The 6 reasons why face-to-face presenting is more persuasive

Seth Godin recently posted that as online methods of engaging and interacting improve, the expectations for face-to-face interactions such as sales calls, presentations and conferences will increase:

In other words, “I flew all the way here for this?” is going to be far more common than it used to be.

This got me thinking about whether we will continue to have face-to-face presentations. Does face-to-face presenting have an edge over video-conferencing and other online presentation technology?

I think so. Face-to-face presenting is inherently more persuasive. For many of us this is intuitive. If you want to persuade someone, going to see them is likely to be more effective than the phone, and the phone is likely to be more effective than sending them an e-mail.

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini in his classic work Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion identifies six weapons of influence. Here’s how these factors can be more effective in a face-to-face setting:

1. Reciprocation – we feel some obligation to return favors.

If a person has made the effort to prepare and deliver a face-to-face presentation, we are likely to reciprocate by carefully considering what they say. We owe them that. When I watch a presentation online and the presenter fails to engage me I have no hesitation in clicking away.  I’ve only once left a live presentation – and I felt awful doing it.

2. Commitment and consistency – if people make a commitment, they are likely to follow through on it.

Attending a live presentation and devoting time to it, is a form of commitment. So in order to act consistently with that commitment, audience members may be more likely to take action based on the presentation.

3. Social proof – we look to other people as guidance on how to act.

Being part of an audience is a very different experience to watching a video of the same presentation online by yourself. Could this be because the behaviour of other people helps us form our own response to the presenter.

4. Authority – we tend to obey authority figures.

Are we more likely to judge someone as authoritative when we see them face to face? I think this is likely.

5. Liking – we’re more easily persuaded by people we like.

Deciding whether we like someone we’ve seen or met online, takes time. Meeting people face-to-face, we can make millisecond judgments about whether we like them.

6. Scarcity – believing something is scarce makes us want it.

A live presentation is by definition scarce – being part of it is to feel part of something exclusive and special. When we see something on the internet, in most cases, we know that it’s also available to millions of other people – nothing special or exclusive about that.

You’ve likely visited the TED website. Hundred of good quality videos of fantastic presentations. It’s almost like being there! But it’s not. And despite the fact that I can watch all the presentations online, I would still love to be invited and I would pay to go.

Humans evolved in a face-to-face world.  We are optimised for the face-to-face situation. I believe face-to-face presenting will continue to have a persuasive edge. What do you think?

I wrote all this and then I read Guy Kawasaki’s post about amazing new technology from Cisco and Musion Systems. See it in action here. Three people on stage in Bangalore, India, but only one of them is really there – two of them are “holographic presences” beamed in from San Jose, California. From an audience point of view, there appears to be no distinction between the three men. I believe we would be fooled into reacting as if they were all face-to-face with us.

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  1. Comment from Terry Gault

    You are definitely right: face-time is more persuasive for the reasons you gave.

    It is much easier to form accurate general impressions of a speaker in person, even if we may not be able to articulate the behaviors and techniques that led us to form them. After all, we’ve all spent a good portion of our lives gaging the truthfulness of the people with whom we interact.

    In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.

    Our unconscious brains are gathering up thousands of subtle signals from the speakers that we observe regularly and forming general impressions such as, “He’s lying.” or “She’s arrogant.”

    Body-language is often lost on-line, as is tone of voice in e-mail. Thus, we lose a lot of information about a speaker which makes it much harder to be persuaded by them.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Today’s technology does keep us connected. We can attend video conferences, webinars, Second Life events, etc. They serve a purpose.

    But they are substitutes that can never supplant the depth, the ability to hear what isn’t being said and opportunity to “read” people that face to face contact offers. We just need to become adept at it. And I am biased as my new book will be out in October: Face to FAce: How to REclaim he Personal Touch in a Digital World.

    One techie blogger wrote that there is no such thing as sharing a “virtual beer”.

    We must all be digitally adept but those who succeed in the 21st Century will be the people who can “talk to other people” according to Dr. Nathan Keyfitz, of Harvard. Whether it’s the sales call, the delicate conversation, the chance meeting —face to face communication reigns.


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