Trumping the audio

According to recent research carried out at University College London, the way a musician appears – the visual impression they make – may be more important than how they sound.

Subjects were asked to rate musicians taking part in competitions based on (a) a silent video of their performance, (b) video with audio, (c) just audio. The results were surprising. It turned out that the people watching the silent videos did best at picking the actual winners of the competitions.

As Chia-Jung Tsay, who conducted the research, puts it: “[I]t suggests that the visual trumps the audio, even in a setting where audio information should matter much more.” (For more on the study, go here.)

To put it another way, performance is everything. You could say that applies to life in general, not just classical music.

Writers are occasionally called on to be performers. Not when we’re actually writing, unless we’re taking part in some kind of weird conceptual/performance art project as Will Self once did.

I’m thinking more of the public events we’re invited to take part in from time to time. I suspect most writers are like me. We do not think of ourselves as natural performers. After all, the occupation of writing suits shy, retiring types who are happy spending extended periods of time on their own. Not natural show-offs.

So the idea of putting on a performance in front of a room full of strangers is generally unappealing.

My own feelings about such events are deeply conflicted. The temptation is to refuse all invitations and hunker down in my garret. But generally I do the opposite. I go along, bumble my way through and come out the other side feeling a mixture of relief that I managed to survive it and disappointment that I forgot to make all those brilliant points I had thought up in advance.

One thing I have no way of gauging is how my ‘performance’ actually came across to people in the audience.

I suppose one acid test is the number of books I get asked to sign afterwards. Hmm. Well. The less said about that, the better.

No one yet has conducted a study of writers at book events based on playing subjects (a) silent videos of the writers speaking, (b) the same video with the audio playing, (c) just the audio. I wonder if the same correlation would be observed, i.e. that the ones who came over best with just the video would be the ones that sold the most books.

I suspect this might be the case.

If so, then I obviously need to do something to make my visual trump my audio. I wonder if I could get away with wearing a distinctive-looking hat?


Since I wrote the above, the academic who carried out the original research, Chia-Jung Tsay, has been in touch. She wanted to clarify one point, regarding my idea of wearing a hat. In an email to me she said: “I did not find that static visual information impacted the judges’ decisions (race, gender, physical attractiveness, and presumably the distinctiveness of attire) – it was more the dynamic visual information, or what gestures/movements allowed participants to infer about the quality of performance.”

The hat thing was a joke but I take Chia’s point. Actually, I wonder if wearing a hat might not be such a stupid idea after all. Maybe it’s a little like putting on a mask – or a persona – and it may actually help to take the individual out of their normal inhibited selves, giving them the confidence to perform – to produce the dynamic gestures that will make a more positive impression? Maybe that’s why lucky shirts (or underpants) work too. Though obviously no one can see the underpants. Unless… no… we won’t go there.

Anyhow, I’ve got some events coming up. Should I, or shouldn’t I, invest in a distinctive-looking hat? Should I wear my underpants over my trousers? You decide.

2 thoughts on “Trumping the audio”

  1. I’ve done public speaking courses and I think the visual impact thing is reckoned to be about 85% of the battle, with what you say about 15%. Scary.

  2. That’s very interesting. You’ve just got to act like you know what you’re talking about even if, inside, you don’t feel it!

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