I was attending a presentation of “How To Give Effective Presentations” last Tuesday. I love hearing what others have to say. I’m a firm believer that there is always something to learn. I had several A-Ha’s, yet, I was disappointed when the speaker quoted a long-held belief about non-verbal communication.

(I won’t get into my rant about beliefs and questioning what we think we know, what we know we know, and what we believe we know — that would be a whole other note to you.)

Nonverbal Communication is an important part of communication, however, the speaker repeated the long held belief that “non-verbal communication is 93% of the entire communication” — well, not exactly…. 

You may have read this formula numerous times AND the numbers are accurate in the context in which they were achieved. We must remember that, like most things in life, context rules. So, let me explain:

The often quoted formula for the power of non-verbal communication is:

• 7% of the understood meaning from the language (the words used)

• 38% of the understood meaning is from the other auditory components such as tone and volume

• 55% of the understood meaning is from the visual component such as the non-verbals including gestures

But those numbers are not exactly true in the every day world.

It’s important that we understand why it is not — these numbers came from controlled studies in a lab. Anytime we see numbers, particularly ones we choose to use to guide us, we need to be very clear about how those numbers were formulated. 

First, we have to understand that research studies rarely reflect real life situations. For instance, these numbers came from a series of research studies by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, and his team at UCLA, that looked at how we use and understand interpersonal communication.  He was interested in how listeners get their information when listening to a speaker, some questions he was looking to answer were:

– Was it from his/her “attitude”?

– Was it from their facial expression, their tone, or their words – or a combination of those?

– And what if they were sending mixed or conflicting signals – their body did not match their words?

The researchers found they could not truly segregate the different components. The measures they came up with by combining studies was .07, .38, and .55, respectively, but noted that the combined effect of communication had to be taken into consideration.

Albert Mehrabian also did research with how babies and mothers respond to each other using verbal and nonverbal cues which elicited a different outcome. As such, Mehrabian and his team have written widely about the limitation to their research. So, that’s where these widely (mis)quoted numbers come from.

Do The Numbers Really Matter?

The numbers do matter. Even if we edit the 93% (the .38 auditory components, and .55 visual components) and only say it was half, that would still be 46.5%, (almost 50%)!

No matter what the true numbers are when someone’s body language isn’t matching what their mouth is saying you notice it. You may not know what is wrong, yet you know something “just isn’t right….”

Context Matters More

That’s why knowing the context of the communication matters. The listener will take it all in, the visual, tonal and verbal cues and the percentage derived from each will vary depending on the action of the speaker; the context and purpose of the communication; how well they, the speaker and listener, know each other; each person’s gender and culture; the location of the communication and on and on…even what mood each participant is in matters.

Bottom line:

What we do with our body language including facial expressions, gestures and body movements is important. We need to strive to have our body language be an accurate reflection of not just our words, but the true meaning of our words regardless of whatever numbers we want to assign.



Mehrabian, Albert and Morton Wiener, 1967, “Decoding of inconsistent communications,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 6:109-114
Mehrabian, Albert and Susan R. Ferris, 1967, “Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels,” Journal of Consulting Psychology 31:248-252.
Daniel Druckman, Richard M. Rozelle, and James C. Baxter. 1982. Nonverbal Communication: Survey, Theory, and Research” Sage Publications 1982, pages 84-85.