Persuasive communication

Bad Is Stronger than Good

Delicious, but watch out for pits!

Last week I attended a meeting in which an author spoke about his book. Overall, he was a very engaging speaker and his message made a lot of sense. Yet, there was one point in his presentation in which he said something in passing that struck me as odd—not quite offensive but slightly off-kilter from the rest of his positive message.

I didn’t think much of it,  but late that afternoon when Chris, the organizer of the meeting, called me to discuss some topics, he also asked me what I had thought of the speaker. I told him about my generally positive impression. Chris agreed with my assessment, but then he also brought up the same comment I had noted.

Interestingly, the speaker had delivered some very good insights and helpful ideas,  but when I thought about his talk a few hours later, the most salient thing in my mind was the one negative thing. It wasn’t that big a deal, and it was totally irrelevant to his message, but it stuck in my mind.

In 2001, Roy Baumeister and colleagues wrote a paper titled Bad Is Stronger than Good, in which they surveyed the landscape and literature of psychology and noted a clear and substantial difference between the impact of negative information and events and positive information and events. It makes evolutionary sense for our minds to work this way. Finding something might feed you for a day, but missing a sign of danger could kill you for a long time.

From child-rearing to learning to memory to first impressions, we seem to place inordinate weight on bad. As I’ve noted in a previous article, losses loom larger than gains in our minds, and effective influencers know how to harness this in their message framing.

It’s also very important in first impressions. The initial impression you make serves as an anchor that can set the tone for the rest of the meeting, but unfortunately negative first impressions last longer than positive. That’s why you have to have a strong opening. Even minor practices such as showing up early can help, because if you’re rushed while trying to set up  your equipment it’s easy to slip up.

My point in writing this article, however, is to stress the critical importance of care and preparation in your presentations and sales calls, because all the good you do with your presentation can be wiped out, or at least seriously diminished by one small thing.

I used to notice this when I was on the loan committee of my bank. A loan officer would make a solid presentation of a good business opportunity, but if they slipped up on one minor detail, it was like pulling a loose thread on a sweater. Someone would pick up on the comment, and then the negative momentum of the questioning would pick up and potentially get out of hand.

Even something as inconsequential as a typo can have an outsized impact. A recent study of UK online retailers found that ads that contained typos sold up to 50% less and cost millions of pounds.

Don’t take this idea to the extreme, however, because it might cause you to try so hard to play it safe that the result will be bland, boring and forgettable.

In addition, bad is not all-powerful. In fact, it does not hurt to occasionally bring up some of the shortcomings of your solution, because it makes you much more credible and allows you to control the perception of the information rather than having someone else bring it up. If you do, make sure you mention it first so you can counteract it.[1]

If you plan for it, you can turn a negative into a positive. When you eat a cherry pie, an unexpected pit can ruin the entire experience. But, if the label says, “Real cherries, watch out for pits”, you might be more likely to buy it.


[1] Another tidbit I got from reading Baumeister’s paper is that when it’s a good news/bad news scenario, 77% to 88% of people prefer to hear the bad news first.

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