Speaking or Writing? The Impact of Expression Modalities

March 1, 2023

Jonah Berger, PhD, Matthew D. Rocklage, PhD, and Grant Packard, PhD

Communicating thoughts, opinions, ideas, and beliefs frequently occurs throughout conversations every day. People talk about restaurants they love, shows they hate, and products they cannot live without. Word of mouth has become a pivotal factor in what shapes one’s thoughts and actions. A rave review from a good friend about a new phone may easily persuade the hearer to buy that phone. Similarly, by recounting an awful experience with a restaurant, a customer could persuade those in that individual’s circle to abstain from eating there in the future.

Stock image of older man sitting on couch speaking to camera. His hands are outstretched like he is talking with his hands

Americans alone have over 2.4 billion brand-related conversations per day, making word-of-mouth communication an essential part of consumer behavior.

This study indicates that the mode which consumers use to share their thoughts and opinions—whether speaking or writing—shapes the degree of emotion they express and its probable influence on the audience. Written communication does not have the same effect as spoken communication, partly because there are no nonverbal cues to gauge the importance of what is being communicated. Additionally, written communication offers readers more time to deliberate on what they write, which, in turn, reduces emotionality. Speaking, on the other hand, reduces interpretation time, and individuals can get caught up in the “heat of the moment” and say things they might not actually mean. This can be both positive and negative for businesses. In situations where customers are raving about the product or service, the company would rather they “shout it from the rooftops,” whereas in situations where a customer has a negative experience, business would rather have them write a review. Word-of-mouth communication plays a significant role in everyday society, but the mode in which thoughts, feelings, and opinions are communicated can be even more impactful.

Word-of-Mouth Modalities

Both written and oral reviews of products and services can be influential. For example, a real estate agent referral may be the reason an applicant lands a dream job or persuades a prospect to list a property. While the importance of word-of-mouth communication is undisputed, there is less research on how impactful the actual mode of communication.

We break down the mode of communication into two categories: speaking and writing. Speaking allows the audience or recipient to fully grasp the emotions behind what is being said. It allows the audience to see expression on the speaker’s face and body language and to hear the tone and pitch of voice. Due to the lack of nonverbal cues, it is more difficult to express emotion in written communication. Both forms of communication can express emotions, but different levels of emotion convey those feelings across audiences for the two different modes.

Emotional Expression [Writing vs. Speaking]

Emotions play a crucial role in expressing attitudes and opinions. The mode in which we communicate can mitigate the impact of emotional content. When speaking, people can easily express their emotions through tone, pitch, body language, and other nonverbal cues. Speaking makes it easier to tell when someone is overjoyed about a recent experience with a customer service representative or often when someone is frustrated because a company is not working with them to fix a problem. Words do not even need to be spoken for there to be to be clear communication between two people. On the other hand, words carry most of the weight when communicating through writing. The lack of nonverbal cues in written communication limits the different ways to express emotion. This includes using different words that are equally positive (or negative) but less emotionally-laden language. For example, instead of using “excellent” in a written review of a movie, when speaking, one might use “amazing” to further increase their expression of emotions. Both words are equally positive, but “amazing” carries more emotional power than “excellent.” Written communication further dilutes emotions because of the deliberation entailed when a person expresses opinions in writing.

Using Deliberation to Increase/Decrease Emotionality

Deliberation is a key driver of writing that expresses less emotion. Writing is more premeditated than speaking, which means there is more time for an individual to think about what they are going to write before they actually write it. Unless an individual is preparing to give a speech, there is little deliberation during conversation. Sending a text or an email allows both the sender and the recipient to deliberate on what to say. We find that the more time an individual deliberates on a topic, such as writing a review for an agent or firm, the less the emotional impact as perceived by the recipient of the communication.
Even though written communication may lead to decreased emotionality due to the presence of deliberation, there are situations where individuals can use this to their advantage. Writing can decrease the severity of something in negative reviews. In situations where the goal is to decrease or minimize emotionality, it would be positive to write down what is going to be said consider it carefully before saying it. For example, if an agent needs to deliver bad news, he/she would benefit from writing it down and deliberating on the best way to break the news.

Additionally, the specific channel (phone vs. computer) in which written communication occurs will impact emotionality. Writing on a smartphone (rather than a desktop computer) tends to lead to more emotional language because the small keyboard forces communicators to use succinct messaging. For example, sending an emotional email via smartphone may lead to more “heat of the moment” actions, which, in turn, may lead to less-professional communication; however, when expressing strong emotion, it will have greater impact coming from a phone rather than computer.

Real Estate Implications

Knowing how the mode in which opinions are expressed will impact your reputation can help you plan for the future. In situations where the goal is to increase emotional expression, speaking may be better. For example, a real estate agent who recently sold a house wants to capitalize on the ecstatic homebuyer’s emotions. A solution may be to ask the client to leave a video review online or capture video to use in advertisements. This will allow prospective clients to experience both the verbal and nonverbal cues of the satisfied client.

On the other hand, in situations where the goal is to decrease emotional expression, writing may be more beneficial. For instance, when an agent needs to deliver the bad news to clients that they didn’t get the house for which they had submitted an offer, writing down thoughts in advance before communicating the information is key. The deliberation prior to delivering the news can help the agent take his or her emotions out of the situation, as well as help the agent prepare for client reactions.

Lastly, in conversations where shifting modalities is not an option, taking a few moments to deliberate before speaking will have similar effects of decreasing emotionality. Word-of-mouth communication is important, but knowing how and when to use different forms of communication can become an integral factor in agent success.

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Recommended Reading

Berger, Jonah, Matthew Rocklage, and Grant Packard (2022), “Expression Modalities: How Speaking Versus Writing Shapes Word of Mouth,” Journal of Consumer Research, 49(3), 389-408.

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About the Authors

Jonah Berger, PhD
Professor of Marketing, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Jonah Berger (PhD – Stanford University) is an internationally bestselling author of multiple books including Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Invisible Influence, and The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. He has published dozens of articles in top academic journals, teaches Wharton’s highest rated online course, and popular accounts of his work often appear in places like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Harvard Business Review. He is a popular speaker at major conferences and events and consults for a range of Fortune 500 companies and startups.

Matthew D. Rocklage, PhD
Assistant Professor of Marketing, Northeastern University
Dr. Matthew Rocklage (PhD – Ohio State University) created the Lexical Suite, a computational tool that captures attitudes via natural text, to measure and better understand attitude emotionality and confidence using real-world big data. He is the winner of the Attitudes and Social Influence Early Career Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundations and published in top academic outlets such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Human Behavior, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, and Psychological Science.

Grant Packard, PhD
Associate Professor of Marketing, York University
Grant Packard’s (PhD – University of Michigan) research explores self-concepts, motivation, language, perception, and interpersonal influence in interactions among consumers and with firm agents. His research has been published in top-tier journals and presented at leading conferences. Before entering academia, Grant was a marketing executive for Chapters/Indigo and Excite Canada and worked with advertising agencies DMB&B New York and BBDO Toronto.