On a daily basis, we’re required to speak with others in order to pass on information. The form that this information takes can vary, including a command (such as “I need to you to do this“) or feedback (“What you did had this outcome, for this reason“).
We often pass information on as a means to exert influence. A parent speaking to a child wants to influence their behavior to keep them safe or perhaps to stop them from annoying others. As a coach, you often want to influence the athletes you’re working with. You want them to carry out a particular exercise to develop them physically, or to get them to move in a specific way to reduce their chances of injury, or as a means to enhance their performance. You also may have to exert this influence sideways to other coaches (perhaps you notice them exhibiting a coaching behavior that may be harmful) or to parents (to get them to better support their child’s development). And you may have to exert influence upward to a selection panel or National Governing Body in support of your athlete.
When it comes to exerting influence, it’s easy to think that, if the message you’re attempting to portray is correct, it will be listened to. For example, don’t do high volumes of plyometrics because it increases your chance of injury is a simple and logical message you’d think everyone could get behind. And yet, as we all doubtless know through experience, this isn’t the case at all. Despite the veracity and validity of our message, it often falls on deaf ears.
This is where the book Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t and Why, authored by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks, comes in. The book’s key premise is simple, and yet hugely important for us to understand:
- The message is often not as important as the messenger.
The Big Short
The example Martin and Marks use to illustrate this premise is one familiar to those who have seen or read The Big Short. Michael Burry is an MD who started a hedge fund while practicing medicine at Stanford. He was hugely successful: in 2001, the S&P 500 dropped by 12 points, but Burry’s hedge fund was up by 50 points. He continually beat the market, year on year, making a huge financial profit for both he and his investors. In the middle of the 2000s, Burry started believing that the sub-prime mortgage market was due to collapse and began to bet against it (he was so early to this that he essentially had to invent the way to do it).
In 2008, as the market crashed and the world hurtled toward the recession that eventually turned into the financial crisis, Burry’s fund—buoyed by his shorting of the housing market—returned a 726 percent gain. Burry was right; he saw something others didn’t, bet on his intuition, and won big.
If anyone predicted the financial crisis, it was Michael Burry. Not many people came out of the 2008 crash financially well. Burry personally made $100 million off his prediction and yielded a profit for his investors of over $700 million. So, when the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, set up by Barrack Obama, sought to understand the causes of the crash, you’d think Burry would have been high on their list of people to give insight. Instead, they invited Michael Lewis.
Now, this was an odd choice. Lewis is a journalist and author, not a hedge fund manager, and certainly not someone who predicted the 2008 crash, put his skin in the game, and profited. Instead, Lewis had recently authored his book about the crash (The Big Short), in which he documented Burry’s predictions and told the story of his success. In short—and you can see where I’m going here—the Commission chose to speak to Lewis about Burry, rather than Burry himself. Why? Because Lewis was, or at least was perceived to be, a more credible messenger.
Why? By this point, Lewis was a well-known and highly respected journalist, having already authored Moneyball, The Blindside, and The Big Short. Lewis is also charismatic—or at least more charismatic than Burry. As anyone who has seen The Big Short can attest to, Burry—played by Christian Bale in the film—is, well, a bit weird. He’s an awkward communicator. He has a glass eye, which makes eye contact difficult. He prefers shorts and a tee shirt to a suit and a tie.Don't confuse the quality of a message with the quality of the messenger, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
By choosing to listen to Lewis over Burry, the Commission made a mistake that all of us are liable to make (and indeed no doubt make multiple times per day)—they confused the quality of the message with the quality of the messenger. Lewis represented someone well-known with decent economic knowledge. People knew who he was and viewed him as credible, so they were more prepared to hear what he had to say. In contrast, Burry was not well-known and was not a smooth communicator. As an ineffective messenger, his more valuable message was lost.
As a coach, parent, athlete, or support staff member, the reality we face is that:
- No matter how good our message is, if people see us as an ineffective messenger, we will struggle to be heard.
- We are highly susceptible to receiving messages from strong messengers when the message itself is weak.
Messengers, in short, is how we become better at the first while avoiding the second.
Martin and Marks identify two types of messengers: hard and soft. Hard messengers are more likely to have their messages received because they are perceived to have higher status. Soft messengers win acceptance of their message through building connections with their audience. When we find ourselves being influenced—for example, when presented with information which should inform our decisions—we need to be wary of whether the message is right, or whether a subconscious bias toward the messenger is swaying us. Similarly, when we attempt to influence others, we need to ensure that we can use soft messenger skills to get our point across.
Hard messengers, Martin and Marks write, can tap into four key areas to build credibility and drive their message.
1. Socio-economic position. Signals of status—such as celebrity or a large number of Twitter followers—often make us more susceptible to the message being pedaled. Salespeople know this, which is why they often try to portray the trappings of wealth. Experiments using eye-tracking technology determined that we’re drawn toward images of people wearing suits—a status signal—above those wearing casual clothes.
In a famous study from the late 1960s, researchers showed that people were far more likely to sound their horns at a low-status car compared to a high-status car. This finding was replicated across different scenarios; a 2014 study, for example, found people were substantially less likely to overtake a prestigious vehicle compared to a low-status one. In short, we tend to provide more weight to messengers who have a higher status than us.
- Be wary—When reviewing information, notice if you’re influenced by the person’s status or the validity of their message? We see this all the time. Someone with more Twitter followers is perceived to have more valuable information. And well-established scientists with domain expertise in one area will have their messages about another area more readily accepted.
- Be smart—You can, of course, use this to your advantage. As a coach, you have a higher position on the hierarchy than most of the athletes you work with, at least in track and field (the rules can be different in professional team sport). This means you have a great ability to communicate with influence, so ensure your message is valid and valuable. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, just because you’re higher on the hierarchy, your message is more important. Don’t ask people to do things “because you said so,” and be prepared to provide the reasoning behind your information.
2. Competence. Or, to be more precise, perceived competence. We see this all the time with doctors, who we recognize as competent. When they step outside their area of expertise, we attach the same or similar value to their message as we do when they’re speaking within their area of expertise. This also happens when the doctors are operating within their area of expertise. The best example I can think of is the Elaine Bromiley case. Elaine underwent a routine, elective nasal surgery, which required general anesthetic. When anesthetized, doctors insert a tube down the patient’s airway to hook them up to a ventilator, which breathes for them. In Elaine’s case, the doctors struggled to get the tube in place, and Elaine’s oxygen levels began to drop as a result.
This is a well-known situation, termed can’t intubate, can’t oxygenate, and there is a solution: make an incision at the front of the neck to insert a breathing tube. The nurses attending the operation knew this; one collected the required kit for this procedure and suggested it to the attending doctors. However, the doctors were fixated on inserting the tube in the typical fashion and became blind to other messages. As a result, Elaine was deprived of adequate oxygen for an extended time period, never regained consciousness, and, unfortunately, later passed away.
In this case, the nurses weren’t confident in challenging the doctors, partially due to the perceived competence of the attending doctors.
- Be wary—Confidence strongly signals competence. When receiving a message from someone, ask: “Is this person competent or confident”? Is their manner persuading you as opposed to their message? If you’re in a position of perceived competence, make sure your subordinates are comfortable in challenging you.
- Be smart—Appearing competent enhances your ability to get your message across. The easiest way to achieve this is actually to be competent; that should be your first goal. Second, confidently communicating your message enhances the perception that you’re competent. Working on delivery and style is, therefore, an important skill for communicators.
3. Dominance. I’m sure you remember the televised 2016 Presidential debate in which Donald Trump stalked Hilary Clinton around the stage. (I’m not from the US, and I’ve never lived there, but even I’ve seen the images). In doing this, Trump sought to assert his dominance over Clinton to add weight to his messages. In a related phenomenon, men who adopt dominating poses on dating apps such as Tinder get more matches.
This becomes a problem when working in a team setting. Individuals who have (or are perceived to have) increased status tend to dominate the decision-making. For example, in a sporting club interdisciplinary team meeting, the team manager (e.g., high-performance manager) likely holds huge sway over the decisions made, with other team members potentially nervous about speaking out. Because this damages the decision-making process and harms the team in the long run, we should guard against it.
- Be wary—Is a person’s argument compelling because it’s based on fact, or are you drawn in by their signs of dominance? When communicating with others, are you seeking to leverage your dominance to get your way, or is your central point valid and well-researched?
- Be smart—As a leader, the key is not to allow your dominance (acquired through status) to be what makes your messages carry influence. Instead, allow your team members to question and challenge your thoughts and decisions in a respectful and controlled manner, so that, ultimately, you can make the best decision.
4. Attractiveness. It’s a sad truth that the more attractive the messenger, the more credence given to the message. This attractiveness can be hard, meaning physical attractiveness, or soft, meaning the messenger is likable, warm, and friendly. This is a very real phenomenon, with one study reporting that a male who’s ranked as below-average attractiveness stands to earn around $250,000 less throughout their career than their more attractive colleagues.
- Be wary—When receiving a message, consider the messenger’s attractiveness (hard or soft) to you, and whether this is coloring your perception of the message’s validity.
- Be smart—Leveraging softer attractiveness when attempting to influence those around you—your athletes or staff, for example—should help you get your message across.
Having identified the traits of hard messengers, Martin and Marks move on to soft messengers who also have four key areas they can tap into to get their message across.
1. Warmth. Warmth is an important trait because it signals care and kindness, with warm messengers attempting to avoid appearing hostile or unkind. We see this in courtrooms all the time. During their arguments, attorneys who avoid appearing to be unpleasant and who don’t act superior might sway a juror’s decision based on their manner alone. Also, being quick to offer an apology—even for something that isn’t necessarily your fault—demonstrates compassion. Compassion is a close relative of warmth and builds capital with the person you’re attempting to influence.
- Be wary—Are you immediately discounting someone’s message because they’re unkind or cold? Remember, someone can be unpleasant and right, so it’s important to try to filter out personality traits when analyzing a message.
- Be smart—Be approachable to your athletes, provide praise where it’s deserved (in an authentic way), be polite, and maintain positivity. All of these actions demonstrate warmth and compassion, helping you get your message across.
2. Vulnerability. Social connectivity is an important motivator and performance driver. In sports teams and training groups, one of the main reasons athletes turn up is for the social aspects. Also, since they’re part of a team, they don’t want to let the team down with their performance. Connectedness drives performance, and one of the main drivers of connectedness is vulnerability from leaders; they’re not afraid to demonstrate—where appropriate—their doubts, fears, and flaws.
- Be wary—Being vulnerable can also signal weakness and cause you to lose respect. The key here is the balance of vulnerability. Be sufficiently open and honest about your shortcomings without drawing pity.
- Be smart—In a team or governing body, it often helps to attempt to “humanize” the key decision-makers to increase the chance of the message landing. It’s easy to hold hostility against a faceless senior leader; it’s much harder to maintain that hostility when you’ve had positive interactions with them.
3. Trustworthiness. When I was an athlete, I was told by a coach—to my face—that they were going to support me in an upcoming selection meeting. When I wasn’t selected, I appealed the decision, and through the course of the appeal, I received the minutes of the selection meeting.
Needless to say, the coach hadn’t done what he told me he would—after which, I no longer had any respect for him. Similarly, I’ve had coaches with core principles very different from mine. Once these principles became apparent through their behavior, it was very difficult to continue to work closely with them; they were no longer trustworthy in my eyes.
- Be wary—Don’t say something you know you can’t deliver on. Doing so erodes trust and makes it less likely that you’ll be able to communicate effectively in the future.
- Be smart—The All Blacks have two famous sayings: “Better people make better All Blacks” and “No dickheads.” Having strong personal values, and, well…not being a dickhead, increase the likelihood that you’ll communicate effectively. There’s a lot to be said for being a good person.
4. Charisma. I’m not a naturally charismatic person. I’m generally quite shy and introverted and like to deal with cold hard facts and figures as opposed to feelings. A while ago, I realized this limited my ability to get my message across in lectures and presentations. As a result, I studied what the best presenters do and realized that they often use stories and anecdotes as a way of building audience connection—a technique that I now use. Storytelling is a very useful way to engage your audience and increases the effectiveness of your messaging, and so represents a valuable tool in your toolbox.
- Be wary—It’s easy to be drawn in by engaging storytellers. When receiving their message, take a step back and ask: Is their message a strong one, or am I being drawn in by their charisma?
- Be smart—It’s easy to slip into “back in my day” stories. When telling a story to deliver a message, it has to be relevant to your audience—and then consistently link the story back to your key message.
Messengers is a highly enjoyable read, where the key premise—that the messenger often trumps the message—is an important consideration for us all, both when receiving information from others and when we try to pass on information.