The statistic communications ‘experts’ keep getting wrong

If you hear someone say that the words someone says only accounts for 7 percent of the message, you’re not getting the full story.


In dozens of books and hundreds of articles, you’ll find media trainers, presentation coaches, and communications experts offering this startling statistic:

Only 7 percent of the way someone forms an impression of you comes from your words! The remaining portion comes from your voice (38 percent) and your body language (55 percent)!

There’s only one problem: Those statistics are wrong. Completely wrong.

Their root comes from a 1960s study by a UCLA professor named Dr. Albert Mehrabian. But Mehrabian never intended for his research to be used—or misused—that way.

This slide is fascinating. It’s also really misleading.

Mehrabian’s study was very limited in scope—it looked only at single words, focused solely on positive or negative feelings, and didn’t include men—and yet, I see articles at least once a week touting these numbers as gospel, as if they have much broader implications than they actually do.

Had these communications “experts” taken the time to look at the original research (or simply look at Dr. Mehrabian’s Wikipedia page, which debunks this myth), they wouldn’t have made this mistake. So I can only conclude that communications professionals who use this data are ignorant, lazy, or willfully misusing this data to sound smarter than they are.

For example, I came across a video from Stanford University business professor Deborah Gruenfeld last week. I saw the video because it was a sponsored post on Twitter. Here’s the video description:

“When people want to make an impression, most think a lot about what they want to say. Stanford Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld cautions you to think twice about that approach. The factors influencing how people see you are surprising: Words account for 7% of what they take away, while body language counts for 55%.”

Wrong!

In the video, Gruenfeld says:

“When people are forming an impression of you, what you say accounts for only seven percent of what they come away with.”

Wrong!

Creativity Works, a U.K.-based communications firm, produced this video called, “Busting the Mehrabian Myth.” It’s a well-produced (and humorous) video.



Several people have correctly pointed out that this video goes too far in the opposite direction, prioritizing words over delivery. That, too, is wrong. The right balance of words and delivery is highly contextual, and it’s too reductionist to say that one generally matters more than the other.

Brad Phillips is author of the book The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview. He blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this story first appeared.

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