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Busting the 55/38/7 myth

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According to Google, 427 million pages contain the words 'body language'. I don't know how many sites (as opposed to pages) that represents, but probably about 90% contain the 'fact' that 55% of communication is about body language, 38% about vocal tone and only 7% about the actual words used.

And it's rubbish. Poppycock. Tripe. Twaddle. Balderdash. Baloney. Hogwash. B#@%*cks. It's a myth.


Just think about it for a moment. If only 7% of communication depended on the words used, you and I would be able to travel overseas and understand almost anything that was being said to us in a foreign language. And you could watch TV with the sound off and still understand 55% of what was being said. And obviously . . . we can't. And it annoys me how many people state the 55/38/7 myth as a fact, because I 100% believe that your choice of words is absolutely crucial to your success as a presenter.

So why is this so-called unquestioned 'fact' so ubiquitous? Because it sounds good, and is accepted by most so-called presenting and communication 'experts' at face value. Because 99% of them don't know where the figures originally came from.

Well . . . I do.

They were first quoted by Abraham Mehrabian, an Iranian-born professor at UCLA after he ran 2 experiments with female students in 1967. In the first experiment, they listened to 9 recorded words, 3 meant to convey liking (honey, dear and thanks), 3 neutrality (maybe, really and oh) and 3 disliking (don’t, brute and terrible). They were spoken with different voice tones and the subjects were asked to guess the emotions behind them. Mehrabian found that vocal tone was a better indicator of emotion than the actual words themselves.

In the second, they were asked to listen to a recording of a female saying the single word “maybe” in three tonalities (to convey liking, neutrality and disliking) and then shown black and white photos of female faces conveying the same three emotions. Then they 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.

The two results were added together to get the 55:38:7 ratio, and . . . er, . . . that's it, I'm afraid. Figures obtained by:

  • Combining the results from 2 different studies which can't be combined
  • Experiments that only used young women (no older women or men of any age were included)
  • Concentrating purely on facial expressions and ignoring posture, hand signals and any other aspect of body language, and
  • Using the extremely artificial context of individual words rather than sentences.

Now to be fair to Abraham Mehrabian, I should make it clear that he has never agreed with the grandiose claims made in his name, and never intended his findings to be applied to conversation in general, never mind presenting or public speaking. He was simply pointing out that if there was a mismatch between what was being said and how it was being said, the 'how' would be believed. It was others who took his findings and blew them out of all proportion.

This isn't to make out body language isn't important. It is. In fact it's critically important to presenters and public speakers, and your posture and eye contact are probably the 2 biggest influences on your audience's perception of your confidence (see The power of posture and Look me in the eye when you say that). But it's not as important as the words you use, which is why the 55/37/8 myth drives me crazy.

Choose one set of words and you achieve your objective, win the sale or influence your audience. Choose a different set and you don't. It's as simple as that. Words are powerful. They can drive us to our knees and bring us to tears, they can raise us to the heights of joy or the depths of despair. As the Greek Sophist Gorgias wrote in 414 BC:

“The power of speech has the same effect on the condition of the soul as the application of drugs to the state of bodies; for just as different drugs dispel different fluids from the body, and some bring an end to disease but others end life, so also some speeches cause pain, some pleasure, some fear; some instill courage, some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.”

What a fantastic final phrase that is – “ …. drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.“ Wouldn't it be incredible to think that your own words could do that (OK, let's drop the ‘evil' bit)? That your words were literally irresistible?

Unfortunately, most speakers give hardly any forethought at all to the words and phrases they will use. They don't even write their speeches or presentations out, preferring to simply jot down notes in bullet points or headings, assuming that the actual, specific words to be used will somehow appear to them in a magical flash of inspiration once they stand up to speak.

English is an incredibly rich language, and there at least a dozen different ways of making any particular point. One of those will be better than the other 11. Now what are the odds that just as you get on your feet, when you're under the spotlight and maybe feeling a bit nervous, the 'word fairy' will come along and place that 1 magical set of words in your mouth rather than something else? Not very high, I think you'll agree.

Which is why all great presenters spend an lot of time on preparation and why hours of hard work lie behind every perfect presentation. Your role model should be Sir Winston Churchill (the man who, in President Kennedy's fantastic phrase, "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle"). From his first speech to his last, he was fanatical about thorough preparation and worked as hard in his seventies to prepare a speech as he did in his twenties.

He regarded each one as a work of art, and treated them accordingly. "I do not compose quickly,” he wrote. “Everything is worked out by hard labour and frequent polishing. I intend to polish till it glitters.

So . . . next time you're making a presentation, don't make the mistake of thinking the words you use don't matter, that it's all about the argument, explaining the data and laying out the facts. It's not. It's about the words. Polish your presentation until it glitters.

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