In this book Messengers – Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, And Why written by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks, explores why we listen to some people and not to others. Some of the key points are:

  • how people make snap judgments about someone’s character in milliseconds;
  • how children can correctly predict election results; and
  • how we respond to the instructions and advice of another person based on our perceived status of that person. 

I liked that they addressed the question – why should we embrace a great musician or actor’s political views or advice? They admit – on the face of it – it’s a bizarre phenomena.

They address the issue that the way we respond to some individuals messages isn’t always logical. They admit that in a complicated world we don’t always look deep into the details of the message content being communicated. They discuss that we use a variety of methods to make judgements about the person’s message and then either embrace or reject their message entirely. They believe that we pay attention to both the message and the person who is communicating the message but the messenger themself matters more than we realize. They address that we pay attention for reasons which are often associated with our gut instincts and it’s at times it’s irrational.

I like that they address the paradox of the psychology behind human behavior and communication. In short, they address the issue that as humans we make snap judgments about the messengers themselves and not just about their message.

One example Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks provide is the fascinating scenario during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. They mention an individual, Michael Burry, who was a Wall Street investor who predicted the financial crisis before it happened. They explored the situation that the federal investigators interviewed and spoke with the journalist who just wrote the story about Michael Burry after his prediction came true. They determined that the reason why had more to do with the fact that Michael Burry, while a brilliant investor, but was an awkward communicator.

In short, if we have the following qualities; a successful career, what we look like and sound like, have social status, professional, or economic statuses then we are taken more seriously. Michael Burry didn’t look successful, he liked to wear shorts and a t-shirt to work and he didn’t project any real status of any kind.

In the end Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks addressed the question why federal investigators during the financial crises did not want to hear from Michael Burry. But instead with the journalist that wrote about the story after the fact?

Their conclusion was that we judge the message based on who the messenger is as a person as much as the message itself. 

Who they are, what they sound like and their appearances matters greatly to us, which includes their social status, their profession, or financial statuses. They concluded that it matters more than we would admit. They believe that we are constantly making snap judgments about the people we see and hear based on the limited exposure to their message.  They believe that these snap judgments are very accurate in who will win say an election but they can harm us if we aren’t careful.

Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks reference a study that confirms that we make snap judgments all the time about individuals only based on seconds of interaction.  And based on that, we determine quickly if we’re going to listen to them or not.

The authors surmise that there are several areas people assess whether they listen to the messenger and their message;

  • Who the messenger is as a person is just as important as the message they share.
  • The socioeconomic status of the messenger influences how we’ll respond to them.
  • The status of the messenger and the perceived competence they project is another critical factor for a strong messenger.
  • The ability to exhibit physical dominance with forcefulness is another critical way a messenger gets a message across (think about those close talkers).
  • Attractive messengers cause us to pay more attention to and respond better to their messages.
  • Successful messengers find ways to connect with their audience no matter the size of the group.
  • We all instinctively respond well to individuals who exhibit warm messengers.
  • Utilizing our vulnerabilities helps us tap into our audience’s desire to have empathy and a desire to help.
  • And lastly whether a messenger is seen as trustworthy or not is hugely important to how we respond as a person and to their message.

Final Thoughts

I liked this book. I think it causes us to think about all aspects of our communication beyond the core message we’re trying to get across. Our body language, our voice inflection, how we carry ourselves matters greatly as to how people will or will not embrace our message.

When I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation in the 80’s there was a very successful sales consultant I was fortunate to work with. He carried himself much differently than the other sales consultants in the office. He dressed impeccably, paid attention to the small things and commanded respect without saying a word. I asked him one day why he was so successful. His answer was surprising and enlightening. He said the personal touches matter much more than the rest of the sales consultant think. He said that after he met with any person for the first time he always followed up with a hand written card and dropped it in the mailbox. He said he wrote a personal message that was unique to that first meeting memorializing that meeting in some small way, an appreciation of sort.

So in short, Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks tap into something that in this digital fast pace world we live in now that we need to pay more attention to the little things. Get back to the more personal aspects of our communication and recognize that these things matter. The old dress for success is still relevant; the personal communication, showing our vulnerabilities, paying attention to our reputations and managing it better matters. Demonstrating vulnerabilities and trustworthiness matter greater now more than ever since we insulate ourselves with all kinds of technology communication tools. This book forces us to realize that people don’t listen to and trust us by our intelligence alone or by the merits of our arguments. But they do it for reasons like the color of our clothes to the warmth of our voices. So start paying attention to the small personal things if you want to get your message across.