Advice from mock trial judges must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Especially from one who, after expressing surprise over a move by students to use the defendant’s deposition in the plaintiff’s case, opined that “you don’t necessarily have to meet your burden during your case.” But I was intrigued, if abashed by my lack of knowledge, when she later told the students “Here is one piece of advice I give all my students – communication is only 7% word choice; the balance is 55% body language and 38% tone.”
Had I missed something? Was there a knowledge base to support this? The competition round ended, and I began to search. It turns out to be myth, just like the “80% of all trials are won or lost in the opening statement,” but tracking it was revealing.
The claim comes from early 1970s research by psychologist Albert Mehrabian. It is prevalent in web searches:
- Communicate Efficiently With Albert Mehrabian’s 7% Communication Model, https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/communicate-efficiently-with-albert-mehrabian-7-communication-model-c88b569a98fe
- Rule of Personal Communication https://harrisonwendland.medium.com/ruleofpersonalcommunication-763a42eedf98
It is discussed in wonderment:
The 7–38–55 rule is something that has been explained over and over and over. Albert Mehrabian’s 7–38–55 Rule of Personal Communication is something that has been shared and examined and taught frequently.
At first, I was quite surprised that it is split up the way that it is. Then, I made an intentional effort to look to recognize it in others and in myself.
I would like to say that this is just a general rule and there are, of course, times when the words are more than just 7% of communication. But, I would be hesitant, at least from my own experience, to say that the order of importance or value would change in any situation.
Id. It is even depicted in vivid imagery:
Communicate Efficiently, supra. But just 5 minutes of delving revealed this to be myth and deceptive.
Why? Mehrabian was testing a limited issue – when a single word was being used to convey an emotion, was it word choice or delivery that did the better job of conveying the sentiment? And Mehrabian himself cautioned as to its limited utility:
- Inconsistent communications — the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media. “Silent Messages” contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues) on pages 75 to 80.
Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking
Please note 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.
A thorough debunking of this myth, or stated more kindly, an explanation of the limited focus and utility of Mehrabian’s research, can be found in the Neurodata Lab article “Experts Say…Is Communication Really Only 7% Verbal? Truth vs. Marketing,” https://medium.com/@neurodatalab/experts-say-is-communication-really-only-7-verbal-truth-vs-marketing-9a8e7428fd0f Here are some of the concerns:
· Mehrabian was testing “the liking of one person to another.” Extrapolating findings in this one context (and, of course, without repeated studies validating this assessment) has no foundation.
· The experiment used photographs, frozen images of facial expression.
Scholarship has also acknowledged the limits of Mehrabian’s findings. See, e.g., Bucklin, More Preaching, Fewer Rules, 35 Ohio N.U.L. Rev 887, 947-948 (2009), emphasizing that
[i]t is emphatically not the case that nonverbal elements convey the bulk of the message regarding moral values. The point is that when the conveyed message is about values, about what is good and what is bad, actions and nonverbal clues are more important than words. The Mehrabian Factor can be simply stated: actions showing values will displace words stating values.
There is even a youtube explanation of the lmits of this rule – Busting the Mehrabian Myth .
What are the take-aways? Certainly, what one says can’t be divorced from how the message is delivered. It may be that the more time spent on how the ideas are delivered will enhance persuasion. This is brought home in a research paper, How The Voice Persuades. Van Zant, A. B., & Berger, J. (2019, June 13). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000193 See also, Stockwell and Schrader, Factors That Persuade Jurors, 27 U. Tol. L. Rev. 99 (Fall, 1995); Epstein, It’s How You Say It https://www2.law.temple.edu/aer/its-how-you-say-it/
And in the world of zoom trials, where the face dominates the screen, it may be that a facial expression will convey more than the words the advocate selects. But there is no validity to the 7% rule; and no reason for anyone to teach this as the standard for persuasive advocacy.