My friend Bob Burg and I share something in common: we really dislike it when people say things that just ain’t so. Especially in print, or from positions of influence where their words are liable to be passed on widely.
Like the old statistic that says, “7 percent of our communication is conveyed by our actual words, while 38 percent comes through our tone of voice and the other 55 percent from our body language.”
If you’ve ever heard that bit of “scientific research” cited, perhaps you found yourself wondering, “Wait a minute. Can that really be true?”
No, it can’t — and it isn’t.
Did you know that of the supposedly true statistics published authors quote, more than 87 percent of them are in fact just made up, and not based on solid research? Shocking, isn’t it? But guess what? I just made that up.
But back to the 7 percent. If this were true (as I wrote in The Zen of MLM), then it wouldn’t really matter that much what we said, because our words would represent only about one-fourteenth of our message, so who cares? But it isn’t true, and it does matter.
In fact, these widely quoted numbers are a horribly skewed distortion of genuine research conducted forty years ago by the distinguished UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian, who was studying what happened when he gave subjects specific individual words to say, with the instructions to say them while at the same time doing their best to convey a totally different meaning. For example, saying “Brute!” or “Scram!” nicely.
Single words, with intentionally mixed messages, and heard only on tape recordings.
The only facial expressions subjects saw were from black and white still photos, not live encounters.
Zero body language was involved.
The 7:38:55 ratio is actually a theoretical composite, produced by combining two different findings from two completely different experiments that studied two completely different things.
Mehrabian himself has repeatedly insisted that his findings cannot be extrapolated to communication in general. In fact, you can hear him say it right here, in this five-minute interview with Mehrabian himself, which Bob kindly sent me on email today, prompting this post. [Alas, that link is now broken.]
In Mark Twain’s wonderful The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Eve writes admiringly, sort of, about her new acquaintance, Adam: “He knows a great many things … but they are not so.”
She might as well have been writing about the human race at large.