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Selective Sharing: Why Less Can Be More In Persuasion

Updated: May 27

Not too long ago I was at a Cornell event listening to a speaker open his presentation. In an attempt to build his credibility, he shared his title and the name of his employer. Then, before getting to the main point of his talk, he shared a long list of personal accomplishments. Somewhere between his fourth and seventh achievement, my impression of him changed from being somewhat impressed to being somewhat underwhelmed. 


What happened? The presenter, hoping to impress, had inadvertently diluted his credibility. He made the incorrect assumption that sharing a long list of reasons why he is credible is going to impress the audience. However, in communication, more isn’t always better.


Less is More in Effective Communication

One of the most common misconceptions I observe, among both students and experienced professionals, is that more information, features, or arguments enhances the persuasiveness of their message. However, the “Presenter’s Paradox,” a concept coined by Weaver, Garcia, and Schwarz in their 2012 study, suggests otherwise. The paradox reveals a disconnect: while presenters assume that adding favorable details increases perceived value linearly, audiences tend to average the value of all information presented. This means that every additional piece of information, especially if it’s less compelling than the rest, can actually dilute the overall impact of the message.


To illustrate this principle, consider an example where an entrepreneur is pitching their business and shares five reasons why they are the right fit to take an idea to market. Let’s imagine that the audience subconsciously assigns a persuasiveness score to each reason from 0 to 10, where 10 is the most persuasive.

Reason

Persuasiveness Score (All 5 Points)

Extensive industry experience

9

Innovative product development skills

8

Strong network of industry contacts

7

Proven track record of successful ventures

6

Personal passion for the industry

2

The average persuasiveness score when considering all five points is 6.4.

Now, see how the scenario changes when the same entrepreneur only shares the top three most compelling reasons:

Reason (Top 3 Points)

Persuasiveness Score (Top 3 Points)

Extensive industry experience

9

Innovative product development skills

8

Strong network of industry contacts

7

Focusing on these top three points increases the average persuasiveness score from a 6.4 to 8.0.

This example demonstrates the power of selective sharing in enhancing the overall impact of communication. By prioritizing and presenting only the most persuasive points, the entrepreneur significantly increases their persuasiveness.


The Flaw in More is Better

The root of this disconnect lies in how we process information. Presenters, in their eagerness to sell an idea, adopt an additive approach, mistakenly believe that more benefits, features, or achievements will linearly scale up attractiveness or credibility. This misjudgment overlooks the audience’s tendency towards averaging rather than adding, leading to a dilution of the overall message’s impact. In essence, including even mildly favorable information alongside highly favorable data diminishes perceived value, akin to watering down a fine wine.


Research on short-term memory supports why the more is better assumption fails. Cowen (2000) argues that our short-term memory has a capacity limit of about four chunks of information, which challenges the effectiveness of bombarding audiences with an excess of points or facts. This insight is critical for communicators: it’s not merely that audiences prefer fewer points for simplicity’s sake, but that our cognitive architecture imposes a strict upper limit on what we can effectively process and retain at any given moment. 


Embrace Quality Over Quantity


For students and working professionals aiming to communicate effectively, the implication is clear: focus on quality over quantity. Here’s how:


  1. Prioritize Your Points: Identify the most compelling pieces of your message and focus on these. Whether you’re sharing your achievements in a cover letter or pitching an idea to investors, pinpoint the strongest, most relevant points to highlight.

  2. Understand Your Audience: Tailor your communication to the audience’s interests and capacity for information. A well-chosen statistic or anecdote can be more impactful than a barrage of facts.

  3. Simplify: Complexity doesn’t equate to sophistication. A clear, concise message is more likely to be remembered and valued. Simplify your language and structure your points logically.

  4. Practice Restraint: Resist the urge to add “just one more” point. Before including information, ask yourself if it enhances the core message.


 

In a time where we are saturated with information, the ability to communicate effectively is more valuable than ever. By challenging the instinct to equate more with better, and by embracing a strategy of quality-driven communication, we can enhance our credibility, persuade more effectively, and ensure our messages not only reach our audience but resonate with them. 




Sources: 


Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and brain sciences, 24(1), 87-114.


Petty, R. E., Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer New York.


Weaver, K., Garcia, S. M., & Schwarz, N. (2012). The presenter's paradox. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(3), 445-460.

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