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The Truth about the Communication Formula – 55/38/7

The Truth about the Communication Formula – 55/38/7

So… You’ve been to that training seminar on speaking or presentation skills and you’ve been given the magic formula: That 55% of our communications are through body language, 38% through vocal tone and ONLY 7% through the actual verbal content… Wow… What a revelation that was!! Time to brush up on those gestures right?

However, are you aware that this formula, although taught on most presentation skills courses to this day, has been taken totally out of context to the original research from whence it was drawn?

The formula was arrived at by Mehrabian and Ferris in 1967 to explain the weight that a listener places on elements of a communication ONLY when a speaker is talking about their feelings and attitudes. They combined the results of two separate studies in order to reach this conclusion. The actual formula is thus:

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Tonal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

On his website, Albert Mehrabian himself has stated:

“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 does not take any credit away from the valuable 1967 studies into liking and disliking, however, along with many other professional/public speakers I have been trying my best to eliminate the misconception that these figures apply to all communications.

I have seen those that follow this formula to the end spend huge amounts of time working on their image, tone and body language to the detriment of the verbal content of the presentation. If a lecturer is delivering a talk on Advanced Calculus no amount of tonal variety and/or gestural finesse will convey the key information that the students require to pass an exam, although it might help the students to “like” the lecturer more. It could be argued that increased “liking” may increase the attention that a student gives the lecturer, however, if the content lacks any substance then this would be futile.

The context and content of each communication will dramatically change the weighting of emphasis on the various elements of communication as perceived by a listener. I have personally delivered talks on busting the Mehrabian Myth and am passionate about helping other speakers spread the word.

So the next time you see or hear the 7/38/55 formula being touted at a seminar or event, I implore you to ensure that it is being delivered within the context of the original 1967 studies. Please do not take this as a suggestion to heckle or publicly ridicule a speaker, merely help to ‘quietly’ draw their attention to Mehrabian’s research.

In conclusion… You will notice that my message in this post has been delivered with a total lack of body language and tonal variety… However, I hope you still like me…

Happy Speaking!

Aaron Garner 

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