55% body language, 38% tone, 7% words? The myth about body language in presentations

You've heard the numbers, and they didn't make sense.  It might have been in a Presentation Skills course or at Toastmasters.  I've seen it in Sandler Sales training recently. Here they are:

  • 55% of communication is visual (your body language)
  • 38% of communication is your voice (tone, inflection, etc)
  • 7% is verbal (your words)

Really?  Does that make any sense?  Its actuallly 90% wrong.

If they were true,

  • shouldn't you be able to understand 93% of a foreign language just by seeing the person talk?
  • shouldn't you be able to understand 55% of a speech on television with the sound turned off?

The famous 55%, 38%, 7% rule is actually a myth.  It's based on a study done in 1967 by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a Professor of Psychology at UCLA, but the study was completely misinterpreted by the media, and passed on for decades as fact.  Then the internet came along, and if you Google

        55 38 7

you'll see a bunch of sites, including Wikipedia, that debunk the myth.

Trainers and presentation skills coaches love the myth because it seems to substantiate the point of view that movement and tone are critical to a presentation.  Authors like Jerry Weissman still use it as the basis for books published in 2009, even though the numbers are completely misleading.

Of course, presentations are definitely improved by

  • appropriate hand movements
  • physical movement by the presenter
  • great body language
  • raising and lowering the tone of voice to emphasize points

but those are not more important than the words. 

Also, if someone is boring and soft spoken enough, a lot of their message may be lost because the audience may not be paying attention.

However, the 55%, 38%, 7% numbers are a myth, and you can see plenty of references about it now on Google.  Spread the word.

 


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