Messengers - Ideas for Leaders


Who we listen to, Who we don't, and Why

About Author/s:

Stephen Martin is a behavioural expert and CEO of INFLUENCE AT WORK (UK), working with renowned thought-leader Robert Cialdini. Martin is a Visiting Professor of Behavioural Science at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, and perhaps best known for his regular column in the British Airways inflight magazine on Persuasion. Joseph Marks is a doctoral researcher at University College London and visiting researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research looks at people’s perceptions of themselves and how their environment influences their cognition and decisions. He holds a Master’s degree from University College London and an undergraduate degree in Psychology.


The world circulates on information – whether that be hard data or gossip. Those who are listened to and have their messaging acted upon hold the levers of power. This book recognises that the ability to be listened to and then acted upon frequently has little to do with the content of the message but rather traits the messenger possesses, and their ability to deliver the message convincingly. 

In Ancient Greece, Cassandra forsook the god Apollo who had gifted her the ability to foresee the future, and in revenge Apollo cursed her so that despite this gift no-one would believe her. So, though she predicted the Trojan Horse at Troy, her message went unheeded. This book is about why some people are listened to and others, who knows how many, go unheeded.

Core Idea

The authors have identified eight core traits that factor how much messaging power people have. Four of these are grouped as traits of Hard Messengers, and four of Soft Messengers. Hard messengers are those with status, whether that be through being the boss (hierarchical), successful (rich or famous) or lucky (attractive in some respect). The Soft Messengers gain influence not through status but through building connectedness with their audience.

The four traits associated with Hard/Status messengers are 1) Socio-economic, the appearance (at least) of wealth, citing multiple studies that show people giving more respect and attention to those in smarter cars and branded clothing. This is the peacock effect, where and what you eat, drink, holiday, educate your children all factors into this impression. Importantly, the wealth of the messenger need have no relevance to the message, which is why pop celebrities can set-off health scare conspiracies. 
2) Competence – that is perceived competence. Citing the fabulous example of a doctor prescribing earache drops to be applied to a patient’s right ear, his actual note was to his R.Ear – with the nurse administering earache drops rectally. As the author’s quote Cialdini here “in many situations in which a legitimate authority has spoken, what would otherwise make sense is irrelevant.” Sat-navs show this reaction is not restricted to competent humans. Crew Resource Management is a well-observed development program to overcome this competence deference issue. Competence and confidence are intertwined and it is often difficult to distinguish whether confidence is competence, or the appearance of competence is just confidence. Beware.
3) Dominance – whether it is macaque monkeys or Donald Trump vs Hilary Clinton in the presidential debates, dominance (interrupting and physical presence) plays an important role in winning attention, and we are wired to pay attention to the bullies. This is the guilty secret of messaging – dominance has a tendency to work even though we prefer to think we would not be susceptible to it ourselves. In today’s world co-operation between teams and organisations is more valuable than head-on conflict, and the brutish, dominant leader is no longer seen as the right leader in these situations. It maybe some time though, before our hunter-gatherer wiring reflects this.
4) Attractiveness – we are similarly wired (particularly men) to physically attractive people. While tastes vary, the common rule is we are attracted to healthy and familiar (ie like us) looking people. The ‘beauty premium’ is well acknowledged, attractive people have more opportunities made available to them, though attractive women can be marked-down by other women.

In terms of the traits of Soft Messengers the authors explore Connectedness, our need to as social animals to find common ground with others and ‘belong’.
5) Warmth – signals care and kindness, and shows benevolence and respect to others, which is appreciated and catalyses influence. Interestingly, it is more valued by liberals, say the authors – and so has more impact in some areas than others. They explain warmth as being positive, social reward (gain some tangible, not financial, recognition for work) and compassion and also appreciative humility (I couldn’t have done this without help from others, rather than I don’t deserve this, which is self-abasing humility). Warmth can be perceived as weakness if overplayed, however, so needs a steely resolve within it, not just the compassion.
6) Vulnerability – this is well-covered by others, famously Brené Brown’s TED talk – and increasingly explored at business schools. It plays to part of our brain that recognises the authenticity vulnerability can bring. Ideally, though it is ‘retrospective’, instances of having been vulnerable previously not currently.
7) Trustworthiness – the authors split this into competence-based and integrity-based. With both of these consistency remains the key element, and as is well-understood, once broken Trust is very difficult to regain.
8) Charisma – is easy to spot but difficult to define. The authors suggest it a recipe that includes the ingredients of self-confidence, expressiveness, energy, optimism, (collectively – surgency) and also rhetoric, risk-taking, and creativity – with different quantities for different people, but all able to tap into the collective energy of their group and reducing complexity to simple messages, often with affective story-telling. Konstantin Tskhay’s work on charisma suggests it is a combination of two of the previous cited factors influence (dominance) and affability (warmth).



Traditionally, men have been associated with the Hard traits while women with the Soft ones, though women clearly fair better on attractiveness generally.

The authors put together an accessible and lively narrative around how we are influenced by others, citing a huge range of academic research and real-life examples. Much of the advice in the book is universal, though some examples do seem culturally Anglo-Saxon and less applicable elsewhere. The main thrust of their content though is well-worth digesting – are we listning to people due to their status or warmth, or because they have something useful to say? And how many people who have useful things to say are not being listened to?

The reality is that in order to be heard – and heeded – you will need to adopt some of these capabilities. We, as humans, have evolved to respond to the Hard traits over millenia, and that is not going to change any time soon.


Messengers - who we listen to....

  • Title: Messengers

    Author/s Name/s: Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks

    Publisher: Random House Books

    ISBN: 978-1-847-94236-4

    Publishing Date: September, 2019

    Number of Pages: 284

Author Knowledge Rating: 1-5 (based on their years of experience, academic expertise in subject areas, and exposure to cross-functional thinking in the area)

Readability: 1-5 score(1=dense and v academic; 5=frantic; page turner)

Appropriate Length: (1=could have been written in 25% of the length;5=could have been longer)

Core Idea Value: (1=nonsense (or entirely esoteric); 5=game-changer)