Three elements of communication - and the so called "7%-38%-55% Rule"

You've probably come across this 'rule' on a communication seminar or course somewhere. I've heard it repeated many, many times. More recently I learned that it is commonly quoted OUT OF CONTEXT such that wrong conclusions are drawn and taught. I thought it would be helpful to share the related clarification more widely.

The original research to which everyone refers was undertaken in 1971 by Albert Mehrabian (currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA).

Mehrabian reached two conclusions:

1 - There are basically three elements in any face-to-face communication:
• words
• tone of voice and
• body language.

2 - These three elements account differently for the meaning of the message:
- Words account for 7%
- Tone of voice accounts for 38% and
- Body language accounts for 55% of the message.

It seems that many people who quote Mehrabian's research seem unaware that this second conclusion was NOT a general observation relevant to all communications.

Mehrabian reached this second conclusion in the context of experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Thus the often quoted disproportionate influence of tone of voice and body language is only really true when someone says they like/dislike something/someone but their tone of voice or body language implies the opposite. Commonly this will mean that two or more of the three elements are ambiguous. Such ambiguity appears mostly when the words spoken are inconsistent with the tone of voice or body language of the speaker.

This would be the case for example when someone says "I do not have a problem with you!" whilst at the same time their closed body language says the opposite and they avoid eye-contact and sound anxious.

In such situations Mehrabian's research showed that the receiver of the communication will accept the predominant form of communication, the non-verbal (38% + 55%), rather than the literal meaning of the words (7%).

Let's face it - that conclusion IN CONTEXT is not really a surprise is it?

On his website Mehrabian specifically states: "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."

My view, despite this clarification, is that it's important to be congruent when we communicate. That is, our body language and tone of voice should be consistent with the words we use. Otherwise we can confuse people and reduce the prospect of getting our message across so that it is understood. We have to take responsibility ourselves for any failure to communicate effectively. It's OUR fault and not the fault of our listeners.

The words we choose to use ARE generally more important than is often assumed. Certainly, when making a presentation we need to pay just as much attention to the words we say as we do to the way in which we will present them - how we will move and the variations in our tone of voice.

This is good news as most people will spend far more time working out WHAT they are going to say. than rehearsing HOW they are going to say it and HOW they will move when they are talking.

Perhaps one reason why Mehrabian's research is quoted so often though is that body language and tone of voice are evidently important aspects of communication. And in the absence of any other validated research we have to quote Mehrabian to make the point - even if we do so out of context. Such quotes are generally effective though - maybe because of the tone of voice the speaker uses and their body language when they tell us about the "7%-38%-55% Rule".

Mark Lee FCA CTA (Fellow)
Chairman: The Tax Advice Network for tax problems too big for most accountants. NB: I'm just the conduit!

My blogs: (1) For ambitious professionals (2) Accountant jokes and fun (3) Debunking tax stories in the news (4) If you want Referrals From Accountants
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Roy Law


Three elements of communication - and the so called "7%-38%-55%

This so-called rule is yet another example of spurious accuracy. It's probably best remembered and applied as another example of the Pareto Principle (or 80/20 rule): 80% Body language and voice tone 20% Actual words used Roy Law Systems Studio - 07831 340507 - - "... more than management accounting reports & proofreading"


Baiju Solanki


Three elements of communication - and the so called "7%-38%-55%

Great article This can explain why sometimes after you leave an interaction we 'feel' different about the communication and not sure why. As you quote, it is "important to be congruent when we communicate" Some of this comes down to our own self-awareness and what we think we are communicating and we actually are. Baiju Baiju Solanki Performance Coach 07968 533918 By


Stephen Bailey


Three elements of communication - and how Mehrabian translates

in the world of online communication. Taking simply, that would suggest that the 7% literal words is worth 100% online as tone of voice and body language are not involved here. Or are they??? Thanks Stephen Follow @Stephen_Bailey


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Experience of buying glasses online

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Scott Allen


Three elements of communication - and the so called "7%-38%-55%

Thanks for helping dispel the "Mehrabian Myth", Mark. It's frustrating when I see it perpetuated by the likes of Tony Robbins (saw him misuse it less than a year ago), et al. There's some previous discussion of this here on Ecademy at, and my coauthor wrote about it on our blog (ended up in our book) here. Scott Allen Linked Intelligence - The smart source for all things LinkedIn Coauthor, The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online


Alan Stevens


Three elements of communication - and the so called "7%-38%-55%

Mark, Great article. I've been debating that rule with people for years, and you have summarised its specificity well. It does have value, but it is so widely mis-used and misquoted, particuarly by devotees of NLP, that it has become devalued. Well done. Best wishes Alan Alan Stevens, Author of The Pocket Media Coach. Click here for The Mediacoach Podcast Director, MediaCoach Training and Coaching for Media Skills, Presentations and Public Speaking. Specialists in Crisis Management. Tel/Fax +44 (0) 20 8220 6919 Mobile : 07986 852621


Roy Law


10-40-50 Mehrabian's Law ...

... is an approximation which could put it up there with the 80-20 Pareto Principle and thus make it easier to remember. Thanks for giving us the detailed background; I particularly liked your "important to be congruent when we communicate" which, suitably rephrased, might well get immortalised as Lee's Law of Communications :) One small aspect that I emphasise is the importance of congruence between the eyes and the mouth when we smile - "smile with your eyes". This is such a simple task for audience participation and leaves everyone feeling great! Roy Law Systems Studio - 07831 340507 - - "... more than management accounting reports"