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The Real Meaning and Value of the 7-38-55 Rule of Communication

Updated on January 3, 2012

When I worked for a corporation at a location that had employees with a rather wide range of background, education, and alleged intelligence, I had a large piece of paper thumbtacked to the wall behind my desk. It read (in better formatting, with emphasis on the “7%”):

  • 55% - body language, situational context, relative status, etc.
  • 38% - tone of voice
  • 7% - word content; their meaning
  • To which part of your message do you want me to react?

It seemed to help.

Okay, it wasn’t accurate; it wasn’t complete. The 7%-38%-55% rule is often – almost always – misquoted. It’s been used in communication seminars, classrooms, and reference materials long enough that it is as accepted as using a brand name for an object, like Kleenex™ for tissue.

The percentages come from Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus at UCLA. He published a study on the relative weight of the verbal and nonverbal components of communication. The misinterpretation and misuse of his findings comes from applying the conclusions of his study to all spoken communication. After it became apparent that this was becoming commonly done, Mehrabian himself publicly said, “'Clearly it is absurd to say that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message…." An example to illustrate this would be the difference between giving someone technical instructions or even driving directions and any casual conversation between friends over coffee or drinks.

So, my little poster behind my desk was misleading. Or was it?

The large “7%” caught people’s eye, and they could read the whole thing in little more than a glance. Without saying a word I got my point across, the point being the old adage, “It ain’t what you say: it’s how you say it.” I’m pretty sure it worked because it sure seemed like people coming into my office were taking the time to choose their words and their delivery of them, more so than before. Yes, maybe I imagined it, but I don’t think so.

More evidence that the poster worked was how “7-38-55” became a part of our workplace lingo. If a coworker speaking would go off on a ramble, sometimes someone would give him a friendly nudge with his elbow and say simply, “Dude! 7-38-55!” And when we’d have staff meetings to hear announcements from higher management, more than once, when one of us would ask another, “So, what did you think of that?” the reply would be a concise, “7-38-55, man, 7-38-55.”

In most conversational environments the numbers 7-38-55 interrupt the brain’s usual processing of spoken words, which focus attention (for a moment) on the number’s meaning. Although not entirely accurate, the gist of their common interpretation is consistently understood. It ain’t what you say; it’s how you say it. And that’s a valuable thing to remember and use.


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