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Use positive emotions to support your case

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Some fascinating psychology: most people believe they make decisions logically and rationally, but in reality their emotions influence how they react in business. People’s decisions are largely based on trust, which is based in emotion. If you are putting a new-business proposal to another person, they will not decide to buy unless they trust you as a person. The extent of this trust will be influenced by irrelevant factors as well as relevant factors. 

You may know this intuitively, but recent research at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania revealed that non-task communication – discussion that’s not directly relevant to the negotiation process – is important for closing a deal. For instance, telling anecdotes or jokes, or talking about sports can change people’s emotional states and make them more (or less) trusting.

To capitalise on this characteristic, prepare in advance the non-task types of stories you tell and questions you ask. Learn more about the potential client’s interests. Look around their boardroom or office to see what awards, trophies or certificates are on display. If you are meeting in an executive’s office, look at the personal and business photographs that may be on display. These will be revealing about the person and the organisation.

The reason you win a large contract may have more to do with how funny your story was beforehand than your corporate reputation.

The same principle applies to other important job situations such as when you ask your boss for a promotion or new job responsibilities. This is a good time to tell a humorous story or ask about your boss’s golf game. The point is to recognise the role that emotions play – that external events, good or bad, and non-task communication, like telling a funny story – are important for trust judgements.

The research found that you can shift people to think about happy things and therefore put them in a good frame of mind for the negotiations or presentation. Good salespersons focus on something uplifting like a (relevant) sports team reaching the finals or an forthcoming holiday. They may even bring a little thoughtful or humorous gift for the potential client. They don’t lead with negative comments about share prices dropping or the local sports team losing. 1

These findings support the results of another valuable principle: people like those who like them. 2 Put another way: if you go out of your way to relate personally to a prospective client, your chances of success significantly improve.

When you go to meet a new client or potential client, you will find two main factors reliably increase liking – similarity and praise. If you find real similar interests and offer genuine praise you will go a long way.

Similarity draws people together. An example is the way that research has confirmed what we know instinctively – that people stand closer together if they share political beliefs and social values. Research in the life insurance industry showed that prospects were more willing to purchase a policy from a salesperson who was similar to them in age, religion or politics. The important thing is to establish the bond early because it creates a presumption of goodwill and trustworthiness in every subsequent encounter. It’s much easier to build support when the people you are trying to persuade are already inclined in your favour. 3

Praise charms and disarms. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be merited. Psychology experiments found that people felt the greatest regard for an individual who flattered them unstintingly, even if the comments were untrue. No wonder there are so many 'yes-men' around! And positive remarks about another person’s traits, attitude or performance reliably generate liking in return, as well as willing compliance with the wishes of the person offering the praise. 4

These tips are also subtle, but powerful ways to increase your appeal: 

  • When you are on the telephone to a potential client, or almost to anyone, smile. It’s a powerful tool – people can hear the subtle difference in tone when you are smiling. Try it; you’ll find that they respond more positively to your conversation than they would otherwise.

  • Another way to regulate your vocal tone while on the telephone is through body language. Get up and move around when you speak: the added dynamism from your movement will make you more effective.


  1. Schweitzer, Maurice E. and Dunn, Jennifer. “Feeling and believing: the influence of emotion on trust.” In article “Looking to make a sale or get promoted? Emotions will help determine the outcome.” Retrieved from Knowledge@Wharton online newsletter
  2. Cialdini, Robert B. “Harnessing the science of persuasion.” Harvard Business Review, October 2001, pp. 72-79.
  3. Cialdini, p. 74.
  4. Cialdini, p. 74.


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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