The Role of Messengers

Steve Martin

A received wisdom exists that, to make a communication compelling and credible, time and care needs be taken to ensure the content of that communication is correct. Consequently, strong evidence and sound reasoning, coupled with clear and relevant examples, should carry sway.

steve martin

Influence at Work & Faculty Director of
Behavioural Science, Columbia Business School

This seems sensible because the merit, surely, is the message.

However, some researchers argue that other parts of the communication process are just as important. Arguably the most famous is the assertion of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who proposed that because the channel through which information is delivered is itself a form of consequential messaging, it too can impact an audience reaction.

McLuhan’s point is that ‘the medium is the message’.

There is now compelling evidence – mined from decades of behavioural science research – that a third factor is crucial. It concerns not what is said, or how it is delivered, but rather who is saying it.

Many, including those in the communications industry, might find it easy to dismiss this insight as an obvious and instinctive fact of life. After all, we all know the persuasive pull a celebrity endorsement or image of an attractive model on a product or brand can have on others (although less on ourselves!). But the messenger concept goes much deeper.

When a messenger delivers a message something intriguing happens. They become connected to the content of that message in an audience’s mind. Importantly their influence doesn’t come about because of the merits or facts of their case – as we have frequently become accustomed to of late. Instead, the messenger’s influence comes about as a result of a trait or feature that an audience perceives the messenger to possess. This commonly overlooked insight is frequently missed by audiences and explicates a fundamental feature of The Networked Age.

“The messenger has become the message. Never more so than in a polarised climate.”

My colleague Joseph Marks, a doctoral researcher at University College London (and the designer of the ENGINE MHP Polarisation Tracker), and I have studied the factors that reliably lead to a messenger being listened to – irrespective of the truth or wisdom of their message. We find messengers can be broadly categorised in two ways.

Hard Messengers achieve acceptance of their message because audiences perceive them to possess superior Status. Soft Messengers, in contrast, gain message acceptance because they are perceived to possess a Connectedness with their audience. Within these hard and soft categories lie eight fundamental traits, four hard-related and four soft-related, which reliably impact whether or not a messenger will be listened to.

Not all of the findings in our study of Messenger effects were surprising. But many were. People routinely confuse trust with truth. Telling lies is OK, as long as the lies told are those an audience wants to hear. Competence is increasingly evaluated in a matter of milliseconds. And much more.

The implication for communicators working in an increasingly polarised world is clear. All of us need to become increasingly adept, not just determining what to say and how to say it, but also to understand, identify and deploy the most effective messenger to represent our case.

Encouragingly, a science now exists that can help.

A Networked Age Guide to Communicating in a Polarised World