Study offers insight on effective ways to present information

Presenting information effectively is an important task most of us face in our personal and professional lives. Yet marketing and psychology researchers have found in a study that we often inadvertently dilute the message we seek to convey by our efforts to strengthen it.

“Whether it’s an editor considering which reviews to use on a book jacket, a lawyer crafting arguments for a court case, a job applicant pondering what to highlight on a resume, or a homeowner trying to sell a house, we all have to decide what information to include and what to exclude in our presentations,” said the study’s lead author, Pamplin College of Business Assistant Professor of Marketing Kimberlee Weaver.

    Assistant Professor Kimberlee Weaver

Weaver said those who present information often fail to anticipate how the various pieces of information will be combined in the minds of their audience. Presenters follow a “more-is-better” logic and assume that each additional positive detail will add to their message.

But recipients evaluate the overall bundle of information as a whole, which leads them to average the value of its individual components, Weaver said. “While presenters assume that adding something good to something great should increase perceived value, from the evaluators’ perspective, something that is great plus something that is just good actually ends up being perceived as somewhere in the middle.”

The different perspectives of presenters and recipients can lead to different judgments about the same information package, a contradictory effect that Weaver and her co-authors call the “Presenter’s Paradox.” The paradox is of practical importance not only to those working in marketing and consumer research but also to professionals in other fields, including law, management, and public policy.

Weaver illustrates the paradox with an example about gift giving. “Suppose you’re trying to impress a loved one with a generous gift. One option is to buy them a luxury cashmere sweater. A second option is to add in a $10 gift card.”

If their budget allows, most gift givers would choose the option of two gifts — one big and one small, she said. Ironically, the recipient is likely to perceive the cashmere sweater alone as more generous than the combination of the same sweater and gift card. “The gift giver or presenter does not anticipate this difference in perspectives and has just cheapened the gift package by spending an extra $10 on it.”

Weaver said the reason the gift card dilutes the value of the overall gift is that people who evaluate a bundle, such as a gift package, process the information holistically. “The luxury sweater represents a generous ‘big’ gift. Adding on a ‘little’ gift makes the total package seem less big.”

On the other hand, “people who present a bundle of information assume that each favorable piece will add to their overall case, so they are tempted to include them all in the bundle they present,” she said.

Given evaluators’ information-processing mind set, said co-author Stephen Garcia, an associate professor of psychology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan,“presenters of information would be better off if they limited their presentation to their most favorable information, just as gift givers would be better off to limit their present to their most favorite gift.”

Weaver and her co-authors found that the paradox was strongly evident in seven studies across many product categories, from bundles of music to hotel advertisements, scholarships, and even “negative” items such as penalty structures.

When asked to design a penalty for littering, for example, those who were put in charge preferred a penalty of a $750 fine plus two hours of community service over a penalty that comprised only the $750 fine. However, perceivers evaluated the former penalty as less severe than the latter, Weaver says. “Adding a couple of hours of community service made the overall penalty appear less harsh and undermined its deterrence value.”

The discovery of the Presenter’s Paradox sheds new light on how to best present information and avoid weakening the desired message, Weaver said. “Fortunately, there is a somewhat simple remedy: take the perspective of the evaluator and ask yourself how the bundle will appear to someone who will average across its components. Doing so will alert you to the fact that others will not always share your sense that more is better.”

Weaver’s research article “The Presenter’s Paradox” was the lead article in the October 2012 Journal of Consumer Research. It has been featured around the world in major news outlets, including Business Week, Time magazine, Scientific American, The Boston Globe, National Public Radio, MSNBC/Today, Fox News, CBS News, Psychology Today, Der Spiegel (Germany), The Globe and Mail (Canada), Chosun (Korea), and The Times of India.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Sookhan Ho at 540-231-5071.

About the researcher

Kimberlee Weaver received her doctorate in psychology from Princeton University. Her research interests are in consumer decision-making, consumer choice, and nonprofit marketing.

She received a Ruth Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health while a research Fellow at University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. A faculty member at Virginia Tech since 2006, Weaver is a recipient of the 2012 University Certificate of Teaching Excellence and Pamplin’s 2012 Warren L. Holtzman Outstanding Educator Award.

An interview with Kimberlee Weaver

"When we evaluate information, we tend to average it. So something that is great and something that is just good ends up being perceived as somewhere in the middle," Kimberlee Weaver says in this Inside Virginia Tech audio clip.

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