Drop the Mehrabian communication pie charts, now

Written by Jo Cook on 11 July 2017

Most of us have been to a presentation or communication training and at some point been presented with a pie chart that shows how our communication is made up. That 7% of our message delivery is the actual words, that 38% is the tone of how we say the words, and that the remaining 55% is the body language that goes with that delivery.

Trouble is, that’s rubbish.

Well, ok, not completely rubbish: words, tone and body language are a powerful mix of verbal and non-verbal delivery. However communication is a messy business and these numbers don’t actually help.

The person who came up with these numbers is University of California, Los Angeles Professor Albert Mehrabian. Even on Wikipedia, if you look him up it states that he “has become known best by his publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. His findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes have been misquoted and misinterpreted throughout human communication seminars worldwide, and have also become known as the 7%-38%-55% Rule, for the relative impact of words, tone of voice, and body language when speaking.”

If you want to know more detail of the actual experiments and some researcher’s reactions to it, you can read about that here.

The 7-38-55 rule is a farce, acknowledged by Mehrabian himself!

The 7-38-55 rule is a farce, acknowledged by Mehrabian himself! On his website, when talking about the work of “silent messages” he states in bold text: “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 is pretty powerful stuff. Especially that last sentence: “Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

The Speaking About Presenting website cites Mehrabian in his first 1967 research paper stating: “These findings regarding the relative contribution of the tonal component of a verbal message can be safely extended only to communication situations in which no additional information about the communicator-addressee relationship is available.”

In other words, this research is very restrictive.

In other words, it shouldn’t be broadened and generalised in the way it has been.

As said by the researcher himself!

On the same Speaking About Presenting page other researchers are quoted critiquing Mehrabian’s research, with issues about methodological shortcomings, how artificial the research situation was and that it was never addressed more generally and naturally.

This isn’t damning Mehrabian – the guy did very specific pieces of research in the 1960’s and the training and communication industry has blown it out of all proportion.

It’s damning that people have put this into books and materials without properly researching it’s validity.

What is damning is the people that have taken something so specific and used it for their own purposes. It’s damning that people have put this into books and materials without properly researching it’s validity. And it’s damning that we use it without doing the same.

Next time you are on a course that quotes Mehrabian’s work, you need to question it and share the link to this page. And next time you deliver… make sure that you have found some other valid research about communication instead.

 

Listen to more

You can listen to Jo and TJ editor Jon Kennard discuss this on the June TJ podcast.

What are your thoughts and comments? Share below!

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