Sometimes I hear something attributed to “research” that really piques my interest.
Immediately, I am curious:
Who did the research?
What was their methodology?
What did they actually discover?
It turns out the answers to these questions can be found by buying a research paper.
Which is exactly what I did when I heard (yet another) leadership “expert” say that only 7 percent of our communication is verbal.
Maybe you’ve seen the “research” that says communication breaks down to a formula of:
55 percent body language
38 percent tone
7 percent verbal.
I’ve heard this formula quoted a lot — from leadership programs to communication think pieces.
Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss quotes it in his book, Never Split the Difference and television journalist George Stephanopoulous refers to it in his Masterclass on Purposeful Communication.
Even Kramer said that communication was 94 percent non-verbal in a Seinfeld episode.
And guess what?
If you google “communication 7 percent verbal” you get more than 40 MILLION results.
But those figures just didn’t seem right to me.
Sure, body language and tone affect communication.
But who decided that words were worth a measly seven percent – and how?
I was curious.
So, I went digging…
And discovered the seven percent figure traces back to 1967.
That’s when psychology professor Albert Mehrabian* conducted an experiment with 37 of his female psychology students at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He wanted to find out “how well people can judge the feelings of others.”
His research focused on how we communicate “liking and attitudes” vocally and through our facial expressions.
The effect of verbal communication was not part of the study.
What do I mean when I say ‘maybe’?
As verbal communication was not being measured, the researchers chose to use what they considered a “neutral” word for their experiment: “maybe.”
To test the vocal component, researchers recorded a woman saying “maybe” three different ways to convey:
To test the facial component, subjects were shown small black and white photographs of a woman's face, conveying the same three emotions.
The experiment focused on how we communicate “liking and attitudes” vocally and through our facial expressions.
Again, please note: the effect of verbal communication was not part of the study.
Then the subjects were asked to identify the emotions:
heard in the recorded voice
seen in the photos, and
both heard and seen together.
The subjects correctly identified the emotions 50 percent more often from the photos than from the recorded voice.
It was therefore suggested (not proven) that the facial component of communication was 1.5 times stronger than the vocal component.
But remember, this only applies to conveying liking or attitudes.
Researchers have been quick to criticize the shortcomings of the methodology behind Mehrabian’s experiment (which remember, was conducted by just 37 women as part of an assignment in his psychology class).
Among their criticisms, researchers note the sample size, and the fact that the subjects knew the purpose of the experiment before it began.
Several papers have gone into more detail about the shortcomings of the study, including the artificial situations, and the overly simplistic communication model.
So, how did a small study that focused only on feelings and attitudes (i.e. like/dislike) get applied so broadly to communication?
It’s not Mehrabian’s fault
Mehrabian has expressed his frustration with the way his work has been twisted and misused.
In 2002, he 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.”
But Mehrabian’s clarification has not stopped people from continuing to use – and misquote – his research.
Nor has it hindered people from crediting the percentages generically to “research” without further context or connotation.
But Words Matter.
Think about it.
Imagine reading a note that said, “I love you” – or “I don’t love you anymore.”
How would you feel if you read, “You got the promotion” or “You’re fired”?
If words counted for so little, then how can they cause us to feel such emotion – from immense joy to the deepest pain?
If words were so unimportant, why would we even bother to learn language?
So if 55/38/7 is wrong, then what’s the right formula?
While it may be convenient to reduce communication to a formula, it’s not right.
Communication is complex.
It involves words, and tone, and facial expressions.
And body language.
And our relationship with the person communicating the message.
And our feelings, opinions, and biases.
If you need to communicate a message or prepare a presentation, you need to consider it all.
But start with your words.
Get them right.
They’re worth a lot more than seven percent.
*Findings quoted from ‘Inference of Attitudes From Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels’, by Albert Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris (Journal of Consulting Psychology, 1967, Vol 31, No 3, 248-252).
For $14.95 US, you can own a copy of this study, too.
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How Can I Help?
I’ll keep saying it: Communication matters.
Well, look at the news.
How much money have Kanye West and Elon Musk lost recently? And what has their communication — and specifically their words — done to their reputations?
If you want to improve your communication (and get all the good things that come with that), I’m your gal.
So many companies could reap massive rewards – from performance and culture to retention and engagement – by improving their communication.
So, if you know someone who could benefit from some help (as even the most seasoned leaders do), please get in touch and check out my website for more information.
You can also see my Top 10 list of what I can (and can’t) do for you here.
And if you see any communication examples (the good, the bad, and the ugly) that you think are worth analyzing or sharing, please send them my way!
My background is in communication so this kind of statistic makes me cringe. Our words matter so much and essentially shape our world and perspective! Thanks for sharing.
I like this and I’m giving you a physical thumbs up and a nod and other non verbal cues! Always a great read, Beth 💗