Messengers: three things I’ve learned about who we listen to, who we don’t and why.

I was 23 and sat around a huge oval, walnut, polished conference table in the City. Around the table sat a bunch of lawyers and bankers in standard navy blue suits and slicked back, side-parted hair. 10 minutes in, I piped up with a suggestion. It was met with blank stares and a grunt from the Chair. The meeting moved on. Towards the end, one of the suits repeated EXACTLY WHAT I HAD SAID.  But he was met with a chorus of approval, high-fives and back slaps.


If you’re thinking WTF or hell yes that’s happened to me, then you need to read Messengers by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks. I’ve just finished reading it.  I highly recommend you also read it and…

  • Never be not heard again;
  • Understand why Boris and Trump are such effective communicators;
  • Learn how Messenger effects can account for a world awash with ‘fake news’; and,
  • Be a better messenger. [Plus a bonus: you’ll be able to arm yourself with a million and one brilliant scientific case studies, insights and anecdotes to become the most interesting dinner party guest ever].



This is what I’ve learnt…

  1. The Messenger is the messenger. Messengers’ core thesis is that to achieve influence and impact, it’s less about what is said but who says it. We don’t just make judgements about the coherence and validity of the message, but about the messenger: do they have relevant experience and expertise? Might they have an ulterior motive? Can I trust them? Such judgements are often made in a matter of milli-seconds and frequently unnervingly accurate. Whether we like it or not, looking and sounding right is often far more persuasive than actually being right. So, just how exactly do we look and sound right…?
  2. The eight traits which determine who gets heard and who gets ignored. Combining decades of classic and contemporary scientific research, Messengers’ pin-points the eight fundamental traits which influence who we listen to, who we don’t and why. These eight traits are split into hard and soft traits. Hard messengers are effective because audiences perceive them to possess superior status. The four hard messenger traits are: socio-economic position, competence, dominance and attractiveness. Soft messengers are effective because they are perceived to possess a connectedness with the audience. The four soft messenger traits are: warmth, vulnerability, trustworthiness and charisma. My favourite chapter was trustworthiness – the magic variable that binds people, communities and nations together. Read the book for a superb analysis on why Donald Trump is regarded as trustworthy, despite Washington Post fact-checkers reporting he has made more than 9000 false or misleading claims while president. Plus if/which trait is the super-power messenger trait…
  3. Context matters: as with much of behavioural science, context matters. Would Trump and Boris (both great examples of ‘hard’ messengers) have succeeded electorally 10-15 years ago?  Messengers’ suggests not, citing evidence of how terrorist attacks and economic uncertainty boost demand for dominant political leaders. When times are tough and threat and fear abound, we want a dominant, authoritarian messenger.

And in case you’re still in doubt re. why messenger effects are so important, let me finish on words straight from the messengers themselves, Steve and Joe:

“Our fundamental personalities may be genetically coded and remain relatively stable over time, but just about everything else in our lives is fair game to the messengers in society that we listen to.”

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