Cheerleaders and Communications

Why every good message needs a mate

Firstly, a disclaimer. When I say cheerleaders and communications, I’m not about to recommend adding some pom-poms and razzamatazz to the launch of your next Annual Report, although of course that might be a good idea anyway. Instead I’m interested in the Cheerleader Effect and its impact on how we communicate our messages.

The Cheerleader Effect is a psychological phenomenon that suggests individual faces are more attractive or appealing when viewed collectively rather than on their own. An illuminating article by Cindi May in Scientific American reveals the latest research findings into this effect.

Our brains tend to amalgamate similar images together to create an ‘average’ image, which it so happens is often more appealing than the separate component parts. This means that when we look at a group of faces together – Cheerleaders, for example – we view them as more attractive than if we saw their faces individually. As May says: “although the group contains many individual items, we naturally perceive those items as a set, and form our impressions on the basis of the collective whole”.

Interesting in its own right, what struck me about this phenomenon was how it mirrors the way messages work.

In message tests, the power of individual proof points or arguments is often substantially increased when they are seen as part of a group rather than alone. Of course, there is a cumulative effect from showing lots of stimulus (the volume of messaging) which will create a more powerful impression than just showing one idea. But I’m not talking about the benefit simply of doing lots of things.

Just as psychologically we see things in groups, so it’s interesting in focus groups to observe how people can sometimes intuitively ‘join the dots’ between different messages and see a pattern. This process tends to see the strengths of an individual message enhanced because of its connections to others. We see the whole narrative as more than the sum of the proof-point parts.

If this is right, it seems to me there are three important conclusions for communicators.

The first is to ensure that policy announcements aren’t orphans. Every good message needs a mate and to fit within a context of other communications that reinforce it. Companies often misstep by launching a series of individual initiatives over a period of time, without providing a framework within which each idea is located. The Cheerleader Effect would suggest we weaken each claim in the process.

Secondly, we need to understand the tension between enhancing and diluting our ideas. If the Cheerleader Effect implies there’s safety in numbers, this is only true to the extent that the ideas are similarly impressive. Throwing together lots of good and bad messages in the hope that they will somehow gel isn’t the answer. For the effect to work, there needs to be a pattern to the ideas that people can make sense of and getting this right isn’t easy.

Finally, we need to remember our initiatives and communications are judged not in absolute terms but in a competitive context. No matter how impressive the actions, they can be belittled if they are surrounded by even bigger deeds from competitors. Often companies spend most of their time testing the make-up of their brilliant new idea, totally ignoring the implications of communicating it in a space where plenty of others are already active.

The notion that it is helpful to communicate ideas together in small groups is not a revelation. This sort of approach is found everywhere, from the politician’s pledge card to the five bullet points on a Powerpoint slide. But the Cheerleader Effect suggests there may be more to it than just the simplicity of presentation. If we intuitively connect ideas together and see them as interrelated, having joined up communications will help strengthen the credibility and power of each message.