Communicating Through Different Media

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Communicating Through Different Media

The medium is the message. (Marshal McLuhan)

How can I know what I think till I see what I say? (G. Wallas)

On a daily basis we choose to communicate with others through different media: we write text (email, notes, letters); we speak on the phone a great deal, and we see people face-to-face or via programs like Skype or Zoom. They present us with different media: verbal (words), vocal (words and sounds) and visual (words, sounds, pictures). Why do we choose these different media? Are some more efficient or memorable than others?

Do people remember more of what they have heard, seen or read? Ask the lay person about the ’relative power’ of audio-visual (AV) (television), audio-only (A) (radio), and print (P) (newspaper) medium, most (around 75 per cent) argue the relative influence and power of television. But what do the studies show?

Consider the following test: A homogenous group of 60 people are divided randomly into three groups of 20 people. One group watches a 10-minute television news programme (that they have not seen before); one group listens to audio of the same programme; the third group is given 10 minutes to read a transcript of the programme. They are all getting the same information but through quite different media.

After this, they are given a memory test. The question is, who remembers the most and why? Asked to explain their choice, those who believe in the particular memorability of television talk about the ’impact’ of pictures, the ’power of images’, etc. With few exceptions the results of over 20 serious studies have been exactly the same: the print group remembers the most, the audio-visual least, with the audio-only group in between. If you ask very detailed and specific questions you find the television group remember about a fifth of the details, the radio group about a quarter and the print group about a third.

People are often shocked about how little they can remember. But the question remains: why do the audio-visual group do so badly? There are various reasons for this.

First, there is the issue of what psychologists call ’cognitive processing’. What they mean is intellectual effort. It’s easier to watch something on the television or computer than to read a newspaper: it takes less effort. It is this effort in reading that leads to better retention and understanding.

Second, a reason for poorer recall of audio-visual material is the synchronization between the words and the pictures. News journalists write a script and camera operators try to get the best shot they can. The two are not very well aligned. The word/picture discrepancy can be very off-putting: a dramatic event may be memorable in itself, but the facts around it are forgotten. This does not help concentration.

Third, there is the issue of speed: people read at different speeds because of all sorts of things including education, mother tongue, practice. Television comes at a pace one might or might not comprehend. Reading is self-paced; practice is also usually self-paced. This helps comprehension. You learn best at your own pace.

Fourth, the way material is broken down and laid out is important. Magazine and newspaper editors are careful about where on a page they place a picture. The chunking of the literature is important. We know that, under different circumstances, there are both primary and recency effects, meaning that either the information that comes first or last has most impact. We also know that (nearly) always the information in the middle is the most forgotten.

For the print medium we have two-dimensional space; colour, word size, photographs and cartoons can be used to break up text or to emphasize things. All you have on the radio is loud/soft, accents, speed and the order the information is presented in. Television can change colour but does so rarely.


Does it depend on the content: do people have a better memory for news, advertisements, science programmes? A little, but print is always best. However, the simpler the message is and the more dramatically it is portrayed, particularly where the picture reinforces the message, the more television can be seen to do better than radio.

Does it depend on the audience: for example, adults versus children? Again, print is best, but children tend to remember visual images well.

Does it depend on how memory is measured: short versus long term, free versus cued recall? No, not really.

So, the moral of the story: if you want to communicate a message that will be fully processed by your audience, you should in theory send a well written and carefully constructed email. But, the problem is that we are now overwhelmed by written messages. The problems of email can be neatly divided into two categories: Volume and Interpretation.

Faced, paradoxically, by reduced efficiency because staff spend all their day sending and receiving written communications, businesses have tried to devise new rules. Rules that are offensive and defensive, perhaps, but rules that are aimed at achieving a bit of filtering and helping with prioritizing.

Consider the following:

• No-one is allowed to email people on their floor or building; they should speak to them in person.

• Chevrons indicating urgency are to be used regularly but sparingly. Not more than one ’triple-very-urgent’ in one day.

• No-one is allowed to send more than 20 emails per day.

• CC-ing is allowed only five times per day and never to more than seven people.

• No email may contain fewer than 20 words or more than 150 words and whilst bullet points are encouraged, seven is the maximum number.

• If an email is not responded to within 48 hours it should be deleted.

• While on holiday or out-of-office, auto-responses should be applied so that senders are aware of your absence.

The second problem is tone. Without face-to-face voice tone it is often easy to misinterpret emails. Capitals are seen as shouting; spelling or typing errors as carelessness or ignorance. Emojis are considered unprofessional in many business contexts and carry their own dangers. Pity the sender who mistakes ’crying with laughter face’ for ’crying face’ when responding in a sad context.

It is often those with low emotional intelligence and social skills who choose to communicate via email. They think it is easier. It isn’t. It’s harder to read the hidden agenda in emails. Some of the advice given to people when receiving traditional letters may apply:

• Never reply immediately if the email causes strong (negative) emotions. You don’t have to sleep on it, but give it a few hours.

• Beware forwarding emails that contain jokes, memes or personal comments which can be very contextual.

• Re-read your responses, particularly to emotionally charged emails, at least once.

• Realize that not all emails get delivered.


Furnham, A., Gunter, B., & Green, A. (1990) Remembering Science: the recall of factual information as a function of presentation mode. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 4, 203—12.

Furnham, A., Gunter & Walsh (1998). Effects of programme context on memory of humorous television commercials. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12, 555—67.

Furnham, A, (2001). Remembering stories as a function of the medium of presentation. Psychological Reports, 89, 483—6

Furnham, A., Gunter, B., & Richardson, F. (2002). Effects of product-programme congruity and viewer involvement on memory for televised advertisements. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32, 124—41.