The key to successful communication lies in good recognition of the context we operate in. The context consists of: characteristics of people we are talking to (what is the environment they live in, what are their beliefs, attitudes and motivations) and the situational factors within we communicate.
While we can’t do much about other people’s believes and attitudes, we can however take a partial control upon their perceptions during the communicational process. Our perceptions of others strongly depend on type of the medium we communicate through.
The most famous example of that is a case of American presidential debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard N. Nixon. The debate was broadcasted by both television and radio. After the debate it turned out that between the radio and TV audience there are remarkable differences in the candidates’ appraisal.
People who were watching debate in TV better rated Kennedy, whose appearance was simply better that his opponent’s. He was younger, more handsome, his behaviour was smooth. Nixon was acting unsteadily, he didn’t have make-up, couldn’t stand in one place, was sweating. However people who were listening to the debate on the radio, gave the higher ranks to Nixon, whose speech was more convincing for them than the Kennedy’s.
The differences which determine our perception on the type of the communication canal we can explain by the psychological theory (Petty and Cacioppo (1981) of two routes to persuasion: central and peripheral.
Persuasion is only effective when the receiver’s attention is respectively direct either to the power of arguments (verbal communication) or to so called peripheral indicators (non-verbal communication).
Directing the attention to the appropriate rout depends, in turn, on the conditions of message reception. When a person is focused on considering the arguments – for example when is reading an article, then he focuses on the merits of the statement. But when his attention is distracted and he doesn’t recognise the substance and logics of the arguments (which most often happen during TV watching) then the person concentrate on superficial aspects and simple signs which in psychology are called as heuristics – for example if the person is attractive, if is an expert, or if others agree with his view. Drawing on this mechanism we can explain why in 1960’s debate for TV audience won Kennedy, and for radio listeners won Nixon.
So the next time if you don’t have time to prepare your presentation well, at least wear the best clothes you have, or put something red on. According to the central and peripheral theory of persuasion you will divert your audience’s attention from your arguments to the peripheral aspects of your appearance.
Extracts from my BA dissertation (2010): 'Selected methods of building a personal image in the media’