What Can We Learn from Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why?

Have you ever been in a meeting where you’ve made what you thought was an important point, only to have the room ignore it? Then some five minutes later, someone else makes the exact same point and is hailed as a genius?

When that happens, the painfully obvious conclusion is that the problem wasn’t with the message, but with the messenger. The second messenger was seen as speaking with authority and the first was not.

Now, if you are an attorney, your career depends on how well you master the art of speaking with authority. But you must also learn to recognize authority in others and use it to your advantage.

One source we can recommend is a new book by Steve Martin and Joseph Marks, entitled Messengers: Who We listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why. On a recent Scaling Up Business podcast with Bill Gallagher, Mr. Martin explained,

“Increasingly in this crazy information-overloaded world … there seem to be these individuals…that pretty much it doesn’t matter what they say, they seem to be heard. … There does seem to be this emerging trend that we are paying often less attention to what is being said and increasingly focusing our limited attention on who is saying what is being said, often with disregard to its wisdom or its foolishness.”

You’ve witnessed this phenomenon in popular culture, where former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy is considered an authority on vaccinations by many and Kim Kardashian (famous only for being famous) visits the White House to lobby for criminal justice reform.

According to Mr. Martin, not everyone listens, but enough people do listen that it creates momentum. On social media, these individuals are known as “influencers.” But where do they get their influence? And is it possible to copy their methods or technique to enhance our ability to influence others?

Mr. Martin began by wondering what qualities influential messengers share and how do the qualities of the messenger influence the impact of the message.

He was surprised to learn that no one had done serious research on the topic for more than 40 years. So, with the momentous changes in media over that time, his work is most welcome. Mr. Martin found that certain fundamental qualities give a messenger authority and make an audience pay attention.

These he has divided into two categories he calls “hard” and “soft.”

The hard qualities of an authoritative messenger come from their status above the audience:

  1. Socio-economic position — These are the people we listen to because they are rich and famous.
  2. Competence — These are the noted authorities with recognized expertise.
  3. Dominance — Here are the individuals with a strong personal presence, which is often the result of fierce competitiveness.
  4. Physical attractiveness — These are individuals whom nature has blessed.

These traits, Mr. Martin tells us, are often recognizable at a very early age, which would explain most junior high and highs school social dynamics.

The soft qualities aren’t due to a position above the audience, but a connectedness with the audience:

  1. Warmth — Personal likeability
  2. Vulnerability — An emotional openness shown through self-sharing
  3. Trustworthiness — This refers to the level of other people’s confidence in predicting how this person will behave in the future.
  4. Charisma — An ability to connect on a universal level and get an audience to embrace a larger vision

Having read this list, you are probably nodding your head. These qualities are so fundamental we intuitively recognize and respond to them, but until we start talking about them, they fly under the radar.

Yet, being conscious of these qualities can be crucially important to an attorney’s career and to the success of a law firm.

First, it’s important to realize we can cultivate these qualities in ourselves.

Mr. Martin explains that this begins with self-evaluation and feedback from peers. By earnestly working on our image and presentation, we can gradually develop more authority and virtuosity. For example, we can consciously choose whether a message or an audience requires us project competence or vulnerability and proceed accordingly.

But we must also recognize these qualities in others for the benefit of our team. Say you are trying a case, and you need to decide: who is first chair, who examines which witnesses, or presents which evidence. You want to discern each attorney’s qualities as a messenger.

Do you need to show dominance at this point in the trial? Or does the message require warmth? Recognizing the qualities of a messenger also matters when selecting expert witnesses to give testimony. The most competent person to compile a report might not be the best person to connect with the audience. 

Finally, we can ascribe these qualities to others whose authority we want to boost. For instance, introductions play a pivotal role in establishing a speaker’s authority. The way we welcome a new colleague to the team can set that person up for success or failure. Similarly, the way we introduce a witness to a jury can influence how the jury receives the testimony.

There’s also a separate phenomenon worth mentioning: the Halo Effect. This refers to our natural human tendency to impute positive characteristics to someone who strongly demonstrates one positive trait. 

Of course, halos do tarnish over time. The old adage that “familiarity breeds contempt” teaches that once we get to know the real person, a singular positive attribute is not sufficient to ward off all criticism. But awareness of the halo effect can give us a momentary situational advantage.

We heartily recommend digging more deeply into this insightful book. What you learn could help you personally and professionally as you strive to develop authentic authority. If you’re interested in learning what type of messenger you are, you can take their quiz here

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