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Here’s something that’s at least a little ironic: if reading is so unnatural, maybe we should let it go.

I say ironic because I’m an author. I write books with words in them and assume (and hope) that people will read them. So it doesn’t really make much sense for me to say that we should let reading go. I have a lot of videos that I use to teach behavioral science and design, but, as you can tell, I still rely quite a bit on the written word for communicating.

If we’re not going to eliminate reading altogether, then maybe we should confine ourselves to physical books and just stop asking people to read on screens. If, as you’ve seen in this section of the book, reading is problematic as a way to communicate on screen, then what are the alternatives?

Video And Audio Alternatives

Visual content with some kind of audio is one effective form of online communication that’s currently available. I don’t mean to sound vague, but there are many possible combinations, and they can all be effective.

For example, a video that has a talking head image (a video of the person) with the audio of the person talking is one combination. If the person who’s being filmed has poor speaking or on-camera stills, it’s less than perfect, but it’s probably more effective than reading. Why is that? There are several reasons:

  1. The fusiform facial area (FFA) of the brain analyzes and interprets faces. So people are predisposed to pay attention to faces. Faces grab people’s attention. The FFA also interprets the emotional information from the face, so people get added emotional content when they watch a talking head video.
  2. People get a lot of information from hearing someone talk. There is, of course, the content of what the speaker is saying, but there’s additional information contained in what’s called the paralinguistics of speech. Paralinguistics consist of prosody (patterns of intonation) and emotional content.
  3. Gestures and facial expression tell the viewer how the speaker feels.
  4. Movement in peripheral vision grabs attention. If people watch a video of someone talking, they notice the speaker’s gestures—even if the gestures are subtle. (Refer to the chapter on How People See for more about peripheral vision.)
  5. Speakers and listeners’ brains sync up. When people listen to someone talking, the brain starts working in sync with the speaker. In his research study, Greg Stephens (2010) put participants in an fMRI machine and had them record or listen to recordings of other people talking. He found that when participants listened to someone else talk, the brain patterns of the two people started to couple, or mirror each other. There was a slight delay, which corresponded to the time it took for the communication to occur. Several different brain areas were synced. He compared this with having people listen to someone talk in a language they did not understand. In that case, the brains did not sync up.

    The more the brains were synced up, the more the listener understood the ideas and message from the speaker. The parts of the brain that have to do with social interaction were also synced. Social communication is critical to understanding the beliefs, desires, and goals of others. A video of someone talking is more powerful than just reading words on a page.
  6. There’s a special part of the brain for processing the human voice. Although people aren’t born ready to read, they are born ready to interpret the human voice, including the emotional information conveyed by speech.

Dogs and humans have similar voice-processing areas

Attila Andics (2014) took fMRI brain scans of dogs and people. He had them listen to both dog and human sounds, including crying, laughing, and barking. The dogs showed a similar voice-processing area of the brain as the humans, in a similar location. Dogs and humans showed similar brain activity when they listened to voices with positive emotions (laughing), and less activity when hearing negative emotions (crying or whining). Both dogs and humans responded more to their own species.

Victoria Ratcliffe and David Reby (2014) discovered that dogs break human speech into two parts—the emotional cues and the meaning of the words—and these different kinds of information are processed in different parts of the brain, similar to humans. For the most efficient interpretation, Ratcliffe recommends speaking emotional information to a dog’s left ear and commands to its right ear.

Emotions are contagious

When people are excited and happy, they display that emotion in their body postures, movement, gestures, and facial expressions. This is true for any emotion— sadness, fear, and so on. The converse is also true: even if people aren’t feeling a specific emotion, if they make facial and body gestures as though they are (for example, frowning and slumping your shoulders as though they’re sad, even if they’re not), the body sends that information to the brain and they actually start to feel the emotion they’re physically displaying (Dana R. Carney, Amy J. C. Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap, 2015).

It’s not only the body that interprets this information. People unconsciously mimic and mirror other people’s actions, gestures, and facial expressions. If a speaker is talking in a happy, excited manner, the listener will duplicate those mannerisms. This means that people’s emotions are contagious.

Any Visual Plus Audio

Talking head videos aren’t the only effective communication. Showing pictures while someone talks is also more effective than asking people to read text. Even displaying words on a screen while someone talks is more attention-getting, and communicates more information, than reading alone.

Recently I watched a 20-minute video that consisted of words appearing on the screen in a large font, like a series of slides, while a person talked. It was very effective. I stayed till the end. The words matched what the speaker was saying 99 percent of the time. The visual was just slides with one sentence or phrase in black text on a white background. There were no images. But the speaker’s voice was interesting and compelling, as was the content, so I stayed.


  • Since video has so many advantages over text, consider video before you decide what and how much text to use in your design.
  • Since audio is just as important—and sometimes more important—than video, consider using a person talking with visuals when you need to communicate.


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