Tuesday, 10 July 2007

The 7% 38% and 55% myth in public speaking courses

There is a myth in public speaking, that only 7% of your message is conveyed by the words you use. The rest of your message is made up of 55% body language and 38% tonality. These figures are bandied about as gospel and rarely questioned.

But when you think about it, this cannot be true. If it were true, why is radio so popular? If it were true, we would be able to understand 93% of any foreign language. Further, if these figures are right, we would be able to understand 93% of what a baby is telling us!

These figures came out of a psychology of communication study conducted in 1972. In this study, the psychologists looked at the success rate of pushing into a queue in the post office. They found that they had a 7% success rate when they asked if they could push in, a 38% success rate when they asked in a forceful tone if they could push, and a massive 55% success rate when they simply pushed in without asking. From this, they concluded that you had a 7% success rate of achieving your objective on the words used alone and a 55% chance of achieving their objectives by using body language alone. The changing tonality improved your success rate by about 30% compared to asking alone.

Nowhere in the study did it say that these figures related to the psychology of communication and public speaking. In fact, many years after the study, the psychologists were asked to comment on how the figures had been interpreted towards public speaking. They categorically denied that the figures applied to public speaking, and said that it was wrong to use them in such a way. Unfortunately though, many public speaking courses believe that they do apply and teach as such.

So next time you hear these figures quoted as gospel, think about them and realised that the figures are being misquoted and misrepresented.

Till next time,


Darren Fleming
Australian public speaking courses

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