It’s not what you say, it’s who says it

How many times have you nagged your partner or kids to mow the lawn, take out the rubbish or unstack the dishwasher?

How often have you tried to provide advice to a friend or family member struggling with a big decision only to be told you don’t understand?

How frequently do you try to encourage others to participate in something that will benefit them, only for it to fall on deaf ears?

When it comes to words and their attempts at driving action, there are many quotes, sayings and isms. For example, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it or Actions speak louder than words. But in the same way that Simon Sinek insists that people don’t care about what you do but why you do it, there’s another piece missing from the puzzle that often gets overlooked:

It’s not what you say, it’s who says it.

It’s actually crazy to think how much of our time and effort goes into crafting cleverly worded arguments and responses when the wrong presenter means it all falls on deaf ears. The reality is that if you don’t have the right spokesperson who can appeal to your target audience, you’ve just wasted your breath (as well as time and money). Don’t get me wrong, many people in advertising, PR and marketing know this all too well. It’s the reason why so many consumer products are now marketed to us by celebrities and social media influencers (and in a subtle way too). But whether it’s with family and friends, colleagues and customers or even the world at large, the power of the messenger is often heavily underrated. 

If chosen wisely, the right messenger can have people accommodating their every whim. The right messenger can make an angry mob as forgiving as a dog owner whose puppy just piddled on the brand new carpet. Countless tech and financial stuff-ups and catastrophes have been forgiven if the person asking for forgiveness is someone who those wronged want to trust and forgive (as opposed to a suit who looks like they’re being forced). Similarly, the right messenger can make a group of otherwise indifferent individuals as passionate and dedicated as a group of teenage girls camped outside a hotel of their favourite celebrity. They can even make you completely change your views and behaviour.  

BUT (and this is a big but), select the wrong person and brace for uproar, backlash and undesired outcomes. Just look at how people responded to Elon Musk’s emotionless response to one of his self-driving Tesla cars resulting in the death of the driver, or the unapologetic response by Dreamworld Australia’s CEO following the deaths of 4 people on a ride that received so much criticism she stepped down soon after. The wrong messenger, especially in an emotional setting (whether personal, consumer or corporate), will quickly have people on guard and bracing for battle. Whether you’re painted as insensitive, manipulative or just dismissed all together, the outcome is far from ideal considering the effort and care that likely went into crafting your message.

So what does it take to be a good messenger?

Here’s where it gets tricky. You see a good messenger will differ depending on the context (as one of my lecturers always says, context is key). Who your audience is and the environment in which the message is presented play a huge role! Below are three of the most common decision making problems that I’ve come across and the types of messengers that I’ve seen prove effective in reaching their target audience.

Impulsivity

If your primary goal is to encourage impulse purchases with little regard to the long term (which is why I genuinely hope you’re promoting a good quality product you’re proud of), the most important thing will be to find a messenger who they can relate to. This is the reason why social media influencers and celebrities have so much power. These are people that the rest of us either want to be like or want to be with. They represent something we feel we both lack and need, so we project our own values and desires onto them, aspiring to copy them in any way possible. This leads us to spin a story where we convince ourselves that if we buy that lipstick, drink that coffee or get that expensive watch, it will be a step closer to being the person we want to be, the one we’ve projected onto the messenger. To appeal to this kind of desire, the messenger needs to play on emotion because it means the decision is made by system 1 alone with rational thought (system 2) kicking in only later. This takes advantage of our primal need to belong to a group and to see ourselves in the best light possible. A word of warning on this one though – it’s the most prone to regret so again, if you’re looking at building long term relationships, consider whether this is the strategy for you.

Lack of knowledge

If you’re approaching a group who lacks information about a decision and who appears to be on the fence, the best thing to do is find a messenger who for them, represents expertise. This is why so many toothpastes use the dentists recommend or why you’ll listen to a doctor when they tell you to get a skin spot checked but why you’ll completely dismiss your partner doing so as nagging. The interesting thing here is that provided the target audience perceives your messenger as having expertise, it doesn’t actually matter what they do or don’t know in reality (this is why an actor in a lab coat can have as much sway as a scientist if you set it up correctly). The caveat on this being that if they question authority, any trust you potentially held will evaporate in an instant.

Uncertainty

In the third situation I’ve seen often, your audience probably already knows what they want to do or what they think they should but they’re probably torn. In these situations a messenger who looks trustworthy, who they’d want to hold their hand and guide them through the uncertainty is likely the most effective. Whether this is the friend or family member, the gentle, nurturing persona is likely to be most effective. However, in order to retain trust, the way in which this message is presented must also be altered. To simply tell them authoritatively what to do or give them facts isn’t in keeping with this type of messenger and so they must present a message for which the desired outcome is subtly hinted at but not imposed upon the audience.

Take-home message:

Whether you’re trying to encourage a friend/family member to consider a certain option, exploring a new marketing campaign or even drafting a message for your staff, take a moment to consider who would be best suited to delivering your message so that it gets the consideration it deserves!

Note: this article was originally published by our Director on LinkedIn back in early 2019.

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