Last year we wrote about the difference between talking and writing, looking into whether one of these ways of communicating information is easier than the other. Now, we want to revisit this theme from the perspective of the recipient of the information – the reader or listener.

In contrast to generating communications, where we must decide which medium will best get a message across, we generally have little influence over how we receive these messages – with a few exceptions including watching TV with subtitles or using technology that converts text to speech and vice versa.

In this article, we've decided to take a closer look at reading and listening, comparing how easy and effective each of them is for digesting information.

Which is better – reading or listening?

The question we're examining here is whether reading or listening is easier – but this isn't such a straightforward question as it may first appear; what do we even mean by 'easy' in this case? It may seem easier to listen to a spoken message than to read a written one because listening doesn't always require active attention; but this also risks losing some important information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the communication. So it could be argued that while listening appears easier on the surface, to do so effectively is at least as difficult as reading.

By the same token, while reading unavoidably requires active participation, it can also be done on an individual's own terms – for example, we can read at our own pace, and we can go back and re-read a sentence to gain a clearer understanding of the writer's message. This makes it easier to do in the sense that there's no pressure to get everything first time – because let's face it, we're all guilty of letting our attention drift from time to time.

The way different people's brains are wired also plays into this discussion – everyone is different, and for some, either reading or listening will always be easier because of the way they prefer to receive information. In addition, it's worth noting that our brains learned to interpret written communications much more recently than spoken ones.

What can we learn from audiobooks?

With audiobook sales continuing to rise, there's clearly a reason that audiences are increasingly choosing this method of 'reading'. It could be that they find it easier, although there may well be lifestyle reasons too – for example, a busy working parent may find it more practical to listen to a book on the drive to work than to set aside time to focus on reading each day.

According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, the brain makes no distinction between interpreting and storing information from an audiobook as compared to a physical one. His research has found that our brains have to work equally hard to decode information received through listening as it does the written word – so audiobook listeners will be relieved to know that they're not 'cheating'. In fact, Willingham argues that it may even be possible to get more out of listening to a book, because the tone of voice used by the person reading it out may give us some insight into the author's intended meaning that we would miss if reading it ourselves.

What matters more in a message – non-verbal cues, or the exact wording?

When reading, the possibility exists to misinterpret a message by missing certain clues such as tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. However, it should be noted that we're talking about listening here, and not watching – while face-to-face conversation, video chat and audio-visual communications such as TV and online videos allow us to interpret a speaker's body language and facial expressions, there are numerous ways of listening that also do away with these non-verbal elements, such as podcast and radio.

There are also, without a doubt, instances where a written communication is preferable because it's important that the exact words are clearly transmitted and understood without ambiguity. This could include medical prescriptions and school exams, to name a couple of examples.

You've heard the arguments – so what can we read into all of this?

At Plotto, we feel that non-verbal cues and tone of voice are important elements of a communication – which is exactly why we offer online survey tools for research that utilise consumer research video recording as well as written forms. We then enhance the researcher's ability to understand a respondent's full expression in all its nuanced glory – while reducing the possibility for any misinterpretation of the words they use – through technology that highlights sentiment and keywords, and recognises facial expressions.

Having said that, both writing and speaking have their advantages for certain purposes, and there is a time and a place for each of these forms of communication.

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