The 55%, 38%, 7% rule is rubbish!


Many people quote the fact that only 7% of communication comes from the words you use. They will tell you that 55% of communication comes from body language and that 38% comes from the tone you use. These numbers have been used to death, which is a shame, because they’re wrong!

I’m not saying that non-verbal expression and tonality are unimportant for effective communication. But only giving words 7% of the credit? If this is really the case, you should be able to learn a new language just by watching the body language of someone speaking it and by listening to their tone. Really?! If the numbers are correct, you should be able to tell exactly what your crying baby or barking dog are telling you, without them using any words? Well that would be useful!

If you’ve ever done any training in public speaking, you’ll know that the right words can bring emotion to what you say; they can create pictures and stir people into action. I don’t believe this is possible if they only account for 7% of the communication.

Have you ever wondered where these percentages came from?

Professor Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D. of the University of California, Los Angles (UCLA), is credited as the originator of the 55%, 38%, 7% Rule, following studies carried out 1967. The results were circulated in the press and abbreviated, which lead to misunderstandings of the research and generalisations of the conclusions.

First, subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a female saying the single word “maybe” in three tonalities, to convey liking, neutrality and disliking. Then they were shown photos of female faces conveying the same three emotions. Next subjects were asked to guess the emotions portrayed by the recorded voice, the photos and both in combination. The photos drew more accurate responses than the voice, by a ratio of 3:2.

In a second study, subjects listened to nine recorded words, three meant to convey liking, three for neutrality and three for disliking. The words were spoken with varying tonalities and subjects were asked to guess the emotions behind the spoken words. The finding was that tone carried more meaning than the individual words themselves.

And so a theory was born! Mehrabian combined the statistical results of both studies and came up with the famous 55%, 38%, 7% Rule. He also went on to say that for inconsistent messages, body language and tonality were probably more accurate indicators of emotions and meaning than the words themselves. He also said that his results were not meant to be applied to normal conversation.

So why am I telling you all this? Because I think the ‘rule’ is over rated, over used and over quoted. Too many people fall back on it without knowing its origin or accuracy. The next time you hear or read someone using it, do me a favour and put them right. And the next time you’re tempted to use any part of the rule, just stop and remember that in public speaking, words, tonality and body language are the only means you have of communicating your message and that you can rely on them in equal proportions.

My thanks to Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. for providing the real truth behind the myth. Dr. Pearson is a counsellor and coach specialising in hypnotherapy and NLP. Her web site is


4 Responses

  1. Thanks for clearing up this one. I have agreed to do a 10 min slot at the beginning of the year and will take on board that in public speaking all three have an impact.

    • Happy to help! The ‘rule’ puzzled me for a while so I did some research to find out how much of it was actually true. People will still judge you on how they first see you – you can then change that opinion they form by what you say.

      Good luck with your 10 talk.


  2. As you would expect, as an image consultant, I disagree with your comments. The first thing people notice is the way you look. We give out a lot of messages about our personality with our clothes, style of hair, facial expression. Then the way we sound gives out the message of anger, happy, lack of confidence, confident, etc. and from that we will make a quick decision whether we like you , trust you and want to listen to you.
    My cleaning lady doesn’t speak good English but I understand a know a lot about her efficiency by the way she dresses and what she is trying to say by her tone of voice and body language. However, I do appreciate words are very important and in today’s world when we see people we make quick decisions based on what we see, but also via social media we also have opinions based on words that we read e.g. Twitter, Blogs. But I always like to see a picture of someone on a website, or blog as it gives me a feel about the person who has written the words, but I am also a visual learner!

  3. Hi Angela

    I’m glad you disagree with me! I like it when people have their own opinions! I do think that too many people rely on the ‘rule’ when giving talks, especially when giving talks about how to give presentations.

    And you’re right about how people learn differently – we need to use a variety of messages to appeal to as many people as possible.


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