Should You Give the Good News First, or the Bad News?
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Reprinted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers from the book Convinced! by Jack Nasher, 2018.
Whether you're meeting with a customer or your boss or have to give a presentation, you will normally have both good and bad news to report. So, in what order should you present the information?
When I ask this question at lectures or seminars, the answer I receive is almost always wrong. To illustrate the point, let's have a look at this now-classic experiment from 1946 from Polish-American psychologist Solomon Asch:
Imagine you're asked to judge the character of somebody based on the following list of adjectives: intelligent, impulsive, industrious, critical, stubborn, envious. Would your verdict more likely be negative or positive?
Now, what if you were given the following list of adjectives to describe the person: envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent. Would your verdict have turned out differently?
Both lists contain the same six adjectives; the only difference is in their order of appearance. In the experiment, participants only received one of the two lists. Those who were given the first list typically rated the (nonexistent) individual as "competent," and those who received the second were more likely to describe the person as "problematic." The order of the adjectives had a decisive influence on the verdict.
This is the "primacy effect" at work: The first words used in describing a person, place or situation are decisive, because the subsequent words are not seen in isolation -- they are only experienced in the context of the preceding words. In the case of the first list of adjectives, one gets the impression of a person who is "intelligent," and any words that follow are considered in this light, improving the effect of the characteristics that are not unconditionally positive.
"Intelligent and critical," for example, seems like a good combination. If the list begins with "envious," however, the adjectives that follow are seen in a completely different light. "Envious and critical" is not a very favorable combination. In fact, even "envious and intelligent" now comes across as negative, as it implies deceitfulness.
The first impression creates a sort of "form," and the halo effect of that first impression causes everything that follows to be seen in its light. Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper summed it up in his "searchlight theory": Humans see the world in the light of whatever thoughts are present in their minds. People try to confirm their first impressions. Behavior that deviates from the first impression will be partly ignored, and ambiguous behavior will be interpreted as though it confirms the initial impression.
For example, when colleagues whom we regard as very intelligent make rather unintelligent statements in a particular situation, we do not immediately revise our impression of them. Rather, we will subconsciously seek a plausible explanation, such as that they are often preoccupied by deep thoughts and therefore were not concentrating when they said something foolish. It would take quite a lot to change our original opinion of someone.
In fact, judgments made about individuals in the first 30 seconds of meeting them are not very different from those made after five minutes, even if completely new information about them comes to light in that time. Unfortunately, this does not mean that we all have an unerring intuition about other people. Our assessments are not especially accurate, but it is hard for us to revise them. In fact, we tend to make our first assessment of someone even before our first encounter with that person, solely based on what we have heard from others or what information we have received about that person. For example, in a job interview, interviewers have already formed an opinion about you before you've walked in the door based on your application, cover letter and resume.
As the saying goes, "There's no second chance to make a first impression," and understanding the psychological mechanisms behind the primacy effect will help you ensure that your first impression is a success. When you grasp the principles of perception, you can rest assured that you'll put your best foot forward.
When you first interact with someone, put particular focus on optimizing the perception of your competence. One way to do so is by following automotive executive Daniel Goeudevert's "Theory of 20." After studying literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, Goeudevert started selling cars and quickly rose to the board of Volkswagen. He developed his method as a young car salesman and was convinced that placing special emphasis on the "first 20" -- the first 20 seconds, the first 20 words, the first 20 steps was the key to his tremendous success. The first 20 are decisive for establishing a positive impression in the mind of your conversation partner -- if the first 20 don't do the job, everything else will be in vain.
U.S. psychologist Robert Cialdini was so interested in the mysterious techniques used by car salespeople that he took a job in a car dealership without letting anyone know that he was there to study their methods. He witnessed a classic sales tactic called "low balling," which also uses the principle of the first impression: The salesperson starts by offering a very favorable price and then goes with the customer for a test drive, at which time they discuss the details of the purchase. By the time they return, the customer's decision has been made and he is ready to buy the car. The purchase contract is on the table, waiting to be signed, but suddenly, the salesperson "discovers" a mistake.
She runs to the sales manager, presumably to plead the customer's case, but the manager is unwilling to compromise -- they would be losing money on the deal. Suddenly, the car is just as expensive as the competitor's and the salesperson can't budge because the manager has refused. What to do? The customer looks over at the new car: The children are playing in the back seat, his wife is looking forward to going out for a ride, and he knows his colleagues will gape in awe at his new vehicle ... sure, he decides, the car is no longer a bargain, but the decision has been made.
Low balling, also called "bait and switch," aims to concentrate your interlocutor's attention on the benefits of the product until the decision is made. Only then are the disadvantages of the product revealed. However, due to the primacy effect, these downsides will not have the same weight and they will be more easily accepted. The amateur who wants to sell her car goes about making the sale in exactly the opposite way. She starts by mentioning the small dent in the fender or some other defect before the potential customer has even gotten near the car. After that, everything will be seen in the light of the car's defects, however minor.
So, when facing good and bad news, explain the positive aspects first so the audience starts forming an opinion based on these, not on any negative ones. Afterward, you can mention the negative points, knowing that they will now have a significantly smaller impact. Don't make the mistake of trying to get the negative part out of the way first. So, with every report, every presentation, every message, don't start by asking, "Do you want to hear the good news or the bad news first?" -- start with the positive!