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May 10, 2017

Don't send an email—ask out loud. It's 34 times as effective, study says

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Sept. 14, 2018.

Even though a face-to-face request is dramatically more persuasive than an email, people continue to underestimate the value of an in-person meeting, according to a pair of studies in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Crossing the communication chasm—how to reach more physicians

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Cornell University's Vanessa Bohns—one of the studies' authors—suggested that a request made in person is 34 times more effective than an emailed request. Put another way: To equal the power of a 200-recipient email blast, you need to make only six in-person requests, she writes.

For one study, Bohns and her coauthor, Western University's Mahdi Roghanizad, asked 45 participants to each ask 10 strangers to complete a survey. Half of the participants made their requests via email and half made their requests face-to-face. Both groups used the same script.

According to Bohns, people who received in-person requests were considerably more likely to agree to complete the survey than those who were asked via email—aligning with previous research showing that people are far more likely to agree to a face-to-face request.

But participants' instincts didn't line up with the results. Before making their requests, the two groups felt similarly confident in the number of people they would get to do the survey. Participants in the email group on average predicted they'd get 5.5 yeses, while participants in the face-to-face group predicted they'd get five—a statistically insignificant difference, Bohns writes.

One explanation? Participants failed to empathize with the perspective of the recipients of the email requests. "Participants were highly attuned to their own trustworthiness and the legitimacy of the action they were asking others to take when they sent their emails," Bohns writes. "Anchored on this information, they failed to anticipate what the recipients of their emails were likely to see: an untrustworthy email asking them to click on a suspicious link."

Why face-to-face is so much better

Study participants were also oblivious to the trust they established when communicating face to face, Bohns writes. In the second study, Bohns and Roghanizad found that face-to-face requesters gave nonverbal cues that "made all the difference in how people viewed the legitimacy of their requests"—but requesters were "oblivious" that they were conveying those cues.

Bohns' advice? "If your office runs on email and text-based communication, it's worth considering whether you could be a more effective communicator by having conversations in person," she writes. Text-based communication might be more "convenient and comfortable," she continues, but overestimating its efficacy may mean you "regularly—and unknowingly—choose [an] inferior means of influence" (Bohns, Harvard Business Review, 4/11).

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