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messengers

Don’t Ignore the Messenger: Our Expert Interview with Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks

June 25, 2020

When behavioral experts Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks wrote their book “Messengers,” they based it on something that we all once took for granted: face-to-face communication. Now, in the age of physical distancing, how much does their insight apply?

The Eight Messenger Traits

Subtitled “Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why,” their book explores eight traits that influence our willingness to believe what people say.

Four of these are “hard” traits, based on status: socioeconomic position, competence, dominance, and attractiveness. The other four are “soft” traits, based on connectedness: warmth, vulnerability, trustworthiness, and charisma.


In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, the authors of “Messengers” outline the scope of their research.


How to Get Your Message Across

By highlighting the power of these characteristics, the authors wanted people to better understand why they respond positively or negatively to certain messages. But, as readers began to feed back after publication, another benefit of the book emerged.

“A lot of people have come back and said, ‘We find this book most useful because it’s given me some hints and tips about how I, perhaps, position my message differently,'” Martin says. “‘I don’t change the message, I don’t change the recommendation, or what I’m asking for, but I recognize that by positioning it in a different way I might get a better response. Or, in some instances, I recognize that I might not necessarily be the right person to deliver this message.'”

Whatever we take from the book, its lessons can be game-changing, as we navigate and progress in the world. It’s been months since I interviewed Martin and Marks. But I still find myself reflecting on their insight as I watch politicians on TV, or colleagues via Zoom. How is the messenger affecting how I receive the message?

Communication in a Time of Isolation

COVID-19 sent most of our communication online. But I think the eight messenger traits are still relevant, if somewhat distorted – like in a hall of mirrors. Some diminished, some blown up, and others altered entirely.

Take the trait “dominance” as an example. People strong in this trait “will often come into the room and they seem to consume the space, they use wide gestures, they sometimes invade others’ personal space as well,” Martin says.

Being physically big packs a punch. So when we’re all reduced to a small rectangle on a computer monitor, that trait loses most of its impact. Likewise, social cues have changed and body language is less important.

Conversely, when we’re communicating online, we can control what our colleagues see. In this way, we can enhance our stock in the other hard traits. For example, we can signal the traits of “socioeconomic position” and “competence” by what we display behind us: original art or sports trophies, degree certificates or the latest business books.

Making the Traits Work for You

Some of the traits from “Messengers” may seem out of our control. But there’s more that we can do to improve them than you might think. Take the trait “attractiveness,” for example.

Although there is a limit to what we can do about our attractiveness, something as simple as dressing up smart can have a huge impact. In one of the book’s case studies, we learn that defendants who take care of their physical appearance in court are far less likely to be sent to prison.

“That’s a really interesting example to me,” says Martin. “Of the power of that surface vision of attractiveness. And we make these inferences and judgments within a matter of milliseconds and they can have some significant impacts on people’s perception of us as a result.”

Another study, about the effect of including photos on job applications, found that classically attractive candidates received interview callbacks more often than unattractive ones.

“The advice was don’t put a photograph on the CV, as it can have a detrimental impact on you getting the job,” Martin recalls. “So, perhaps the message here is to recognize where you are, and to play some of these other effects to compensate.”

Building Your “Attractiveness”

In the world of online communication there is a lot we can do on this front. For example, positioning our webcam to show us in the best light is an easy win.

Perhaps the best news is that by increasing your ability in the other seven traits (such as “charisma” or “competence“), often perceived attractiveness increases as a result.

“A lot of the time, if you have one of these other traits, you are rated as more attractive,” says Marks. “Those who are more charismatic, extrovert, warmer, positive, tend to be rated as more attractive.”

“Messengers” is packed with case studies and insight into the eight messenger traits, how to recognize them, understand their impact, and put them to good use. The authors don’t delve far into more sensitive areas, such as gender and race, which some readers might find disappointing. But the universality of the characteristics they do highlight makes the lessons of this book accessible to all.

Listen to Our Interview With Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks

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Do you ever struggle to get your voice heard? Has the move to video-conferencing affected your communication? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

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