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January 29, 2020 Last updated: February 13, 2020

Podcast #580: Why People Do (Or Don’t) Listen to You

Some cultural observers have posited that we’re moving from an information economy to a reputation economy. There’s so much information to sort through, that figuring out which bits to pay attention to has come to increasingly rely on what we think of the person delivering them. We privilege the messenger over the message.

But how exactly do we decide which messengers to listen to or not? What draws us to particular messengers and causes us to tune out others?

My guest has spent his career researching, lecturing, and writing about the answers to these questions and he shares his insights in a new book. His name is Steve Martin and he’s the author of Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why. In the first half of our conversation, we unpack why it is that the messenger matters so much, and how people can manipulate these factors in unethical ways to peddle messages and influence that may not be credible. We then shift into how you can also leverage these neutral tools in ethical ways to make yourself more persuasive and ensure your ideas get heard. Steve explains that there are two types of persuasive messengers — hard and soft — and walks us through the qualities embodied by each. We discuss the different ways a person can become an effective hard messenger, including competence, dominance, and attractiveness, and what makes a soft messenger persuasive, including warmth, vulnerability, and charisma — the latter of which incorporates a trait you may not have previously associated with being charismatic. We end our conversation discussing when you should use a hard vs. soft approach as you seek to lead and share your message.

Show Highlights

  • Examples of true messengers who were ignored, despite the veracity of their message 
  • Why does our brain link the message to the messenger? 
  • The two broad categories of messengers 
  • Why status matters so much when it comes to trust 
  • How much does appearance matter when it comes to status and trust?
  • What does competence physically look like? 
  • The relationship between confidence and competence 
  • How do you promote yourself without turning people off?
  • The role of dominance in giving and receiving messages 
  • Does attractiveness matter in whether our messages are trusted?
  • Why it’s important to be a “warm” messenger
  • How politicians try to convey warmth and connection  
  • When does vulnerability work? When does it not work?
  • The incredible power of metaphor 
  • How do you know whether to use hard or soft messenger skills?

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay:

Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast, some cultural observers are positive that we’re moving from an information economy to a reputation economy. There’s so much information to sort through that figuring out which bits to pay attention to has come to increasingly rely on what we think of the person delivering them. We privilege the messenger over the message, but how exactly do we decide which messengers to listen to or not? What draws us to particular messengers and causes us to tune out others? My guest has spent his career researching, lecturing and writing about the answers to these questions and he shares his insights in a new book. His name is Steve Martin and he’s the author of “Messengers: Who We Listen to, Who We Don’t and Why.” In the first half of our conversation we unpack why it is that the messenger matters so much and how people can manipulate these factors in unethical ways to pedal messages and influence that may not be credible.

We then shift into how you can also leverage these neutral tools and ethical ways to make yourself more persuasive and share your ideas and get heard. Steve explains that there are two types of persuasive messengers, hard and soft, and walks us through the qualities and body by each. We discuss the different ways a person could become an effective hard messenger, bleeding competence, dominance and attractiveness and what makes a soft messenger persuasive including warmth, vulnerability and charisma. The latter of which incorporates a trait you may not have previously associated with being charismatic so check that out. We end our conversation discussing when you should use a hard versus soft approach as you seek to lead and share your message. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/messengers.

Well, Steve Martin, welcome to the show.

Steve Martin:

Well, thank you very much indeed for inviting me on Brett.

Brett McKay:

So you are a coauthor of a book called “Messengers: Who We Listen to, Who We Don’t and Why.” Now we often think that, I think typical people typically think that if a message is truthful, it’s written persuasively, that’s enough. But you and your coauthor have done a lot of research and highlight a lot of research in the book that’s not typically the case. The person delivering the message has a big impact on whether someone believes it or not. So let’s start off with this. Let’s start with some examples of true messengers that were ignored because they were given by a not so great messenger for that situation. They were basically like Cassandra from Greek myths.

Steve Martin:

Yeah. Indeed. Yeah. There are lots of examples of what we call the Cassandra complex. I thought too would be really interesting to talk about. So the first is a chap called Michael Burry. He was a Stanford trained MD and then subsequently left medicine and started his own investment fund. And what was interesting about Michael Burry is he was one of the very first people to recognize the fragile states of the mortgage situation in the US. He was one of the early folks who recognized that there could be a financial disaster in the offing and started to bet against and short subprime mortgages. He even had to invent a product to do it because there was no way that you could short a subprime mortgage at the time.

But the challenge that Barry had was that no one really listened to him. He actually was a pretty awkward communicator, didn’t actually have the Windsor knotted ties and the suits that you’d expect from the wall street financiers and so was largely ridiculed and ignored. Yet the information he had was highly predictive of what was actually going to happen. He made hundreds of millions of dollars. It was just the case that he was the wrong messenger. He had the right content, he had the right well considered evidence, but no one really was listening to him. It was actually someone else from Deutsche Bank who took Burry’s information, presented it largely as his own and made fortunes himself.

So there’s one example of what we call this Cassandra complex, but I think there’s an example that’s much, much closer to home, Brett, which is ourselves. All of us I’m sure have had an experience maybe at work where you have an idea or an opinion you want to share with a colleague or a few people in a meeting and they look at you in that odd way and they say, no Brett, no, no, that’s not a good idea, I really don’t think that we should be doing that. And then a couple of days later, maybe a couple of weeks later, someone else comes along with the exact same idea that we had and all of a sudden that idea that we had that was roundly rejected is suddenly being enthusiastically embraced when someone else says it. So that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about these messenger effects.

Sometimes it’s not enough just to have a persuasive or a well evidenced or a truthful appeal or proposal to people. Sometimes it’s the person that’s delivering the message that matters more.

Brett McKay:

What goes on in our brain? Like why does our brain link the message with the messenger?

Steve Martin:

Yeah. It’s a really good question. And I think part of the reason is the world that we live in today. It’s really hard and tough to kind of compute ourselves whether a message and the information that’s being conveyed is worthy of our attention. There’s so many things that are vying for our attention. Who would make a good president? Should we send our kids to this school? What’s a good regime and workout for me? These different kind of things. And so a quick way in which we can navigate our way through this information overloaded world is to largely ignore on what’s being said and rather base our judgments on who is saying it.

So if a friend of ours says this is a good idea, because they’re our friend, we kind of assume often wrongly that they have good information and good knowledge that can advise us. So when a messenger communicates a message, that association becomes really interesting. It’s also interesting where that phrase don’t shoot the messenger comes from. So it works in both ways. It can work for good and not so good. Sometimes if we have to deliver bad news on behalf of someone, we become associated with that bad news as well. So it’s kind of one of those quirks of our conditioning and the way in which we take on board information. We link messenger to message even in times where there is no logical or rational link that should be there, but it’s just an easy quick way to determine what we should pay attention to.

Brett McKay:

This reminded me of the communications expert, the media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, where he said the medium is the message, right?

Steve Martin:

Yeah, the Canadian philosopher guy. Yeah. I think what Joe Marks, my coauthor, and I are probably claiming here is that there’s probably a contemporary update to that idea of the medium is the message. It still is of course, but we’re going to go one stage further and actually say, you know what, Brett, these days the messenger is the message. Every day the news seems to serve up another headline where someone can say something and just because of who they are, it gets believed or it gets rejected. Particularly in this kind of divisive world that we live in now. So yeah, we’ve updated a more contemporary take I think on that 1950s, 1960s idea of the medium is the message is this idea that the messenger is the message.

Brett McKay:

So you and your coauthor, Joe Marks, you argue that there are two broad categories of messengers. There’s hard messengers and soft messengers and we’ll get into details about both, but big picture overview of these two categories of messengers. What’s a hard messenger like and what’s a soft messenger like?

Steve Martin:

Yeah, I think that the way to differentiate between hard and soft is to think about hard messengers are the types of communicators that are heard because they are seen to have some sort of status over the audience they’re communicating with. Whereas in contrast, this soft messenger has a connectedness with the audience they’re communicating with. So the hard messenger seeks to get ahead of their audience, whereas the soft messenger strives to get along with their audience. So that’s how we kind of differentiate the two. One wants to get ahead, the other wants to get along.

Brett McKay:

All right, so let’s talk about hard messengers and like you said, they’re all about status, but there are different ways to show status. And the first one you all talk about is fame and money, socioeconomic status. So can you walk us through some of the experiments that you all found that highlight the fact that we’re more likely to believe people or trust them if they look rich and famous? Because I think a lot of people hear that and are like, no, yeah, I don’t, that’s not important to me. I’m a democratic person. That doesn’t matter. But you’ve found research that says that’s not true.

Steve Martin:

Yeah, I mean it’s one of those things that we’d like to think that we’re not influenced by these on the surface types of signals of fame and fortune and status and position. But we are, they’re fundamental to our psychology. One of my favorite examples that we unearthed is an old one, it’s back to the 60s. A couple of California based researchers did this experiment in Palo Alto in Northern California where they drove different cars up to junctions to stop signs and they arranged the timing and the arrival of their car at the junction just as the light went to red. So they were first in the stop line and then when the lights turned green and at this point a queue had or line of cars had formed behind them, they deliberately didn’t pull off. And they had researchers in the backs of the car with stopwatches, Brett, and they were timing how long it took the car behind to honk the horn and say, hey, will you get a move on?

But what they did is they drove different cars. And so what they found was that people’s likelihood to honk at the car in front was not necessarily a signal of their impatience, but rather a sign of how prestigious the car they were driving was. So and what was interesting was when they asked people in advance, they say would you be more likely to honk a horn at a low status car than say a high status shiny polished sedan. People were like, no, in fact actually I’m probably more likely to honk at that high status car, but in reality the exact opposite was true. People were much less likely to honk quickly at a high status car. Whereas if they were being held up by a low status car, they were straight on that horn, get out of my way.

Now that might be a study from like the 1960s but it’s been replicated, in fact, in countries around the world. We find that kind of seduction of a high status or a fame or rich cue can be incredibly attention grabbing to us. And once we see that it can lead us to start to make decisions about the validity of what that person’s circumstances are, what they’re saying such that we may listen to them more likely, be more likely rather to listen to them in those instances.

So there’s an example of just how a single, the car someone drives communicates a lot about who they are and we kind of take onboard that information and make all sorts of various inferences and judgments about them as a result.

Brett McKay:

And I think you did another experiment too where there was people who were doing a survey and one time they were just wearing like a plain polo shirt but the next time they wore a polo shirt with like the Lacoste brand alligator and those guys got more responses. Like people responded to them more just with that alligator.

Steve Martin:

Exactly. And in fact, actually there’s another study, you’re exactly right about that, there’s other studies that actually show even people who really shouldn’t have that need to want to associate with status because of their income can be seduced by this as well. There was a study where in Bolivia, families living on the bread line, literally a dollar or two a day, were offered the opportunity to use some of their money to buy an aftershave in fact. In fact in each case the aftershave was always the same and the same bottle it’s just some bottles had the Calvin Klein brand insignia on the bottle and others didn’t and even the poorest families were willing to pay a little bit more to kind of be connected to that status in that instance.

Brett McKay:

And is it just the appearance of fame and money? I mean, can you actually be broke and not famous as long as you look rich and famous people are going to be more likely to listen to you?

Steve Martin:

Well, I think it’s the case, Brett, that increasingly in this fast paced, often kind of surface level type of world that we actually live in, looking and sounding right increasingly seems to be as important as actually being right. And so sometimes this cue of fame leads people in the wrong direction. We found, for example, a couple of years ago in China, there was a situation where a famous pop star announced on WhatsApp to then billions of followers that those people that had the flu shot to protect them against influenza were actually 90% more likely to actually catch the flu. Now that’s against all good medical evidence and research. Yet the fact that they were famous, they had notoriety, they were heard and it caused huge problems with the health officials who were kind of scrambling to contain the impact of this message.

So sometimes the message doesn’t necessarily have to have any merit or even have any basis in evidence or truth. If it comes from someone that we see has some form of status and we are alert to that status, we can sometimes find ourself being, essentially being sucked into what they have to say regardless of the wisdom of what’s being said.

Brett McKay:

I’m sure it was like what’s going on? Why do we give credence to people with money and fame? Is it the idea is like well if they’re famous and rich they must be smart or competent so we’re going to listen to that person? Is that what’s going on in our brain?

Steve Martin:

Yeah, I think it is. I mean essentially, I mean we all have I think this ideal where we live in a just world where those people that rise through the ranks that become the CEO, become the captain of the sports team, become rich, famous, well recognized in society, they must have some skill, some attributes about them that have allowed them to get to that lofty position. And so it does have an influence over us. I mean, one of the classic example I think is when we meet someone for the first time, almost invariably we’re likely to inquire what they do. So, hey, nice to meet you, Brett. What is it you do? What we’re actually looking for there is some sort of evidence of where do you sit on that social hierarchy compared to me? So it is, we live in this what we claim to be a more egalitarian society now, but these kind of like status cues they still seem to kind of like capture our attention and be important to us.

Brett McKay:

Are there instances where fame and money can actually make you less believable? Where people say well, yeah, I’m not going to believe you because you’ve got lots of money and you’re famous.

Steve Martin:

Yeah. It’s an interesting one. I think, yeah, there is some evidence now that suggests that when brands and products use famous people, celebrities to endorse their products, that’s becoming less effective than perhaps 10, 20, 30 years ago. But that’s not to say that we’re still not kind of influenced and seduced by the celebrity endorsement. It’s just that we’re less likely to be persuaded when a celebrity is overtly eulogizing about a product. But we’re still very much influenced when we see a celebrity using a product. So, no surprise that a lot of ads, a lot of the influencer kind of strategies these days aren’t celebrities that are saying use this product because of X, Y, and Z. Instead what they’re doing is they’re being photographed enjoying the product or being associated with it. So rather than endorsing the product, they’re kind of using the product. So that’s where I see that instance where perhaps being rich and famous and celebrity might have less of an effect.

Brett McKay:

So let’s talk about another way we gain status, which is competence. So the way you determine competence or the way we think we determine competence is like, well, you look at someone, you look at their actions, are they effective? Do they get things done? But you all highlight research that that’s not the only way we determine competence. We can actually, we try to determine competence just by looking at somebody’s face and the way they carry themselves.

Steve Martin:

Yes, competence has a face. It’s typically squarer rather than rounder, more mature looking, eyes closer together. Even organizations actually use these signals to position their competence. If you’ve ever wondered, if you’ve ever gone into a reception area of a major firm and you see all those clocks up on the wall in the reception area telling the time in different cities around the world. I’m guessing if you walk into an office in New York, you probably don’t need to know what the time is in Shanghai or Sydney or London. You’re probably not thinking that. So why do they put the clocks there and it’s a sign of competence. It’s actually saying, look, we’ve got global presence. We work around the world. We have this worldwide skill. So in the same way as a doctor might wear a white coat, a nurse might put a stethoscope around his or her shoulders to convey their expertise, organizations do it as well. And in this instance we’re looking for some instrumental value. Is there some transferable knowledge that that person or organization has that will be helpful to me? And if we see those cues, the research shows that in a lot of circumstances and context we’ll be more likely to listen to them.

Brett McKay:

Look at that idea of the white doctor coat. Advertisers understand that. So whenever they do, there’s an advertising for medicine or some kind of health product, they’ll put an actor who’s not a doctor in a white coat and you went, oh yeah, I believe this guy because it looks like a doctor.

Steve Martin:

Yeah. In fact, I’ve seen ads where the actor actually says, I’m not a doctor but I still think you should use this product. And the fact that they’re wearing the white coat, they have the stethoscope, the pen’s in their breast pocket. Yeah. All those traps, those trappings of competence is what we call those.

Brett McKay:

And another thing that people or we look to determine competence is just confidence. So I think you highlighted research where people in groups, whenever they see someone who’s like very confident and outspoken about something, they’ll deem that guy like that guy knows what he’s talking about, even though he might not really know what he’s talking about.

Steve Martin:

Yeah, that’s the classic confidence trick, isn’t it? And it kind of makes sense in one direction if you think about it, Brett, because if someone has true competence and expertise, they’ve studied for many years, they’ve got years of experience of a particular knowledge of a product or an industry or some sort of science, it’s kind of unsurprising that they would communicate confidently about that because they’ve earned the right to. But it goes in the other direction as well. So we can very easily infer someone’s competence by how confidently they talk about something, even if actually they know squat about the subject. So as the classic confidence trickster, what’s being seductive in that instance is their ability to convey some confidence, some assuredness of what they’re actually saying even though they might be talking about is just complete rot.

Brett McKay:

Well one thing I’ve noticed in my own life is that the people who are actually really competent actually aren’t very outspoken and they actually couch their statements, they kind of hedge it a bit. They’re like, well I suppose this, but like the person who doesn’t know, they’re suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect where they just, they don’t realize they don’t know anything but they’re very confident that they know something.

Steve Martin:

Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting insight because I guess in a way if you are a true expert, you probably are pretty aware of perhaps there might only be small areas of your knowledge that are missing or you are uncertain about particular things, but there’s research actually that shows that if someone is seen as an expert and they communicate a little bit of uncertainty in response to maybe a question they’ve asked or maybe there isn’t research to support an answer, they become even more expert in the eyes of the audience. Whereas if you’ve got an unexpert or an inexperienced communicator in that instance that’s just basically confident, they’re probably less likely to convey their I’m not really sure about this because they’re primarily trading on that confidence, that ability to, yes, I know what I’m talking about. So the uncertain expert in a lot of context seems to be the most compelling and persuasive communicator.

Brett McKay:

And I think what happens is it takes a while for that to shake out. So I think with those studies that we talked about, the person who’s really confident in the beginning usually is determined to be the expert and the leader but then after a while people are asked again, what do you think about this guy? And they’re like, oh, that guy’s an idiot. People finally figure out he actually doesn’t know anything and they’ll assign. So yeah, so that’s the trick. So if someone’s acting really overly confident when you first meet them, watch out. It doesn’t mean you have to disregard them. Maybe pay attention to see if their actions back up their words.

Steve Martin:

Yeah, I think so. And be alert to other people in the room that have that kind of, they might seem quiet, they might seem timid, but actually what they might be doing is just sitting back and watching what’s going on and thinking, actually this person really doesn’t know what they’re talking about but I’m just going to let them do their thing and I’m just going to sit here and see how it unfolds. So sometimes be alert also to the quiet person in the room who might actually turn out to be the most accomplished and the most established in terms of what they’re talking about.

Brett McKay:

Well, it’s quite this practical implication you talked about at the beginning of the conversation where, about the idea, you have an idea for something at your work, you say it, it gets disregarded, someone else say it says it, people listen to it. I mean you can be competent at something, but if other people don’t know you’re competent, then all your competency doesn’t mean anything. So the trick is you have to be able to promote yourself, let people know that you’re competent, but you don’t want to do it in a way where it’s off-putting, right? Or people are just like that guy’s a blowhard. So here’s, how do you, what does the research say in how you can promote yourself and this is becoming more important in our economy where people have to promote themselves. They have to, you’re sort of becoming your own agent. How do you promote yourself without turning people off?

Steve Martin:

Exactly. And actually we’ve done a study that looks at this and it turns out that if you could arrange for someone else to introduce or talk about your expertise before you make a recommendation or give someone some advice, that same recommendation or advice becomes elevated in terms of its persuasiveness, it’s appeal. And we actually did this experiment, Brett, with realtors who would have customers or potential clients call their office, they’re interested in selling their house or maybe renting a property and a receptionist would answer the phone and they route the call through to the realtor and say, right, well let me put you through to Brett who can help with your inquiry. And we said, well look what would happen if instead of just saying I’ll put you through to the realtor before you connected the call, you gave that potential client a piece of information, genuine information that conveyed their expertise.

So something like, well look, instead of saying, I’ll put you through to Brett who’s our head of sales, you instead said, well let me put you through to Brett who’s not just our head of sales, he’s been doing this job for 15 years and he’s a member of the Realtor Guild of Oklahoma. He recently sold out on that big property down at the waterfront. He is probably the best person in our office today to give you some useful information and they do just before they put the call through. Suddenly you don’t have to do that anymore. When you’re talking to a potential client, you know the last thing you want to be doing is to say, well before I make a recommendation to you, let me tell you about how wonderful and brilliant and experienced I am. Because immediately, as you rightly suggested a few moments ago, that war goes up between you.

But if someone else does it, I think that’s a really important thing. We actually increase the number of valuation appointments by 20%, the number of contracts signed by 15% just by doing that. It didn’t cost any money. And I think there’s a lesson here, not just for ourselves but in terms of increasing our own perceived expertise and competence. But if we’re managing people, I think it’s a good idea for leaders, supervisors to know what their teams are communicating to others, potential clients and colleagues to kind of boost their competence by talking about how great they are, the kind of experience they have, the great projects they’ve actually delivered on.

And it does seem to me that there’s two advantages. Not only do you kind of raise that perceived competence genuinely, but you’re giving people kind of aspirations and labels to live up to. So I think there’s a lot of merit I think in working out these small, simple, costless ways to introduce either our own expertise or introduce our colleagues’ expertise. Everybody wins in that instance.

Brett McKay:

So yeah, I think that’s great. I love that. So there’s two things there. Find someone who can be an advocate for you, but then also just advocate for other people. If you know someone who’s really competent, let other people know and that’ll boost your status because people are like, hey, you’re sharing useful information with me and the other person will probably appreciate that you promoted them.

Steve Martin:

Yeah and what we’re finding Brett is that’s particularly useful in you know those situations sometimes when you’re at work and you’re in a meeting, there’s like a dozen people in the room and someone starts the meeting by saying, well let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves, shall we? I mean it’s never a good start for a meeting because no one that’s a reasonably normal human being is going to want to stand up and talk about how brilliant they are in front of a room full of strangers. So invariably they’re just going to like give their name and the job title.

So it doesn’t really promote useful exchanges of information. So it’s a poor start to a meeting in that regard. But it’s actually a ridiculous start to a meeting anyway because no one’s listening to what people are saying because the moment you know it’s your turn to speak, you’re thinking, oh geez, what am I about to say about myself? So no one’s listening to what’s being said anyway. So what we found is, is that the optimal way to start a meeting is the most senior person or whoever called the meeting should be responsible for introducing everyone and the reason why they’re in the room and it neatly dodges that kind of uncertain, uncomfortable situation of let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. That’s what we’re finding is probably the optimal way to start meetings.

Brett McKay:

So let’s talk about another way we gain status and that’s dominance. So what are the common ways that we use dominance to gain status?

Steve Martin:

Yeah. So this idea of dominance is very heavily rooted in the kind of evolutionary type of conduct. There are certain people and we all know who they are, who just, they seem to kind of treat lifer as a competition and their goal is to win at all costs. To the victor goes the spoils. And so they are often, the way they come into the room, they’ll kind of expand themselves into the space. They’ll talk loudly. Often they have deeper voices, they project themselves. Essentially what they’re trying to do and attempt to do there is to say, look, I am the dominant one here. I’m the alpha in this instance.

And you’d think that kind of we’re over that now. It’s not like we have fights now to determine who’s the president or who’s the CEO. It’s not like days where we used to live in the caves and things, but those kind of cues of dominance are still there. They’re still attractive to us, Brett. And so often in certain circumstances, if we see that someone has a dispositionally dominant personality, we can under certain circumstances and contexts be more orientated to what they have to say and listen to them. And so you’d think in this kind of modern day society, we wouldn’t be relying so much on those things, but some of the studies actually find that children as young as 10 months old, so barely able to speak, are able to recognize cues of dominant characters and using eye-gaze technology. So basically how long they look at a screen, they’re able to determine if you show them a little cartoon where one character is more dominant than the other. They express surprise if the underdog wins in certain conflicts.

So it’s deeply rooted in all of us.

Brett McKay:

And what are the situations where we have a tendency to look towards dominance to establish trust in somebody?

Steve Martin:

Yeah, I think, so one big context is when we’re feeling anxious or uncertain or there’s some fear that we have. In those circumstances, we are especially inclined to turn towards a dominant type of communicator rather than a softer, more connected one. Because essentially what we’re looking for there is some sort of assurance in a way out and actually it’s been shown actually in research. When you look at, for example, the recruitment boards of large organizations. If a company is actually in trouble, if the share price, the stock price isn’t performing particularly well, if there are low levels of psychological safety in the organization, if there’s kind of not a good clear strategy and goal or direction the organization is working toward, then they’re much, much more likely to appoint a dominant character to the board.

Whereas in contrast, if that same company is doing well, profits are doing well, there’s good psychological safety across the organization, there’s a clear strategy, they’re much less likely in those instances to appoint a dominance executive or board member much, much more likely to appoint an emotionally intelligent, connected, warmer CEO or C level exec in those instances. And so and I think there’s a lot of dispositionally dominant communicators out in the world that recognize this. So no surprise that there are certain public figures who will hawk and provoke and spark fear and anxiety in a community knowing that their dispositionally dominant profile is perfect in that context. So they’re almost creating the fear knowing that they are then the perfect messenger to kind of come in and say, I’m ready to lead, I’m ready to save the day. So that’s the typical context where we will be especially inclined to look towards one of these dominant types of characters.

Brett McKay:

And are there downsides to dominance? I mean, I guess in some certain situations, okay if you are in a situation where you’re like your company’s against the… It’s going down the tubes, country’s at war, a dominant leader might come in handy. But are there downsides if they have too much dominance?

Steve Martin:

Well, there can be, I mean, because of course dominance comes at a cost and what it comes and the cost of course is that connectedness, that relationship. And so in calmer surer times, when we look to perhaps a more favorable connected benevolent type of messenger, suddenly that dominant character becomes irrelevant to us. And so that disconnect from their worth, that’s the downside. They become pigeonholed as the kind of like the bullying bulldozer. And in that instance, as a result, there’s lots of different inferences we make about that. So we’re less likely to listen to them in calmer, surer time.

So that’s the primary I think downside. They kind of pigeonhole themselves into a particular characteristic or situation where they are wanted. But of course, as a result, they make themselves much more irrelevant in a majority of other contexts.

Brett McKay:

Someone who came to mind who was able to balance dominance with connection was Winston Churchill. He was able to show that assertive bulldog side but also project warmth to citizens. Though even he was voted out of office after the war because even though he had both traits, he was most suited to being a wartime leader and people wanted to move on from that time.

Steve Martin:

I think there’s a real skill and an elegance for the really effective messenger communicator to be able to recognize when their dominant characteristic is going to be desirable. But they also know when to turn it down and become more benevolent, become more connected, more warm in that instance. And I think you’re right, Churchill did that pretty well. I think Lyndon B. Johnson was an American president that also had a similar kind of profile. He was, I think, notorious for giving certain members of Congress and the House of Representatives what was called the treatment, where he’d literally go right up and put his face directly in front of theirs, such that you could hear him breathing, you could feel his breath. But in other instances, he was an incredibly generous person who would reach out to certain people, want to kind of give first to create those kinds of reciprocal exchanges as well.

So those communicators that are able to kind of understand the balance of where it’s good to be a hard dominant messenger and also where it’s actually probably going to be a negative impact or even actually disruptive to them and to be able to balance the two. That’s a great place to be if you can do that.

Brett McKay:

Let’s talk about the final way we gain status or can be a hard messenger. That’s through attractiveness. So what are the studies that show that someone’s attractiveness makes them more believable?

Steve Martin:

Yeah, so I think, so a good one would be, there was a study that was done a few years ago now in Italy where researchers applied on behalf of genuine job applicants for somewhere in the order of about just 11,000 genuine job opportunities. They sent out resumes to these companies and what they did is they attached to these resumes in certain circumstances, a passport size photograph of the applicant. And you know, as you can imagine if you send out that number of CVs, about half of the applicants are going to be kind of above average in attractiveness and the other half are going to be below average.

And they measured the response rates from those organizations, who were they wanting to call in for an interview. And there was a clear advantage for those that sent in their resumes with an attractive photograph. Now holding constant the capability and the experience of the applicants as well. So it wasn’t that they were necessarily more experienced or they had better qualifications or more skills. That was largely constant across the applicants. It was just a measure of their attractiveness. The unfortunate thing of course is for those that were slightly below average in attractiveness. They were much less likely to get called for an interview. And actually in those circumstances, it was actually more beneficial for them to not put a photograph to the application rather in the first place.

So there’s an example I think, a really stark example of how when we’re assessing someone, we’re thinking okay are they competent, are they good for this job? We’re actually outsourcing that decision to something as simple as do they look attractive. So that was a really kind of eyebrow raising study that we saw, a really large scale example of how the luck that some people have in terms of their, they’ve been just genetically blessed at birth, the huge advantage they can carry in life.

Brett McKay:

So what do you do? So what are the practical implications? What if you are a person who got the short end of the handsome stick? Are you like doomed to never be a messenger who people listen to? Or are there things you can do to actually increase your attractiveness?

Steve Martin:

Well, I think there are things you can do. I mean beyond what has been gifted to us at birth. We can dress differently, we can use cosmetics, makeup, these kind of things. In fact, studies have actually shown that food servers that wear red lipstick, for example, get more tips in that instance. So there are some kind of surface things we can actually do. I guess the important thing though here is that there are eight of these kind of messenger traits. So just because you feel like you’re lacking in one, that doesn’t mean that the other seven aren’t available for you. It might be that your competence or your warmth or your trustworthiness. And we’re going to talk about these other traits in a few moments. That might be more important for you to signal in that instance.

Brett McKay:

Let’s move to some of these, the warmth, the soft messenger traits. And this is all about connection. So it’s not about status, not people looking up to you, it’s about you connecting with people. And one trait that people look to for a soft messenger is warmth. So what do you all mean? How do you define warmth?

Steve Martin:

Well, we define warmth in two ways. So one is, you’re right, it’s about connectedness. The warm messenger essentially communicates their benevolence with an audience, whether that’s an individual that they’re talking to or a group or a whole room of people that they’re essentially saying, I have your interests at heart. I’m not trying to get ahead of you. I’m trying to get along with you. And they do this by demonstrating positivity. They do it by seeking out similarities that they may share with their audience. We’re the same because we come from a similar place or we have similar experiences or we have the same set of values. They’re essentially, Brett, communicating their benevolence and their connectedness with their audience before they deliver a message. And that’s what we define as the warm messenger in that instance.

And they can be incredibly, incredibly persuasive. And there are studies, for example, that actually show that doctors, for example, that are treating patients that use a warm, connected, caring tone of voice, are much less likely to get sued if they make a medical error than a doctor that gives the exact same advice and counsel in a harder, more kind of technical, dominant kind of way. So just that bedside manner in that instance can mean the difference between getting sued or not. So that’s how crucial warmth is in this context of connecting with others.

Brett McKay:

The idea of connecting through warmth. I mean, politicians take advantage of this, at least you see this here in the States. I don’t know what it’s like in the United Kingdom, but like a politician will come to Oklahoma and they’ll try to find some connection they have to Oklahoma. It’s like, oh, well my grandfather lived in Oklahoma, and you’re like, oh yeah, I love this guy even though he’s never lived in Oklahoma. He had a grandpa that lived in Oklahoma. I feel connected.

Steve Martin:

Yeah, exactly right.

I’m reminded of one of my, actually a professor of mine, a US guy, Robert Cialdini, a retired globally esteemed social psychologist at Arizona State University, when he first joined the university as an assistant professor, he did this fascinating little study where he gave his grad students a kind of synopsis of notorious characters from history, Moussalini, Stalin and in particular Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk of Russia. And he gave him these profiles and said, well, get into groups and tell us how likable this guy is. Give us an opinion, an evaluation of what sort of person he was. And of course, you read this story about Rasputin and you go this guy was awful, what a desperately horrible character.

But there was always a group of students that for some reason seemed to be a little bit more connected to this guy than everyone else. And what Cialdini and his colleagues had actually done is they kind of manipulated the information in such a way that certain students found out that they shared the same birthday as a notorious character from the past. And in the same way as you’ve described, when a politician comes into Oklahoma and says, oh, you know, my grandmother was from Oklahoma, I’ve got that connection. These students are going, well he can’t be that bad because he shares the same birthday as me. All the information was the same but that seemingly irrelevant connection just softens someone else’s notoriety a little such that we think, well, okay, maybe we can have an exchange here. So important.

Brett McKay:

So another way that people can be a soft messenger is through vulnerability. How do you all define that?

Steve Martin:

Yeah. So when we talk about vulnerability, we’re talking about, and I think often when we talk about vulnerability, we’re talking about people that perhaps don’t have status, they’re not rich, they’re not famous, they don’t necessarily have competence. All they have essentially is their ability to reach out to others and say, I need help. I need some sort of assistance here. And we find that in certain contexts, if we learn that someone has a need, our humanity kicks in. We seem connected to them and we want to help them more so often if we have a downside or some weakness or vulnerability, the natural inclination I think, Brett, is for us to kind of hide that away because we think we don’t want to kind of be seen as needy but in certain circumstances it can be pretty productive. And in certain circumstances we’ve got nothing else to trade on. So we have to do that.

And there are actually studies that show that when people do express a vulnerability, although we’d like to think I think people aren’t going to help me, people are much, much more likely to say yes to a request that we make of them because we underestimate the likelihood that they’re willing to help. When we ask someone for help, we start to think about, well, think about all the costs they’re going to incur financially or economically if they try and help us. But as the recipient of a request for help, we’re much more likely to be thinking of the social costs if we say no to them. So oftentimes what happens is we underestimate others likelihood to help us.

And so the key takeaway here is actually ask for help more. It’s likely to become much, much more forthcoming than we perhaps estimate ourselves.

Brett McKay:

So you mentioned there’s certain situations where it works well and in certain situations it doesn’t. So what are the certain situations where vulnerability is actually a very powerful tool to convey a message and when is it not?

Steve Martin:

Yeah, so I think, so there’s a study actually that was a couple of years ago by a guy from Harvard who put some of his researchers into a situation of vulnerability. And the situation of vulnerability he put them into was in a long line at places where people are queuing up and people are angry and just like frustrated and impatient. So think airport lines, security queues, railway stations, these kinds of things. And what he did was he essentially said, okay, I want you to go up to people and ask them whether they’d be willing to let you in front of the line. Would you be able to cut in front of the line? Okay. And I want you to offer them money. Okay. And we want to kind of work out what the optimum amount of money is that we should offer someone in order for them to let you cut in front of the line.

And no surprise to anyone that’s studied economics even at a basic level, the more money that people offered, the more likely that person that was offered the money to say, yeah, sure you can go ahead of me. Okay. So here’s the surprise. No one ever took the money and it seems that the money, I’ll give you $10, I’ll give you $20, I’ll give you $50, was a signal of vulnerability. So I think where this idea of vulnerability is most likely to be helpful is in specific situations of need that are identifiable to an individual.

It’s one of the reasons why when you see things like charity fundraising campaigns, there might be many hundreds of thousands, even millions of people that are in extreme conditions of need, but a charity would never say look at all the millions of starving children or look at all the hundreds of thousands of people that have lost their homes because of this hurricane or this typhoon or whatever it may be. They tend to focus on an individual. The identifiable individual context is where the expression of vulnerability is going to be most helpful. So those would be the context I think where vulnerability is especially potent is if you can individualize and personalize the need of an individual. I think it was Starlin that said the death of one soldier is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.

Brett McKay:

And it sounds like, too, vulnerability can be a useful, I want to say tool, like a technique or tactic to use if you are dominant or you have status in some ways. So we talked about competence. One way you can actually increase your competence even more is highlighting the fact well you don’t know everything and you just take a little bit of humility toward yourself in the situation.

Steve Martin:

I think you’re right about that. In fact, actually there’s I think an immediate practical application here that… So sometimes we’re required to present. Maybe we’re pitching for a new account or we’re selling an idea and often our idea or what we’re pitching might have some drawbacks. And I think a common mistake that we often make is to kind of squirrel those drawbacks, those weaknesses in a product or an idea we have, kind of at the back of the PowerPoint deck or sometimes we don’t even talk about them at all. We think well if we don’t mention them, then no one will know about it. We actually find that’s a mistake.

In fact, if we do have a drawback or a weakness about a proposition we have or a presentation we’re about to make and as long as it’s not an insurmountable one, the evidence actually shows that you’d be much, much more effective if you position that vulnerability or that weakness as the very first thing you say. Look, this proposition is probably a little bit more expensive than you were expecting but and then you follow that with here are all the advantages. Here are all the upsides. So I think you’re right, Brett, there is an opportunity and it can be used ethically and effectively to use some of those vulnerabilities essentially to turn some of the weaknesses that we have into strengths.

Brett McKay:

So another soft trait is charisma. And I think our idea of charisma, it’s mystical. It’s like either you got it or you don’t. But what does your research say about that? Can charisma be developed by somebody?

Steve Martin:

It can. In fact, actually it’s not just our research. In fact it was I think about 2016, so only four years ago, that the kind of social scientific community coalesced and came to a consensus about what charisma was. Because we were all talking about charisma and when people were saying, well, what is it? You said, well you just know, you know, when you see someone, when you hear them, you know that they have that charismatic quality. But essentially what we find is that there are three things that the charismatic messenger has. So the first is they have this ability to orientate their audience towards a common vision or goal. They’re not speaking to 10,000 individuals in an audience, they’re speaking to one mind made up of 10,000 people. They’re saying this is the direction we’re going. Here’s the unifying goal or vision that we actually have. And they’re able to convey that unifying vision first. So they have that.

The second thing they have is what we psychologists call surgency. So surgency is this kind of enthusiasm, this positivity and actually it comes across in nonverbal behavior as well. There have been studies looking at TED talks for example. And what they find is that you can have a series of presenters at TED and they’re talking about largely the same situation or subject. So you may have two presenters that are talking about leadership. They’ve got good content, they’ve got good messages to deliver, largely the same but we find that those presenters that are likely to register more views of their talk use about twice as many hand gestures as their comparable peers who perhaps are less animated. And so injecting that kind of sense of body and movement matching voice and words seems to be important. So, but not to the point where you kind of get crazy and you’re waving your hands like a mad man but those kinds of well considered hand movements and gestures seem to be important in that instance.

And the third thing that charismatic messengers have is an ability to think quickly and talk in metaphors. We used to think that that was closely associated and aligned to intelligence. We’re not so sure now. We actually just think that certain charismatic messengers have that ability to turn a phrase, to use a metaphor to have like a quick thinking retort. And so those three things, that unifying vision, surgency and quick thinkingness is what we’ve kind of essentially coalesced behind in terms of our definition of what a charismatic communicator is.

Brett McKay:

Well, the idea of metaphor was interesting because I’ve never heard that before and I’ve come across that in the research about charisma and you talk about World War II leaders. Franklin Roosevelt used lots of metaphors during his fireside chats during World War II.

Steve Martin:

Yeah. In fact, actually I know of a couple of researchers that have looked back on speeches given at presidential inaugurations and they find that presidents that use significantly more metaphors in their first inaugural speech are the ones most likely to serve a second term.

Brett McKay:

So what’s the practical thing? Like how do you figure out like, okay, people have been listening to this and say, okay, there’s some situations where being a hard messenger would be useful. Some situations a soft messenger. Like how do you figure that out? Which approach to take?

Steve Martin:

Yeah, so I think there’s a couple of things that we can think about that. So the first is what is the context of the situation? So if the situation is that there is uncertainty, you have a team that you’re working with or community or an organization that’s anxious, there’s a lack of clarity about the direction. In those situations, we do find that the harder messenger, the messenger that’s able to kind of step forward and lead, be the not necessarily always dominant but has some kind of attractiveness quality or some sort of competence that leads us to kind of almost metaphorically sigh with relief and say, right, okay, I can follow this person. So in those instances, adopting or choosing I think might also be important here, Brett, because we’re not saying that you should try to be dominant if dominance isn’t part of your makeup and your personality.

So, sometimes if we come up with an idea or we want to lead a group in a certain direction, one of the things we might need to do is actually say I may know all the information here, I might be the person with the best content, but am I the best messenger to deliver it? So sometimes we might need to kind of assign that duty to another messenger. So if it’s uncertainty, if we want to get some sort of action, move people in a certain direction, the harder type of characteristic typically fairs slightly better than the softer one.

In situations where we’re kind of essentially trying to connect, build longer term goals and relationships, get alignment and especially when things are pretty good, the economy is doing well, we’re happy, there is no fear and anxiety then those softer traits typically are likely to be more useful to you in those instances.

But invariably, as you were talking earlier about, we talked about Churchill, we talked about Lyndon B. Johnson, that ability to pivot between hard and soft and build on where you can some of the skills. We can train people to be more charismatic. We can be better at conveying our competence. We can certainly build trust with others more. We can learn to be warmer and to kind of connect through similarities and demonstrate our benevolence. Those are things that we can all improve upon. And so having an array is going to be useful.

Brett McKay:

So see this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Steve Martin:

Well, the book is called “Messengers: Who We Listen to, Who We Don’t and Why” and is available on all the bookstores in various formats, book, paperback, ebook, Kindle, these kinds of things.

For listeners that are actually interested and intrigued to understand what type of messenger they are, which of these traits is my preferred trait, we’ve actually developed, me and Joe and a research team of ours, a short test that you can take. It takes five minutes. It’s entirely free. You can go to messengersthebook.com. Follow the link to the take the test and in five minutes you answer six or seven questions and it will give you an appraisal of what your primary messenger trait is and your secondary one and it’ll give you an indication if you want to improve on your ability to communicate, be a better, more effective messenger. It gives you some insights about how to do that. That’d be a good place to go, I think.

Brett McKay:

Fantastic. We’ll include that in our show notes as well. Well, Steve Martin, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Steve Martin:

Oh, great to talk to you, Brett. Thanks for the invitation.

Brett McKay:

My guest today is Steve Martin. He’s the author of the book “Messengers: Who We Listen to, Who We Don’t and Why.” It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website messengersthe book.com where you can take that quiz that he talked about. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/messengers where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about how to be persuasive, how to communicate. We got articles about that. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you could do so only on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com to sign up, use code manliness for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast.

If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.

 

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