Don’t Be Fooled by These Debunked Learning Myths!

By: Adele Sommers

Imagine you’re attending an exciting, high-value conference on how to be a more effective communicator and leader. The many distinguished presenters tout impressive careers and credentials.

Each acclaimed speaker shares a compelling message illustrated by colorful charts, graphs, and figures.

Given this impressive backdrop, is there any reason to doubt a word the speakers are saying?

The trouble is, even in these settings, wise and learned people sometimes spread bogus, debunked, or dubious information. And when we hear something that sounds intriguing and plausible from someone we like and respect, we often can’t wait to share it with others!

Let’s examine two popular myths so you can recognize them the next time you see them — and avoid passing them along to other people as gospel.

Myth #1: The “7%-38%-55% rule”

Myth #2: The “10-20-30-50-70-90% theory”

Myth #1: The “7%-38%-55% rule”

This rule claims that when we listen to people speaking, we derive their meaning as follows:

  • 7% from their spoken words
  • 38% from their tone of voice, and
  • 55% from their body language

In other words, the rule says we supposedly gain very little understanding (only 7%) from the verbal part of a message, which involves the words and phrases used. Instead, we gain most of the meaning (the remaining 93%) from the nonverbal cues given off by the speaker, such as his or her tone of voice and body language.

Why is that a myth?

Although this rule does have some validity, it has been incorrectly interpreted to apply to everything — including factual information. If the rule actually did apply to factual information, we’d have very little reason to listen to someone’s words to understand the meaning behind them, such as during a lecture. To make sense of the lecture — even if it were delivered in a foreign language — we could primarily focus on the speaker’s gestures and tone of voice, and mostly ignore the words themselves.

Therefore, the common belief that the “7%-38%-55% rule” applies to every type of information is false. It’s a gross mischaracterization of the research conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s. Dr. Mehrabian’s research was not about communicating ideas in general. As explained here, his findings pertained only when people were expressing their feelings and attitudes in an ambiguous way.

How so? When people say one thing about their emotions but convey something very different through their tone of voice and body language, it’s confusing and makes us wonder what’s really true. For example:

Verbal: Richard says, “I feel very relaxed and comfortable with you.”

Nonverbal: Richard looks anxious, stares downward, and appears withdrawn.

So, what should we believe in this case? Should we believe the verbal or the nonverbal aspects of Richard’s message?

If you said the nonverbal aspects, you were right. Whenever people express their emotions ambiguously, Mehrabian found that listeners focus on the nonverbal cues (tone of voice and body language) more than on the spoken words. That’s the correct interpretation of Mehrabian’s “7%-38%-55% rule”!

For an excellent illustration of this myth in action, watch this short video: Busting the Mehrabian Myth

Myth #2: The “10-20-30-50-70-90% theory”

This theory proposes that certain kinds of learning activities are more effective than others in helping us remember something new. For example, the theory suggests that we’ll remember:

  • 10% of what we read
  • 20% of what we see
  • 30% of what we hear
  • 50% of what we see and hear
  • 70% of what we say and write, and
  • 90% of what we say and do

Why is that a myth? Although the basic idea sounds fairly reasonable, there seems to be no scientific evidence to back it up. It also has some other glaring problems — here are just two of them...

First, the percentage figures are too neat and tidy to be scientific. Valid research studies are unlikely to produce results that are cleanly rounded to the nearest multiple of 10 (20%, 30%, 40%, and so on), as noted by Dr. Will Thalheimer, who has carefully critiqued this myth.

Further, presenters often tailor their numbers (as well as their categories) to mirror the subject they’re talking about, without citing any credible scientific data. In other words, they fabricate their figures to match their message!

Second, the model represents a gross generalization about learning. Learning depends on many factors. So, we need to be very careful about attributing learning to activities that aren’t clearly defined (and these activities aren’t clearly defined). Because the meanings aren’t clear, the related assumptions don’t hold water, either.
Once you start asking a few questions like these, the theory begins to fall apart:

  1. What's the difference between “seeing” and “reading”? Why would we remember more from seeing?
  2. Do we really learn more from “hearing” something spoken than from “reading” the same material? Doesn’t reading allow us to go back several times to revisit and ponder an idea, unlike hearing?
  3. What exactly does “saying and writing” refer to? Does it mean that we would write out a section of text while speaking it out loud? Wouldn’t that be distracting for some people?
  4. When we learn something by “doing,” does that imply that we’re being given timely and meaningful feedback by an instructor or coach that would tell us whether we’re doing it correctly? We don’t know.

So, how did this theory originate?

Edger Dale's Cone of Experience
Edger Dale's Cone of Experience

The model itself has evolved over time, appearing in many different forms since the 1960s or earlier.

Many variations have surfaced as bar charts, circle diagrams, pyramids, and cones — and all contain invented numbers, categories, or both.

One example is the “Cone of Experience,” attributed to Edgar Dale, who wrote about audiovisual media in 1946.

Dale’s “cone,” however, did not include any percentages. So, like many examples attributed to Dale, the one pictured has totally made-up information.

In summary, it’s tempting to jump on the bandwagon and adopt new ideas from people you respect and admire. But some of what masquerades as wisdom is really misleading — or pure bunk — passed along by respectable people who never fully fact-checked their references. So, don’t be fooled! Keep an eye out for myths like these and be sure to dig deep into any sources of information that you pass along!


Adele Sommers
Adele Sommers

 

Adele Sommers has spent over two decades helping firms boost their profitability through improved human and business results. She designs award-winning e-learning, instructor-led courseware, and blended training for organizations in a variety of industries, including financial and insurance services, manufacturing, trust building, project management, leadership development, presentation design, process improvement, quality assurance, and various technology-related fields.

Adele holds a Doctorate in Education with a focus on Human Performance Technology, as well as a Certificate in Human Performance. She is the president of Business Performance Inc., a consultancy she launched in 2006. She has also served as president of the San Luis Obispo Technical & Business Communicators (formerly, the San Luis Obispo chapter of the Society for Technical Communication) since 2002. More information about her professional work resides at LearnShareProsper.com.

Recognition opportunities from STC

By: Lori Meyer, Membership Manager

STC provides many opportunities to recognize and honor the hard work and accomplishments of its members. Here are two such opportunities:

The Distinguished Community Service awards (Distinguished Chapter Service, Distinguished SIG service, and Distinguished Service for Students) provide communities the opportunity to nominate one of their members for exemplary service to their community. Community leaders can submit a nominee to STC, which evaluates each nominee and determines their qualification for recognition. Any senior STC member in good standing with a record of service to their community can be nominated. Nominations are typically submitted by the community in October, and recipients are announced early the following year.

For more information about these awards, visit the STC distinguished community service awards page.

Associate Fellow and Fellow honors are given to long-term STC members who have demonstrated an exceptional record of contributions to their community, to STC, and to the profession.

Candidates for Associate Fellow must have been STC members for at least 10 years, and have 15 or more years of experience in technical communication, or technical communication and a closely related field. Associate Fellow candidates can be nominated by any STC senior member in any community, or they can nominate themselves.

Candidates for Fellow must have been Associate Fellows for three or more years, and must demonstrate a continuing record of service to their community, STC, and the profession since becoming an Associate Fellow. Candidates for Fellow must nominate themselves; they cannot be nominated by any other STC member.

Application forms for Associate Fellow and Fellow, Class of 2020, will be available on the STC website soon. Applications are typically due in October, and the honorees are announced early the following year. Honorees are officially recognized at the Summit conference, where they are presented with award certificates.

For more information about these honors, visit the STC Honors page.

For more information about additional individual and academic awards given by STC, visit the STC Awards page.


Lori Meyer
Lori Meyer

Lori Meyer, an STC Fellow, has more than 20 years of experience as a technical writer, editor, and help developer. She began her technical communication career in Rochester, NY, and relocated to the San Francisco Bay area in 1998. Lori has been active in STC since the early 1990s, starting with the Rochester Chapter, where she created the chapter's first Web site.

Since then, she has held in many volunteer positions, including employment manager, secretary, conference co-chair, membership manager, director-at-large, and SIG co-manager. She has delivered leadership presentations at the STC Summit international conference and via webinar.

On the community level, over the years Lori has served as a director at large for the Carolina Chapter, secretary and president of the Washington DC-Baltimore Chapter, membership manager of the Rochester, East Bay, and San Diego Chapters, and president of the East Bay Chapter.  Lori stays involved with these communities, and also volunteers for the Technical Editing and Consulting and Independent Contracting SIGs.

IDL SIG announces its first SIG award recipients!

By: Lori Meyer, Membership Manager

The IDL SIG is proud to have its first recipients of our newly-minted SIG awards! These awards provide us with an additional opportunity to recognize the volunteers who work so hard to make our SIG the excellent community that it is. Two awards are given:

Volunteer Achievement, which recognizes the services of a SIG volunteer over time. Our first  Volunteer Achievement award goes to Jamye Sagan, a long-time SIG member who has served in many volunteer capacities, including co-manager, social media and surveys manager, and treasurer. Jamye's award citation reads:

For being a shining light of service to the IDL SIG through your outstanding work as a SIG leader in many roles over the years, and for always being there with your able helping hands and solid wisdom.

New Volunteer, which recognizes a SIG member who has demonstrated exemplary service as a first-time volunteer. Our first New Volunteer award goes to Kelly Smith, who became editor of our SIG newsletter, IDeal, in 2018, and has worked tirelessly to provide an informative, value-adding communication piece for the SIG. Kelly's citation reads:

For your hard work and organizational skills that have enabled us to continue providing a quality newsletter to our community every quarter.

Heartiest congratulations to Jamye and Kelly, and we look forward to naming next year's award recipients!


Lori Meyer
Lori Meyer

Lori Meyer, an STC Fellow, has more than 20 years of experience as a technical writer, editor, and help developer. She began her technical communication career in Rochester, NY, and relocated to the San Francisco Bay area in 1998. Lori has been active in STC since the early 1990s, starting with the Rochester Chapter, where she created the chapter's first Web site.

Since then, she has held in many volunteer positions, including employment manager, secretary, conference co-chair, membership manager, director-at-large, and SIG co-manager. She has delivered leadership presentations at the STC Summit international conference and via webinar.

On the community level, over the years Lori has served as a director at large for the Carolina Chapter, secretary and president of the Washington DC-Baltimore Chapter, membership manager of the Rochester, East Bay, and San Diego Chapters, and president of the East Bay Chapter.  Lori stays involved with these communities, and also volunteers for the Technical Editing and Consulting and Independent Contracting SIGs.

IDL SIG Treasurerʼs Report

By: Jamye Sagan, IDL SIG Treasurer

The SIG continues to perform well financially in 2019. As of May 15, we have about $3,000 in our account. We will provide updated figures after we factor in all Summit expenses.

The SIGʼs major expenses so far this year  include:

  • STC student membership reimbursements, as part of our student article writing program
  • Speaker honorarium for our SIG webinars
  • Sponsorship for the Leadership Program at Summit
  • Summit giveaways for the community reception and business meeting
  • Summit business meeting luncheon

If you have any questions about SIG finances, please email me at treasurer@nullstcidlsig.org.


Jamye Sagan
Jamye Sagan

Jamye Sagan currently serves as  treasurer for the IDL SIG, and is a senior member of STC. She served as a co-manager of the SIG from 2010-12.

At work, she uses her tech comm skills to make sense out of the seemingly senseless. At play, she uses sticks and hooks to transform yarn into pretty objects.

Manager’s Report Second Quarter 2019

By: Marcia Shannon, IDL SIG Manager

Thoughts about Summit 2019

I am finally back in the groove after the Summit trip. During those recovery days, I was composing this article. Other attendees have written articles that review specific sessions. I am addressing, no, celebrating the power of connecting face to face with other technical communications professionals across industries, gender, age, experience, and schooling.

This was my fifth Summit. I discovered STC late in my career, but the eight years I have been a member have been the best. Why do I attend Summit? To gather with my “tribe” and to meet and socialize with the leaders and experts in our field. Summit was an intense learning opportunity and an intense social experience.

I had conversations that challenged my ideas and conversations where I could offer information. I attended sessions that filled gaps in my knowledge and led me to explore new ways to work. It was inspiring to be there to applaud the accomplishments of the achievers, who set us an example of “just do it.” It was energizing to explore the latest tech comm tools from major providers, such as Adobe and TechSmith.

During Summit breaks, we talked about all things tech comm without having to explain our passion to non-tech-comm colleagues. Making connections at Summit pushed me out of the job-created “lone writer” box. My strongest takeaway were the people who talked to me and listened to me, who validated my place as a tech comm professional.

A substantial number of speakers are members of this SIG. Throughout the next several months, Summit 2019 speakers will be invited to present their sessions to the IDL membership. Watch for the announcements and take advantage of this opportunity to hear these strong, articulate speakers.

It is not too early to begin planning to attend Summit 2020 in Bellevue, Washington. If your employer allocates funds for training, start building your case to use those funds for Summit. If, like me, you are an independent contractor, figure out how to work out a budget that includes saving for Summit. However you can make it happen, I believe you will find it worth your time and your money.


Marcia Shannon
Marcia Shannon

Marcia Shannon was assistant co-manager for the SIG in 2018, and transitioned to co-manager in 2019.