We have come here to bury Mehrabian, not to praise him.
Actually, that’s not true. Just as it’s not true that Dr. Albert
Mehrabian’s 7% rule applies to all communication. That was fake
news before fake news was popular.
The rule can be found in Mehrabian’s 1971 best seller, Silent
You’ve undoubtedly heard it: communication is 55% body language,
38% vocal variety, and a mere 7% the words we speak. It’s been
cited by professional communicators for 45 years. And, in restricted
circumstances, the rule is true. For the bulk of communication,
however, it is not. Still, the perverted version of the rule is so
pervasive that Mehrabian, now professor emeritus of psychology
at UCLA, was forced to publish a disclaimer on his website.
“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.”
Words do matter. Otherwise, why does a speaker speak? Should we
all stand on stage and mime our speeches? Am I the only one who finds mimes annoying?
From the evaluation forms filled out by attendees at my workshops, I know words matter. When asked what was their greatest takeaway, often the answer is, “The magic is in the rewrite.” There is no gesture for that. There is vocal inflection. But it’s the words they remember.
Words matter. When writing your presentation, choose them carefully. Then gesture when appropriate. Vary your vocal delivery in tune to your message. But no amount of body language or vocal variety will save your message if your words don’t convey it clearly, vividly, and concisely.
Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They'll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.