s work on the sterile grounds that it was just a laboratory experiment.” It is about understanding the limitations of that experiment, as Mehrabian himself explained, and not fallaciously generalizing it to other contexts to make the experiment prove what you want it to prove.
Guys. I appreciate your attachment to debunking the Merhabian myth and, from a purely controlled, scientific, experimental perspective, you are absolutely correct to point out that “The results of an experiment are confined to the specific context of the experiment and may not, without some other experimental basis, be extended to other or broader contexts.” Scientifically correct. ? I agree. There. I’ve said it 🙂
What you seem to be missing in this debate, is that I said “I have yet to see a better, substantiated model which helps people appreciate the importance of congruence….. getting the body language, the tone of voice and the words acting in harmony with each other…. and the relative importance of each.”
The key word here is Congruence. And by that I mean the non-verbals (BL and Voice) have to work in harmony with the words; or the words won’t be heard.
There are just too many examples of this in the real world. One easy to appreciate example (you’ve all seen this) is to rapidly project the names of colours (e.g. Orange, Yellow, Blue, etc.) but with the actual colour of the text contrasting (e.g. Green, Red, Pink, etc.) – and then asking the students to say the word….. not the colour of the text! It’s really quite hard to do…….
Because in the real world, our reliance on non-verbals, is so powerful, that they frequently override the intended meaning of the words.
I am a pilot. I have many times in the simulator (and in the real world too, unfortunately) had to deal with ‘Spacial Disorientation’. It is a classic training event, where the pilot closes his/her eyes while the aircraft is put into a series of manoeuvres designed to disorientate the pilot and confuse the balance sensory organs. Being in cloud, and with no external visual references to guide him/her (i.e. no sky or ground to help with orientation), the only way of knowing which way is “up”, is by absolute adherence to flying the aircraft using the instruments alone. It is one of the most disabling and confusing experience you can possible have. Your whole body is screaming Pull-Up, Turn Left, whatever, while the instruments your eyes are seeing are telling you Push-down, Turn right, etc.
The point is, the words/figures on the instruments are saying one thing, but all other indications are telling you something else….. and it is extremely difficult to trust the words/figures…… It’s why so many aircraft crash into mountains while in cloud. It is not the instruments that are wrong – they don’t know if they are in cloud or not – it is the pilot who refuses to believe and act on them, because of the over-riding power of other (non-verbal!) influences.
So back to the point. The words are all important. They are, after all, the message that needs to be conveyed. I hope we can agree on that. But in order for the words to be believed and acted upon, we need congruence – the nonverbals must support and augment the verbals (words)…. or else the audience will find it difficult to ‘hear’ and act on the words.
And what percentage impact do the nonverbals have on the receiver? I can’t say for sure. But I do know they can be very powerful indeed. And in my real world experience (no scientific basis, I agree), they could be as high as 80% or 90%……
Last point. Watch Hard-Talk on BBC TV or listen to it on the BBC Radio. They do some great interviews of politicians from around the world. Try and listen to their words (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) and ask yourself if you believe what they are saying….. And if not, why not…… is it that their Body Language and Tone of Voice are not in congruence with their Words?? ?
The problem is that you are asserting that there is no truth to the mehrabian formula. There is value to it, especially in the context of relationships and relationship counseling for the younger 20-somethings who are increasingly digitizing their communications. The rigid nature of the formula, as well as its application may have inherent faults, but the concepts that it establishes and introduces are still relevant and valuable.
The aim of the mission to debunk the myth should focus squarely on the MYTH aspect: that ALL communication fits neatly in this formulaic model. Yes, debunk that, sally forth! However, Meharabians research and hypothesis are still important to the psychology and communication fields.
I stumbled across this post, and my heart filled with joy. I have to laugh because I get so frustrated with people quote the 7% statistic as if it were fact. I can’t believe how many people have never bothered to check the validity of the statistic! I actually first heard about it from Janine Driver, who gave a keynote. She is an expert on body language (who also debunks a lot of body language myths too).
When I first started blogging, the 7% statistic was one of the first posts I wrote. I wish I’d found this post earlier – I would have linked to it!
Love to sign up to this. Have linked from my blog/website to your (Olivia’s) page for years. The abuse of the Mehrabian formula has driven me to desperation. Gareth
Thanks Olivia for this. What i’s sitting here wondering is why the misinterpretation is so persistent and what do we know abut THAT?
Thanks for this post. I’ve encountered the Mehrabian myth a few times and it has been misinterpreted every time. I doubt that the presenters I’ve heard have even read his original research.
I think they must quote it so they sound ‘evidence-based’. In fact they sound clueless.