The 7% Myth

Mar 12, 2012   //   by Steve Wooding   //   A Slice of Lemon, Articles  //  No Comments

Sacred CowIN SHORT: What are your words worth? 7%? Or a whole lot more..?

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.”
(Napoleon Hill, 19/20th-century US author, journalist & lecturer)


[999 words, approx. 4-9 mins to read]

In the world of personal development and training there are many ‘sacred cows’ – models, rules and other wisdom that gets handed down from trainer to trainee and thus to their colleagues, teams and departments – that have been passed from generation to generation so many times that their origins and original purposes have been glossed over, ignored, forgotten or simply lost in the mists of time.

One good example of this in the world of communication skills is ‘The 7% rule’. This law says that when you’re communicating, only 7% of the meaning of what you’re saying is in the words you choose to use and the other 93% is made up of 38% of the meaning derived from your tone of voice and 55% from your body language including facial expression.

This ‘7%’ rule has been repeated so many time it’s almost become carved in stone. But there’s a big problem with it:

It’s a lie.

OK, perhaps that’s being a little strong, but let’s start by thinking about the implications for us if the 7% rule were actually true…

It would mean that on any visit to a country where you didn’t speak the language, you’d still get A-grade understanding in all your conversations with the local population. It would mean that the old party-game of Charades – where you have to mime the titles of books and films etc. – should be really, really easy. And it should mean that you’d never have any trouble at all understanding anyone with a very strong regional accent.

We all know that this isn’t the case, so where did the 7% rule come from in the first place?

To find out, we need to go back to the late 1960’s. Back then, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a psychology professor, did a set of experiments in which people communicated using a single word, “Maybe”. What Dr. Mehrabian was actually investigating was the communication of attitudes and feelings of the speaker about what they were saying, and not the full interpretation of the message itself. So I’m sure you can begin to see that his findings were never meant to be used in the overly generalised and insufficiently explained way they have been.

The percentages he came up with are essentially weightings, i.e. how much you rely on words, tone and body language, in deciding whether to trust that the speaker’s words and non-verbal aspects match – that they mean what they’re saying. Essentially he quantified the statement “actions speak louder than words”. If you do the maths, it turns out actions, which in the case of Dr Mehrabian’s research was limited to facial expression, are almost six times more important than words in deciding whether we believe that you mean what you say.

And that’s it – Mehrabian’s research wasn’t meant to be applied to anything more than that – simple communication about attitudes or feelings. So, if we’re talking about anything more complex, in-depth or not about simple feelings, the 7% rule just doesn’t apply at all.

However, one of the things that Mehrabian’s research does show is that CONGRUENCE is vital, i.e. that what we say and how we sound and look when we say it must all match in order for what we’re saying to be trusted. Otherwise people will ignore what you’re saying and instead use everything else to make up their minds about you and your message.

What research into communication over the last half-century actually shows that the words are not only useful, as you might expect, they’re vital, although they never quite get to be 100% of the overall meaning of any message.*

The truth is that in general face-to-face communication your words can be 50% or more of the total meaning of any communication, so it’s important to choose them carefully so you never have to say, “That’s not what I meant!”

When you write things down, your words become even more important. That might seem really obvious as there’s no tone of voice or body language when all you have is words on a page, but I know that most, if not all, of us, rarely if ever just ‘see’ the words when we’re reading. Nope, we ‘hear’ them in our own heads and sometimes we even imagine the person who wrote them speaking them aloud. Which can only mean one thing – since it wasn’t there to begin with, we have to invent it, to make it up, based on what we imagine the person meant.

Which means if we’re not careful when writing things down, whoever reads it can easily get the wrong impression. The less specific, clear and precise we are with our words, the more room we leave for misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

And, if you want to be trusted, believed and taken seriously, your grammar and spelling become vital parts of the equation too. Yes, that even applies in emails and texting.

You see, words do things to us that tone and expression can only hint at. They play around with our perceptions and our feelings, our motivations and ideas, our thoughts and attitudes. A change in wording can transform someone’s experience.

Here’s a simple example – read the following and see what happens inside your head:

“We all stood up and clapped loudly.”

Now I’m going to describe the same event in the same number of words, but see what happens this time:

“The entire audience rose in rapturous applause.”

For the vast majority of you the second sentence creates a much richer, vibrant and compelling internal experience, and the difference was created simply by changing the wording. So much for words only being 7% eh!

While I’m not suggesting we all talk like Shakespeare or Wordsworth, a little extra care taken in our choice of words added to the attention we’re told to pay to tone and body language can totally transform our communication with others, whether it’s a coffee conversation, a date, business meeting, presentation or a speech to a packed auditorium.

What are your words worth? 7%? Or a whole lot more?

‘Til next time,


* If you’re not sure why that’s the case, imagine you read the headline “Minister in expenses claim scandal” on the front of the Financial Times newspaper – what are you already beginning to decide in your mind about the story that will follow that headline? Now imagine exactly the same headline -“Minister in expenses claim scandal” – but printed on the front page of The Sun. What’s happened to your ideas about the story?

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