An amazing research was conducted at The New York Times to measure the impact of Typography (font and related attributes that affect how the text appears) on how much we would believe in the content of the text. Conclusion: Typography does have an impact. Same statement presented in different fonts can be believed at different levels.
Readers of NYT were presented a passage arguing whether the Earth will be destroyed or not and asked to comment whether they believed it or not. The objective presented to research subjects was to determine whether he is an optimist or a pessimist. The hidden game was to measure how a particular font influences how much believable the statement in the text is. This was done by covertly changing the font for every visitor and analyzing the answers. Nice decoy!
The readers believed the text most when the font was Baskerville. When the font was Comic Sans or Georgia, they did not believe as much. Same statement with different fonts influences people differently.
Why? There can be many reasons. May be Baskerville looks more formal. May be you read a serious book printed in it. May be your textbook in college used it. May be your father preferred it for his formal writings.
But the reasons are not important and neither the research forayed into them. It wanted to make a point that I want to relay: appearances and seemingly insignificant things matter. They influence how we perceive and believe.
This is fascinating but not revolutionary or radical. Marketing folks always believed that packaging of a product can bolster its sales significantly. Ads on TV can make us buy an even lousy product. Pitchmen sell us stuff by making them irresistible even when we do not need it. Presentation matters because of the uncountable emotional and psychological associations – most of them subconscious and buried somewhere deep – we have with various entities. We subconsciously make inferences about people, proposals, ideas and text based on how it is presented. Our inferences are programmed in our brains. We may avoid it by being conscious about it and making an explicit effort not to get influenced. But the default us works differently – more in an autopilot mode.
One of my favorite reads of all times: Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping Point refers to this behavior. The book explains why some ideas, products or messages spread like viruses while others don’t even when one is as good as the other. The various factors are not always obvious nor self-evident. One factor was that we can slightly change the way a message is structured or presented – just a small subtle change – that can actually tip the message to become more receptive. A study mentioned added a small map to university’s medical center on the message encouraging students to get vaccinated. The small change tipped the message – the number of students who actually got vaccinations were significantly higher. The message was the same with or without map. The map simply nudged them slightly and made it more palatable to get vaccinated.
Interesting – but seriously, why am I telling you all this?
Well this is one of the most significant and effective communication lessons I have learned. For a Knowledge worker – a software engineer, a project manager, a lawyer, a financial analyst or a senior executive – this can be immensely powerful. Communication is their most common behavior and communication is what the listener does. By explicitly focusing on introducing small changes in our communication behaviors, we can make huge gains in results. This can be adjusting the way you greet a person, start or conclude an email, dress up for a presentation, make eye contact during a presentation, adjust the tone and pitch of your voice, improve your body posture, better your choice of words or even use Baskerville as your default font!
How would you know which small change works and which does not? Well there is no single answer to all situations. However, there is a common principle that works everywhere. Make changes to the way you communicate based on who you are communicating with and what makes sense to them.
Remember – Communication is what the Listener does! The NYT research focused on how much the reader believed in the statement – the content of the message never changed.