Thursday, 20 December 2018 22:14

The '7-55-38' myth regarding body language

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If you’re into public speaking, you are probably familiar with the following study by Albert Mehrabian: (Apparently) 55% of your presented message is communicated via your body language; 38% through the tone of your voice and only 7% of meaning through words. Is this really the magic formula for successful public speaking? What is the truth about this?

In this blog, I will explore the relationship between the content, body language, tone of voice and facial expression. You will learn more about the impact of these factors on your credibility as a speaker.

A study often misquoted. At the 3rd conference on authenticity, hosted by the Professional Speaker’s Association of Namibia (PSAN) in April 2018, a well-known South African motivational speaker mentioned the famous formula during his speech. It prompted me to write about this often wrongly presented statistic.

The impact of body language

True enough, as public speakers, we cannot underestimate the importance of body language, eye contact, mime and voice to convey our message. However, to say that the content of our speech or presentation only accounts for 7% is simply not true. So, what did Mehrabian and Feris really find out? In the study by Mehrabian and Feris (1967), intending to find out how people decide whether they like one another, they found that people go for 7% through words, 38% for vocal appeal and 55% for facial appeal.

The authors note in their findings: “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.” (1967) “Unless the person communicating is talking about his/her feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

Still, these finding is often incorrectly generalised to mean in all communication situations, i.e. 7% happens in words, 38% through tone of voice and 55% through general body language. If this was true, we did not need to spend so much time crafting a good message for our talks but spend more time practising our voice and general body language.

What does this mean for us as public speakers?

What we can learn from the studies:

  1. We do indeed communicate a lot of meaning through body language, the tone of voice, eye contact (or lack thereof) and mime. We just cannot put it down to exact percentages.
  2. In situations where we cannot see or hear the non-verbal signs (i.e. during a telephone conversation or in e-mails), words are more easily misunderstood.
  3. When we are unsure what the words mean, we tend to pay more attention to the non-verbal signs we receive. This is especially true when we don’t trust the person.

As public speakers, we cannot underestimate the value of learning about credible and effective body language for our talks. Pay attention to your eye contact, practice good vocal techniques and lastly, do pay attention to your content.


Retrieved on 21/06/2018:

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1 comment

  • Comment Link Brendan Ihmig Monday, 28 January 2019 23:49 posted by Brendan Ihmig

    Body language is such an important aspect of stage presence - after all, it is what is on stage.

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