The 7% Rule: Fact, Fiction or Fallacy? A Tale of Misinterpretation

A Lesson From a Study Taken Out of Context Causing Misunderstanding

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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 are taken out of context, stories of when facts are 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 attended various workshops and presentations about communicating your ideas when establishing your WorkLife as a freelancer, consultant or business owner.

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 communicating WorkLife ideas. 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 WorkLife communicaions, 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.

Back to My WorkLife and the Need to Communicate My Ideas

All of this pondering brought me back to the WorkLife stage I was at. I was in the process of developing online learning resources. I wanted to find a way to communicate the idea behind this work to a wider audience. I, of course, knew words would be fundamental in successfully conveying what I needed to say. Being able to reach people emotionally by tapping into their feelings and attitudes was also important in communicating how my work could help them at their particular WorkLife stage.

This led me to discover The Most Successful Email I Ever Wrote by Derek Sivers in his quest to effectively communicate the idea behind his mission to make people smile – while successfully growing his business. I loved what he did, and while I didn’t think I could match his brilliance in communicating in such a funny way, it did give me ideas of how I could reach people in the way I wanted to reach them by bringing who I am into my communication. As a writer, I already had the words to communicate the idea behind my work. To reach people emotionally, I needed to be open about my feelings and attitudes. I simply needed to do what Derek did – to be myself!

Book Wisdom

This brought me to 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, and I was once again back at the place and time when I first became self-employed. In particular around not believing and questioning things that didn’t ring true or sit right for me. Business myths that were perhaps misquoted and misinterpreted because they were misunderstood.

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, which 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 that 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.

WorkLife Learning Assignment

I leave you today with a simple action:

When you see, read, or 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


I believe in challenging my own thinking. I like rethinking as an activity to consider if there are other ways to look at things. 

In the following story, I explore just that:

Body Language Speech Patterns and the 7/38/55 Principle in WorkLife Interactions How to Read the Situation In the Moment in All WorkLife Interactions is part of a series of people’s stories about how the ability to read the situation and the other side in the moment is key in all WorkLife interactions: from exchanges to conversations, conflict to cooperation, differences to understanding, refusals to negotiations, and much, much more.

Learn more about Professor Merhabian and Derek Sivers Their work informed this story.

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.



This story was originally published on 11/6/21 I needed to republish it to add updates and also to tell you 

… The Continuing Story …

The pandemic brought about a change in my WorkLife from delivering in-person individual coaching sessions and group workshops to creating resources to help people self direct their WorkLife learning.

In the last three years, I’ve published 30 books and over 200 stories.

Each book and each story is based on real life struggles and successes that people have encountered in their WorkLife. They also detail the exercises that helped navigate through these situations, which are set as assignments for readers to adapt to their WorkLife situations and learning needs.

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.

My inspiration for creating my work comes from a lifelong passion for learning. My work has taught me that the one thing in life that can never be taken away from you is your learning. 

School of WorkLife Guiding Statement: To create resources that are helpful, insightful and inspiring in helping people to pursue their WorkLives with greater clarity, purpose, passion and pride by creating continuous WorkLife learning programmes and resources that are accessible to everyone.

The resources I create will help you take ownership of self directing your learning in your own space and in your own time.


School of WorkLife helps you self-direct your WorkLife learning through resources that have been created to help you to take ownership of your learning in your own space and in your own time. 

What is Self Directed Learning? 

Self-Directed Learning is when an individual is motivated to take the initiative and responsibility on decisions related to their own learning. It is a series of independent actions and judgements free from external control and constraint. 

Resources to Help You Self-Direct Your Learning 

You may find the books below from The School of WorkLife Book Series helpful in meeting your learning needs as a self directed learner. Tap the book title to see a preview of what’s inside each book.

How To Embrace The Superpower of Self-Awareness

How To Fine-Tune The Superpower of Observation

How To Let Curiosity Be Your Driving Force 

Tap The School of WorkLife Book Series to view the complete collection of books. From here, you can tap on each individual title to see a preview of what’s inside each book.

Carmel O’ Reilly is a learning practitioner and writer. She creates resources to help people self-direct their WorkLife learning
Carmel O’ Reilly is a learning practitioner and writer. She creates resources to help people self-direct their WorkLife learning

Founder of School of WorkLife, Carmel O’ Reilly is a learning practitioner and writer. She creates resources to help people self-direct their WorkLife learning.  These include a Collection of Books which originated from her first book, Your WorkLife Your Way and a  Learn Through Reading Series of Case Studies.  which originated from her latest book WorkLife Book Club. 

That’s the power of writing (and reading, which is an integral part of the craft for writers). It helps you find, develop and tell the right story at the right time in all WorkLife situations – in day-to-day communication: WorkLife and feedback conversations, presentations, talks, and negotiations, at interviews, and when socialising and networking in building and maintaining good relationships. The practice of writing helps you to tell the stories that express who you are in an interesting and engaging way.

Published by Carmel O' Reilly

I'm Carmel O’ Reilly. I'm a writer and learning practitioner. My books and learning resources are designed to help you self-direct your WorkLife learning. As founder of School of WorkLife, my guiding principle 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.