Male smiling looking at phone

Watch My Lips

55 per cent of the message does not come from body language

Written by Dr Shaun Ridley FAIM
3 minute read
Male smiling looking at phone

Rarely does a workshop on effective communication fail to quote that 55 per cent of the message comes from body language, 38 per cent from the tone and 7 per cent from the words.

So common is this collection of percentages that they are accepted without question. Only one problem – it’s just not true.

The 55/38/7 Formula

The origin of this myth is the research done by Dr Albert Mehrabian, in 1967. His work was specifically focused on the communication of feelings and attitudes, as well as comparing verbal and facial components to decipher a person’s attitude.

Messages weren’t communicated non-verbally, but the other person's interpretation of the message was influenced by the non-verbal signals.

This was a very specific piece of research, and it was not Dr Mehrabian’s intention that the findings would be assumed to be relevant in all other communication scenarios.

We all communicate by phone

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that we all communicate by phone, where there is zero non-verbal information available from either person.

Whilst the tone element may take on greater importance, it’s hard to imagine we would make any meaningful progress without the supposed influence of 55 per cent of the message coming from non-verbal communication. Yet we seem to be able to communicate a whole range of details perfectly adequately on the phone.

Video calls have become ultra popular in the post-COVID workplace, but most people would agree they are still not as good as a face-to-face meeting for connecting and building a relationship with the other attendees.

Nevertheless, the pure aspect of communicating a message can still be quite effective regardless of the quality of your internet connection.

Three C's of Communication

Rather than just rail against the validity of the 55/38/7 formula, we may be wise to bring the intent of Mehrabian’s research into a practical form for us to use in the workplace by examining the three C's of Communication.


Communication is a multi-dimensional process that brings together clusters of signals to form the total message.

Instead of trying to disaggregate these signals, it may be better to bring them together and combine them further with elements such as authenticity and passion, to enhance the message.

By looking through a multi-dimensional lens on communication we enrich the whole message, we listen deeply, and we sense and respond to the true meaning.


Where communication fails, it’s often because of incongruence rather than the absence of signals.

If the words don’t match the tone or non-verbal elements, our internal radar sends alerts – warning us that something is amiss. We go searching amongst the cluster of signals for confirmation of our concerns or reassurance.

Sometimes we can’t pinpoint the source of our unease, but our gut tells us we need to investigate further.

As the person communicating the message, we may not be aware of a habit or phrase that causes others to doubt the authenticity of our message. Having access to a trusted friend who will share this feedback is invaluable.


If you are speaking with someone, outside on a bitterly cold winter day, it’s highly likely that will have their arms folded tightly across their chest.

This doesn’t mean they are closing themselves off to your message, it just means they are trying to keep warm. Context matters!

The range of variables that make up the context is endless. We may be too quick to judge someone who appears less attentive despite them having had a difficult morning, being in pain or simply being hard of hearing.

Taking the time to reflect on the circumstances under which the communication is being delivered will benefit everyone involved.

There is no doubt we gather a lot of detail from the non-verbal signals sent by someone communicating a message. We also gain a lot of detail from the tone of their voice and the words they choose.

The artificial weighting of the non-verbals is not helpful and is not supported by Mehrabian’s original research. The choice of words can be very powerful and deserves a great deal of respect, as does the tone with which those words are delivered.