Who Are the Most Effective Messengers?

How we perceive a messenger influences how receptive we are to their messages.

Posted Sep 07, 2019

All of us, at one time or another, have experienced the frustration of not having our ideas and proposals listened to. It is a frustration that can quickly turn to annoyance when someone else says the exact same thing we’ve been saying for weeks, and suddenly everyone thinks it’s the best idea since sliced bread. The fact that nothing about the idea has changed, or that the proposal now being enthusiastically embraced is the same one that only a few days before was roundly rejected, barely seems to register.

This commonplace scenario illustrates that it is often the "Messenger" rather than the "Message" that carries sway. In other words, when it comes to messages designed to influence attitudes and change behaviours, the entity delivering those messages—a.k.a. the messenger—can be as important, sometimes more so, than the substance of the message itself.

When someone communicates an idea, people don’t just make judgments about the coherence and validity of their message. They make a whole host of judgments about the messenger, too. Does this person appear to know what they are talking about? Do they have relevant expertise or experience? Do they seem genuine, or might they be trying to scam me? Are they tough enough to get the job done? Might they have an ulterior motive? Are they trustworthy? These are important questions, and how they are answered determines how people behave in their interactions with others.

The upshot is that we don’t always listen to people (or other sources of information) based on the content or accuracy of what they are saying. Rather, we listen to those perceived to possess particular traits or attributes that signal that their messages are likely to be worth listening to. This commonly overlooked insight suggests that the messenger has a much more fundamental role in the influence process than just communicating the message.

They are the message.

So what makes some messengers seem inherently credible and others less so?

The evidence suggests that there are two types of effective messenger: hard messengers and soft messengers. "Hard" messengers are listened to because they are perceived to possess some form of status over their audience. "Soft" messengers, on the other hand, are listened to because people feel connected to them.

Messengers with high status are influential in groups and societies because they are believed to possess power and other useful qualities that may be valuable to those around them. They are seen as higher up the pecking order than the person or people with whom they are interacting and are therefore awarded respect, admiration, and social power. Think of a CEO of a company or a captain of a sports team.

Typically, we associate status with hierarchies in the workplace because they provide a clear organizational structure, where those at the top make the important decisions, get paid the most, and wield the greatest influence. But status hierarchies are also found in our schools, family groups, our networks of friends and associates, and our local communities.

In contrast to society’s hard messengers, who win influence by getting ahead of others, soft messengers achieve influence by getting along with others. Humans are social animals and have a strong desire to connect, bond, and cooperate with others. This is why softer characteristics can also help people to carry sway. People don’t always look to those with status for information. Sometimes they prefer to hear from their friends, those they trust, and people who are ‘like them.’

Messenger effects help people to get their way in job interviews, group discussions, and even courtrooms, despite the individuals having no real advantage in terms of the qualifications they hold, the knowledge they possess, or the rationale underlying the cases that they are making. Although this may seem unfair (I would certainly argue that it is), the inclination to respond positively to messengers who signal certain traits is so deeply embedded in us that the best solution for the individual is to better understand what attributes most reliably influence whether people will listen to a messenger and why people place such great importance on them—not only to understand how to become a better messenger themselves, but also to gain insight into why others so frequently get their way and why we might be inclined to acquiesce to someone on the basis of how we judge them on certain seemingly irrelevant traits.

Recognizing the important traits of effective messengers is crucial because they fundamentally influence who we listen to, what we believe, and who we become.

References

Martin, S., & Marks, J. (2019). Messengers: Who we listen to, who we don't, and why. London, UK: Random House.