From the Lab: Ask in Person (Updated)

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Vanessa K. Bohns wrote about her new research that found that “people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.” This is consistent with previous research that showed that negotiations in person are more effective than negotiations by video, which are in turn more effective than negotiations by email.

In the new study, participants asked strangers to fill out a survey—either by email or in person—and to predict how successful their request would be. While participants expected that both types of request would be equally effective, in reality, the face-to-face requests were 34 times as successful! As Bohns notes, this means that “despite the reach of email, asking in person is the significantly more effective approach; you need to ask six people in person to equal the power of a 200-recipient email blast.”

Therefore, while email can be significantly less stressful than speaking, the latter will almost certainly be more successful. If you have the opportunity to ask face-to-face, take it!


Update (4/17/17): In a post today on The Science of Us, Matthew Hutson highlights some additional research on the benefits of speaking over writing. For example, according to one study, when a “hire me” pitch is presented in writing, the candidate is viewed as significantly less intelligent, likable, and hirable than when the same pitch is spoken. A follow-up study found one potential reason why: when we read someone else’s writing, we hear it in an unnaturally monotone voice. Another study confirmed that it’s significantly harder to discern the tone of an email compared to speaking. And yet another study found that conflicts are more likely to escalate when they play out over email than when they play out face-to-face or over the phone.

From the Lab: What Are They Thinking?

Reading the research on effective persuasion, it’s easy to get the idea that emotion, values, and intuition are always better than logic—that heart and halo are always better than head. In reality, however, this isn’t always the case.

In a 2008 study by Adam Galinsky and colleagues, they tested several different ways of approaching a negotiation. In the negotiation, participants played the role of either a service-station owner or a prospective buyer of the service-station. The scenario was designed so that while there was no immediately obvious solution that satisfied both parties, with a little creativity, a win-win was possible. The prospective buyers were divided into three groups: a control group, an empathy group, and a perspective-taking group.

In the control group, participants were simply told to focus on their own role.

In the empathy group, participants were told:

In preparing for the negotiation and during the negotiation, take the perspective of the service-station owner. Try to understand what they are feeling, what emotions they may be experiencing in selling the station. Try to imagine what you would be feeling in that role.

In the perspective-taking group, participants were told:

In preparing for the negotiation and during the negotiation, take the perspective of the service-station owner. Try to understand what they are thinking, what their interests and purposes are in selling the station. Try to imagine what you would be thinking in that role.

When they considered only their own role, 39% of buyers closed a deal. When they imagined what their partner was feeling, 54% succeeded. When they imagined what their partner was thinking, a whopping 76% of buyers found the win-win. While empathizing with their partner helped a little bit, when participants imagined what their partner was thinking, they were almost twice as likely to reach a deal! In another negotiation scenario, this perspective-taking approach resulted in both the highest joint gain (the sum of satisfaction of both parties), and the highest individual gain (for the perspective-taker).

Therefore, whenever you’re preparing to communicate—particularly if involves a persuasive element—it pays to get inside the head of your audience, asking yourself, “what are they thinking?”