7% Of Meaning Is Communicated Through Spoken Word 38% Through Tone of Voice 55% Through Body Language

A Myth Misquoted Misinterpreted and Misunderstood: The 7% Rule: Fact, Fiction or Fallacy?

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A Myth Misquoted Misinterpreted and Misunderstood: The 7% Rule Fact, Fiction or Fallacy? is part of a series of stories of when studies or stories were taken out of context, stories of when facts were not checked causing them to be misreported, resulting in misleading people.

A Myth Misquoted Misinterpreted and Misunderstood: The 7% Rule Fact, Fiction or Fallacy: A Case Study

7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, 55% through body language. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard or read these words being quoted over the years, mostly back in the days when I first became self-employed and there were various government-backed training initiatives for people setting up in business, mainly to do with giving presentations.

My approach was always to go with an open mind, which allowed me to learn new ways of doing and thinking. Afterwards I would retain what I considered to be helpful to me in my WorkLife and I would disregard anything I didn’t consider to be helpful. I was quick to disregard these words. I didn’t over-question or over-think them, I just dismissed them right off the bat because they simply just didn’t ring true for me.

This misquoted, misinterpreted and misunderstood myth came back into my mind recently, because of how many studies and stories continue to be taken out of context, and how so many facts are not being checked, causing them to be misreported, resulting in misleading people.

So, I went back to investigate what Professor Albert Mehrabian had actually said, and in what context. This is what I discovered:

In 1967 the results of the two studies Professor Mehrabian had conducted into human communication patterns were published in professional journals.

In the first study, subjects had been asked to listen to a recording of a woman’s voice saying the word “maybe” three different ways to convey liking, neutrality and disliking. They were also shown photos of the woman’s face conveying the same three emotions (These facial expressions came to represent body language). They were then asked to guess the emotions heard in the recorded voice, seen in the photos, and both together. The result? The subjects correctly identified the emotions 50 percent more often from the photos than from the voice.

In the second study, subjects were asked to listen to nine recorded words, three meant to convey liking (honey, dear, thanks), three to convey neutrality (maybe, really, oh), and three to convey disliking (don’t, brute, terrible). Each word was pronounced three different ways. When asked to guess the emotions being conveyed, it turned out that the subjects were more influenced by the tone of voice than the words themselves.

Professor Mehrabian combined the statistical results of the two studies and came up with the now misquoted, misinterpreted and misunderstood study that communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. The non-verbal component being made up of body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent).

The study has been widely circulated across mass media in abbreviated form. It has been suggested that because the figures were so easy to remember, that either people had forgotten what they really meant, or actually they had never known in the first place.

The fact is Professor Mehrabian’s research had nothing to do with giving presentations, because it was based on the information that could be conveyed in a single word through different tones of voice and facial expressions. In this context it’s easy to understand how the words have least importance, and how communication is more about the tone of voice and body language.

In terms of presentations how you communicate through your tone of voice and body language play an important part for sure, but in terms of communicating an idea, you absolutely need words. Words are the way you can construct an idea that matters. Language is everything.

Imagine for a moment, if you will, you’re interviewing for your ideal role at your ideal company, or you’re pitching your product or service to your perfect client. You’re required to give a 10-minute presentation as part of your interview or pitch, as to why you, your product or service are a good fit for the role and the company, or the client, in line with their core values, but only 7% of your presentation can be words! Case in point.

Words of Wisdom

So what does this mean in the context of how many studies and stories continue to be taken out of context, and how so many facts are not being checked, causing them to be misreported, resulting in misleading people? Does it mean you need to fact check everything? Well probably not, but it is good practice not to believe everything you see and hear. You could follow my approach of having an open mind to learning new things, while also paying attention to your initial instinct or gut reaction. Then retain what you consider to be helpful to you in your WorkLife and disregard anything you don’t consider to be helpful.

Book Wisdom

As I was pondering all of this I came across the book Anything You Want by Derek Sivers. He shares forty lessons learnt over ten years of experience as a new kind of entrepreneur. He was a successful independent musician who just wanted to sell his CDs online, then helped his friends sell their music too. Eight years later he sold his company for $22 million. The book is designed to be read in about an hour.

A lot of what Derek wrote really resonated with me, in particular around believing and questioning things that don’t ring true or sit right for me. For example, in establishing yourself in business, there’s an expectation you need to write a business plan, with projected income, and everything else that goes with that. The thing is it’s really hard to know all of this, and I’ve always believed it shouldn’t be hard, it should be simple, because as Derek says: “The best plans start simple”. So despite what business advisors and banks have said and requested over the years, I just didn’t buy into it, and resisted it wherever and whenever I could. So, I read with great interest how Derek approached writing his ‘business plan’.

He was already living his dream life as a full-time musician, and he didn’t want anything to distract from that. He didn’t want to think about making it big, he wanted to keep it small. So he wrote down his utopian dream-come-true distribution deal from his musician’s point of view. In a perfect world his distributor would:

  1. Pay him every week;
  2. Show him the full name and address of everyone who bought his CD (because those are his fans, not the distributor’s);
  3. Never kick him out for not selling enough (even if he only sold one CD every five years, it would be there for someone to buy);
  4. Never allow paid placement (because it’s not fair to those who can’t afford it).

And that was it. That was his business plan.

He went on to share these words of what I consider to be:

Sage Wisdom

“When you make a business, you get to make a little universe where you control all the laws. This is your utopia. When you make it a dream come true for yourself, it’ll be a dream come true for someone else, too.”

Now that to me makes perfect business sense, and it makes perfect sense of why a lot of so-called business thinking has never rung true or sat well with me. I’ve always questioned it within myself, with friends, with business advisors and bankers; but until I read Derek’s book I could never put it into words, and certainly not in a way that would have made sense to anyone.

The lesson for me from all of this is: it’s important for me to question my initial reaction or gut reaction to something that doesn’t ring true for me, or doesn’t sit well with me. It’s a simple lesson, but then again, as with business plans, the best WorkLife lessons are the simplest.

I leave you today with a simple action:

When you see, read, experience something that doesn’t ring true or sit well with you, ask yourself ‘Why?’ Then take time to reflect through self-feedback on what this brings back for you. The answer may come to you quickly or it may take time, but it will come, and when it does it will make perfect sense; and it will instil the importance of trusting your initial reaction or gut instinct.


Trusting your intuition is the ultimate act of trusting yourself in knowing what to believe. Let this be your guidance throughout the continuing chapters of your WorkLife story.

Today’s featured book is: Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

Tap here to read: Body Language Speech Patterns and the 7/38/55 Principle in WorkLife Interactions

WorkLife Book Wisdom Stories:

The intention of the stories I share is to inspire you through people’s stories of their WorkLife experiences. Through these stories, you will learn about people’s dreams and ambitions, along with the challenges, obstacles, failures and successes they encountered along the road of their WorkLife journey. And how they used the power of book wisdom to help them find the inspiration and guidance to navigate their path to live their WorkLife with passion, purpose and pride.

My hope is that these book wisdom stories will help you throughout the chapters of your WorkLife Story.

I believe stories are a powerful mechanism for teaching, a powerful medium to learn through, and a powerful way to communicate who you are and what you stand for.

Published by Carmel O' Reilly

Carmel O’ Reilly: WorkLife Learning Practitioner & Writer Author of WorkLife Book Club, Your WorkLife Your Way and The School of WorkLife book series. Created to help you manage your WorkLife Learning. Blogger & Podcaster: Telling people’s powerful stories about WorkLife challenges & successes Founder of www.schoolofworklife.com My guiding statement is to help people pursue their WorkLives with greater clarity, passion, purpose and pride by creating continuous WorkLife learning programmes that are accessible to everyone.