Mehrabian Nights – an informative tale about (mis)communication

A happy, healthy and prosperous New Year to all our readers, Twitter followers and clients. We’re ending 2009 with some good news: we’ve just found out that the TrainingZone community have voted my Mehrabian article the best feature of 2009 – and it has been read 20,564 times, so far. This is the article that inspired our Mehrabian animation, which is also about to reach 20,000 hits. In case you missed them, here they are again…

Here’s an urban myth about communication that’s harder to swallow than a whale. It’s one of the most influential and widely quoted statistical stories around, and it goes like this:

When someone speaks to us, only 7% of what they mean communicates itself through the words they use.

You have probably come across this figure before. It’s based on research which apparently demonstrates that most (55%) of what a speaker means is conveyed through their facial expressions and the rest (38%) is communicated through tone of voice. In one fell swoop, words are relegated to the role of bit-part players on the stage of communication. They hardly seem to matter at all.

But as with most urban myths, when you chew the story over, the alarm bells of common sense start ringing. Is it really possible that if I get lost and ask a passerby for directions, I’ll have to work out the correct route mostly from their facial expressions and tone of voice, and not from the words they use? As Mr Spock might say, “it’s communication, Jim, but not as we know it.”

Google the name ‘Mehrabian’ and you’ll discover any number of websites eager to inform you that these statistics are based on research done by Professor Albert Mehrabian. But – surprise, surprise – his research proves nothing of the kind, as he’d be the first to tell you.

The devil’s in the detail

On his own website, Mehrabian expresses the results of his research in the form of an equation:

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

He goes on to explain 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.”

What the pedlars of the urban myth version of Mehrabian’s statistical story don’t make clear – or perhaps don’t know themselves – is that Mehrabian’s research was concerned with a very specific, and limited, aspect of nonverbal communication – it’s not about communication in general. His work relates only to inconsistent messages about feelings and attitudes, that is, face-to-face exchanges in which the meaning of what we say is contradicted by our body language and tone of voice.

Mixed messages

Imagine a situation in which you’ve had a disagreement with a colleague but they insist they’re not annoyed with you despite the fact that they’ve got their arms tightly crossed, their head is turned away from you, they avoid eye contact and they deliver their words through clenched teeth.

Or you tell a friend a joke and they respond with a stony face but tell you they think your joke is really funny. Chances are you’ll be more influenced by their impassive look than their encouraging words – and you won’t be telling that joke again in a hurry!

As a result of his experiments, Mehrabian concluded that when we’re faced with a mixed message like the ones above, we’re much more likely to believe that the real meaning is contained in the nonverbal signals the person is giving off, rather than in the words they’re saying. His famous statistic is his attempt to express this kind of experience in the form of an equation.

But – and this is the crucial point – we must not lose sight of the fact that Mehrabian’s statistic only makes sense when applied to the very narrow range of communicative experience that he was investigating, ie the ambiguous expression of feelings and attitudes. The attempt to apply it to all face-to-face communications is both wrong and ridiculous.

The appeal of the urban myth

So why has the distorted version of Mehrabian’s statistical story been so eagerly embraced? Well a large part of its appeal – as with other urban myths – is that its message is simple, credible and, above all, surprising. It belittles the power of words and, in an instant, it turns everything we think we know about communication on its head. Could this be why so much current thinking about presentation skills exaggerates the significance of the finer points of delivery while underplaying the fundamental importance of getting the words right?

We should always bear in mind that words are the main ingredient of presentations, talks and speeches. But they have to be the right words, used in the right way, by the right person, at the right time. So maybe it’s no wonder that many of us would rather embrace the false comfort of a spurious statistic than face up to the creative challenge of trying to discover those right words.


  1. Now that really IS some good news on which to end the year, Martin. Deserved congratulations on that accolade and here’s to the myth-busting continuing long into the decade to come. It may need to! Every best wish, Colin

  2. That’s great, Martin…! Congratulation…!


  3. Great article, and very well deserved recognition. I wrote a similar (but much less well-reviewed!) piece on the same subject here which may be of some further interest.

    Thanks again for a great article, and a wonderful animation!

    Simon Roskrow
    MD, trainingreality

  4. Martin,
    It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance on Twitter. Thank you for pointing me to this article and fun and informative video! Congratulations on your well-deserved honour.

    I often tell my students and audiences they should be wary of anyone citing that “93% of the message is non-verbal” statistic. That speaker clearly has not done his due diligence — and what else could he be wrong about?

    Sadly, as a communication instructor at colleges in the Chicago area, I have been assigned to teach from textbooks that use this misquoted “evidence” as fact. In my early days of communication studies, I myself presumed it was true because I had read it in a textbook.

    The larger issue I think is, what can be done about it?

    I appreciate the conversation.

    Regards from across “the pond,”
    Felicia Slattery

  5. Thanks for this, Martin – I spent a full day in group work with a body language psychologist (if there is such a thing) and about 30 colleagues a couple of years ago as we went through various communication tests and scenarios. It was interesting and, while I do believe there’s a lot to be said for things like making sure your words and posture are congruent etc, it can also get out of hand.

    This particular psychologist spent the day ‘telling us off’ whenever we adopted a blocking posture or tweaked an inappropriate eyebrow. Spending a full day sitting in a plastic chair can get pretty uncomfortable and at one point I had my arms and legs crossed – I got a double whammy telling off for that – but I got my own back.

    Whenever she looked at my group the psychologist kept her glasses in ‘normal position’ on her face, but when she turned to another group she would lift her glasses up with one hand over her head, then lower them back down to her nose as she turned back to us.

    I said ‘I know why you raise your glasses when you look at that group’. ‘Why?’ ‘Well, you trust us; but when you look at that group over there you raise your glasses in order to let them know you can see them for the crafty scheming scumbags they truly are’. The group I was referring to laughed – but she didn’t and she didn’t have a go at anyone else about their body language for the rest of the day.

    It’s partly a case of you can see what you want to if you try hard enough.

  6. I can hardly read this without my blood boiling.

    Martin – thank you for getting this right. I cannot bear this urban myth. It has become communication ‘experts’ jargon. It is a testament to the fact that the integrity of communications trainers is too often wooed by commercialization. No, no more.

    Mehrabian has excellent research andthe only thing we can pick up is this bit because it qualifies us down to 3 percentages. Convenient!

    It does the same thing to me as the likes of the Myers Briggs Test and personality type indicators.

    My teacher, Kristin Linklater;, sensibly underpins her work with the premise that a good communicator balances thought, feeling, breath and voice, a quartet in which no one element compensates in it’s strength for the weakness of another.

    If we are bound to these percentages then we would all be vocalizing, physically overbearing idiots.

    Thank you, Martin. I am taking your article to my world.

  7. I will make this required watching with my students. In Germany, the myth is still college 101 and sells about anything. Thanks for a fair assessment as well, because Mehrabian did some important research. It’s a shame it’s been
    used by so many to dumb body talk issues down to a nice wrapping around hot air.

  8. Thank you for this. I have been telling people in presentation training sessions for ages how wrong their interpretation of Mehrabian is.
    But you do it so much better……
    Thank you.

  9. Guilty as charged I’m afraid! I have trotted out this statistic a number of times on the basis it was what I’d been taught. I will be a lot more discerning about quoting research in future, that’s for sure! Many thanks for the animation. I’m a strong believer in video/audio visual tools to get messages across and this is a great example.

  10. mila javier says

    Me, too. Guilty as charged. Thank you for doing the research for me and debunking this myth. More power to you.

  11. I see it took me five and a half years to discover this great piece on the 7% myth. But I will tweet it nevertheless, as I still hear people quote the figure frequently. Thank you, Martin.


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  2. […] matter if the non-verbal and verbal are in conflict. (See Training Zone, especially the video by Martin Shovel, shown also […]

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