It happened again yesterday. I heard somebody proclaiming that words only account for 7% of communication, while vocal tone contributes 38% and body language makes up a whopping 55%. These figures are startling, surprising, eye-popping.

They’re also wrong.

The “7-38-55” Rule is an oft-repeated misinterpretation of the work of Dr. Albert Mehrabian of the University of California, Los Angeles. It has been erroneously repeated by so many supposed “experts” over the last four decades that it has achieved the status of myth.

It’s the kind of myth I’m on a mission to dispel. (Hey, that’s what a heretic does.) Here are the facts.

Dr. Mehrabian’s research involved situations in which the meaning of a single spoken word was ambiguous (e.g. “maybe,” “dear”) or situations in which the words spoken were not in congruence with the tone and/or facial expressions of the speaker.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian

Dr. Albert Mehrabian

For example, the meaning of the word “maybe” changes considerably depending on whether a positive, negative or neutral tone is used. And a person declaring “I’m fine!” with a scowling face and crossed arms is clearly sending two conflicting messages, the non-verbal one carrying more weight.

The “7-38-55” Rule is actually Dr. Mehrabian’s calculation of how words, vocal tone and facial expressions influence one person to like or dislike another. It was never intended to be a blanket statement about communication in general.

On his website (www.kaaj.com/psych), here’s what Dr. Mehrabian himself says about his famous formula (emphasis mine):

“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.”

Even in that limited context, the “7-38-55” Rule is suspect. Dr. Mehrabian derived the formula by combining the results of two different studies—studies which other scholars argue can’t legitimately be combined.

So what does this mean to you, the salesperson, manager, business owner or CEO? For one thing, it means your words do matter. Sure, your non-verbals matter too, but primarily when they’re in conflict with your actual words or when your words themselves are ambiguous.

If you want to ensure your message is understood clearly, invest the time in choosing the right words and then make certain your tone and body language are in congruence with what you’re trying to communicate.

Also, be suspicious whenever you hear some speaker, trainer or consultant spout “information” that seems outrageous or bizarre. Ask them where the data came from. A true expert will be able to cite their source.

And the next time somebody quotes you the “7-38-55” Rule, ask them if they’ve ever actually read any of Dr. Mehrabian’s work. Or simply enlighten them with the facts. That way, there will be one less myth-spreader in the world.

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