The medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan, noted Canadian media critic and philosopher, coined this phrase in the 1960s to point out an inescapable truth of communication: It’s not just the content that matters. The way that content is delivered can be just as important.


You’ve probably heard this before (which on its own makes you more likely to believe that it’s true), but the idea is borne out again and again in the social psychology literature. There are studies showing that you will tend to rate beautiful people as more trustworthy (but only when you’re in a good mood, apparently) or that you’ll be less satisfied by a customer service interaction if the representative had foreign accent (and yet Americans tend to find British accents alluring and sophisticated).

The person delivering the message and the way they deliver it have a huge impact on how well it gets received.

The most recent addition to this literature is a study out last week from the Australian National University showing that the audio quality of a scientific presentation is a significant predictor of trust and believability. With the exact same video, poor quality audio recordings make people rate the research being presented as less important and the researchers themselves as less intelligent. Even when the scientist was well-known and their credentials were stated at the beginning of the presentation, if the audio was poor, so was the audience’s opinion.

This is pretty intuitive. People like to have positive self-opinion, so if you have to struggle to understand something, your brain tells you it must be because the thing is dumb, not because you are. Your brain is trying to limit cognitive dissonance.

Your brain is also lazy. It uses rules of thumb (heuristics) to skip as much processing as possible. The interesting side-effect of this is that, when your brain has to struggle to get through something and can’t rely on heuristics because the font is hard to read (or the audio is poor), it takes its time, is more analytical, and is sometimes better at picking up mistakes.

The seminal paper on this was published in 2008 and found something surprising when it asked people the following question:

How many of each animal did Moses take onto the ark?

When written like that, most people answered “two”

But when presented with something like this:

How many of each animal did Moses take onto the ark?

More of the subjects correctly identified that it was Noah who was supposed to be taking the animals, not Moses.

So the logical extension of that might be, if you want people to engage with your work, to write with terrible, almost illegible fonts. And there is some research to support this approach (to a point!) But decreasing processing fluency (making your brain work harder to understand what’s going on) increases the chance you’ll make false memories and some researchers are saying this whole disfluency thing might be a load of baloney.

So what does all this mean for our Australian audio recordings?

The high-quality recordings would be easy for your brain to process, so you might tend to be less methodical and analytical, taking what they say at face value and rating them as nice, intelligent, and correct. By contrast, the low-quality recordings make you struggle to understand, putting you in a bad mood and making you more likely to not like what is being said or the person saying it.

This has lots of relevance for people wanting to get their science out in front of people. Even if you have great research, if you don’t package it nicely, nobody will listen. This helps explain why well-edited, good quality talks like those from TED and the Royal Institution are so much more popular than similar presentations from universities with poor AV set-ups.

If you want people to take what you have to say seriously, make sure your medium is as good as your message.


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