Harness powerful emotions in your messaging

Napoleon said, “Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.” Not quite as simple as that, but fear and loss still feature prominently. Many people agree that the two most powerful emotions, especially in business, are people’s desire for gain – their controlled greed, as evidenced in the WIIFM factor (“What’s in it for me?”) – and their fear. You can capitalize on this so you harness powerful emotions in your messaging to persuade people.

The strongest fear is the fear of loss or scarcity. People react the most strongly to fear messages. It is logical that we would rather avoid harm than seek gain because our strongest instincts are based on survival and our brain is designed to protect us from danger as a top priority.

The same principle occurs in business. According to a study in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, potential losses figure far more heavily in managers’ decision making than potential gains.

Fear and love message strategies are often used in politics. Give the voters something to vote for (the candidate) and something to vote against (the opposition).

Bad news attracts more attention than good news

News media invariably focus on the fear messages much more than the ‘good news’ messages. Although many people complain about “bad” or negative news in the media or stories they hear or read daily, the evidence would suggest they continue to be attracted to it. Shouldn’t we  prefer to hear positive and happy news?

Image, above: “Do we like bad news more than good news?”

What explains news media’s preoccupation with bad news? The answer is that “bad news sells.” A Pew Research Center report on US news preferences found that war and terrorism-related coverage consistently attracted the most interest, and therefore was the most-covered news in the 20 years to 2007. No directly comparable surveys appear to have been conducted since. (Having departed their last war in Afghanistan in 2021 after two decades in various wars, perhaps the US interest in war news may fall away.)

In the years 2000-2006, Americans showed the greatest interest in media reports about war and terrorism (US-linked), then money, bad weather, man-made and natural disasters next, followed by health and safety, crime and social violence, war/terrorism (non-US), domestic policy (not sure what that means), campaigns and elections, and politics. Lowest interest was in personalities and entertainment, celebrity scandals, science and technology, and other nations.

When a news site in 2014 tried reporting only good news for an entire day, it lost two thirds of its normal readership that day.

Prominent Canadian leadership consultant and executive coach, Ray Williams said in 2019:

Media studies show that bad news far outweighs good news by as much as seventeen negative news reports for every one good news report. Why? The answer may lie in the work of evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists. Humans seek out news of dramatic, negative events. These experts say that our brains evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment where anything novel or dramatic had to be attended to immediately for survival. So while we no longer defend ourselves against saber-toothed tigers, our brains have not caught up.

Many studies have shown that we care more about the threat of bad things than we do about the prospect of good things. Our negative brain tripwires are far more sensitive than our positive triggers. We tend to get more fearful than happy. And each time we experience fear we turn on our stress hormones.

The principle of scarcity and loss

A strong message strategy used in all types of marketing is to give the audience something to decide against (loss or scarcity) and something to decide for (gain). Avoiding loss or scarcity is a powerful motivator. Managers can learn from retailers how to frame their offers not in terms of what people stand to gain, but in terms of what they stand to lose if they don’t act on the information.

Professor Robert Cialdini.US psychology prof. Robert Cialdini (image, opposite), in his famous 2001 Harvard Business Review article, “Harnessing the science of persuasion,” said “People want more of what they can have less of”. And therefore, we should “highlight unique benefits and exclusive information.”

Study after study shows that items and opportunities are seen to be more valuable as they become less available. That’s a tremendously useful piece of information for managers. They can harness the scarcity principle with the organizational equivalents of limited-time, limited -supply, and one-of-a-kind offers. Honestly informing a coworker of a closing window of opportunity – the chance to get the boss’s ear before she leaves for an extended vacation, perhaps – can mobilize action dramatically.

As an example, the power of “loss language” was confirmed in a study of California home owners written up in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Half were told that if they fully insulated their homes, they would save a certain amount of money each day. The other half were told that if they failed to insulate, they would lose that amount each day. Significantly more people insulated their homes when exposed to the loss language.

The psychology of gains and losses can be complicated

In their famous academic paper, “Prospect Theory: An analysis of decision under risk (1979)”, the loss aversion model of Kahneman and Tversky, as well as another frequently-quoted academic article, “Bad is stronger than good,” by Baumeister (2001) (summarized in this easily-read iresearchnet.com paper), imply a major difference between the impact of positive and negative events. These events apparently have a different impact on decisions based on them. Tversky and Kahneman (1992) in their article on the cumulative prospect theory suggested that we value losses about 2.3 times more than gains of the same value, while Baumeister et al. (2001) proposed that the true ratio is closer to five. (In 2002, Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to behavioral economics, in particular the development of cumulative prospect theory.)

Image, opposite: Prof. Daniel Kahneman at 2002 Nobel Prize Awards.

However, such biases have not been reliably shown to occur in behavioral studies of decision making, and instead people were typically found to give the same weight to gains and losses. People do exaggerate when reporting their feelings concerning losses, but this may reflect a tendency to complain rather than a real bias in the weighting of loss compared to gain outcomes, according to Prof. Eldad Yechiam’s research findings summarized in his 2015 article, “The psychology of gains and losses: More complicated than previously thought.” Yechiam further suggests that:

People’s selective reactions to gains and losses are not passively determined by the mere exposure to gains and losses. Instead, they are also affected by the level of attention allocated to the task at hand. Losses do increase our arousal, but the more attention we pay to a given task, the less we are influenced by whether its payoffs are framed as gains or losses.

Be genuine and ethical

However, the higher the audience’s intelligence and education, the less effective fear appeals are. No offer of exclusive information, no call to act now or miss this opportunity forever should be made unless it is genuine. Deceiving colleagues into compliance is not only ethically objectionable, it’s foolhardy. If the deception is detected – and it certainly will be – it will snuff out any enthusiasm the offer originally kindled. It will also invite dishonesty toward the deceiver. Remember: the other person can reciprocate.

Use imagery to capitalize on powerful emotions in your messaging

Communication has two main components: a rational component and an emotional component. Managers mostly communicate in rational mode – about hard data, the facts. When facts are central to a message, the challenge is to interpret the figures.

Leaving the audience to make sense of the information as best they can, especially technical information, allows the audience members to place their individual interpretation on the information. They will always put the message through their own emotional and symbolic filters. By interpreting the data for the audience, the presenter guides them to the key conclusions.

A good example is investor relations activity – the potential investors are not just interested in the data about a company and the share price to that point; they are interested in what the data means. They want an analyst, share broker or company executive to tell them about the implications of the data.

Bring emotion into the picture

In addition, an audience will be motivated not just by facts and their interpretation, but even more when a third factor is brought into play: the emotion, which provides the motivation for action. Providing facts for consideration is reporting; it is a staff-level function. Motivating people to action is leadership, an executive quality. Therefore, it is logical to capitalize on powerful emotions in your messaging.

The emotional or motivational impact is often best presented through symbols that arouse and create emotion in the listener. Persuasive messages must have both facts and emotion, so use strong but familiar words that create pictures in people’s minds. Technical jargon can add precision but can also create distance and confusion.

Listeners’ senses are key

In his book, I See What You Mean, public speaking expert Joel Whalen, who lectured on Persuasive Business Communications to MBA students at DePaul University in Chicago, said the listener’s senses are the key to effective communication: hearing, sight, touch, taste, smell and visceral (motion and emotion). People best remember things that reach their sensory memory. Most people are visually oriented. They prefer to receive messages in pictures. Visual symbols are the most powerful of the sensory communication tools.

The best way to activate the audience lies in selecting just a couple of sensory-rich details to reinforce the important points in the message. To bring home the impact of company retrenchments, the speaker can paint a single, vivid picture – a small example that illuminates a point. Skilled leaders often use this technique. They distill social/political programs to their essence and summarize through metaphors. They use highly visual examples – usually a story about a single person and how that person is affected.

Use metaphors for audience visualization

A metaphor is a symbol or image applied to an object or action to which it is imaginatively but not literally applicable. Metaphors occur frequently in every language and are used to conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another. Everyday abstract concepts like time, change, causation and purpose can be expressed metaphorically, and these images enable you to capitalize on powerful emotions to persuade.


  • “We’re like a ship without a rudder.”
  • “We’re heading for the rocks.”
  • “There’ll be blood on the floor at the next committee meeting.”
  • “Our competitor has been a thorn in our side.”
  • “The project fell over at the first hurdle.”
  • “This is an enormous roadblock to our plans.”
  • “That investor jumped the gun.”
  • “Heavy-handed policy.”
  • “Grass-roots organization.”
  • “Out of the mainstream.”

Six business metaphors have been identified: journey, game, war, machine, organism, and society. That might be useful as a thought-starter for you. An even more powerful approach is to extend the metaphor as the umbrella concept being communicated. For example, several metaphors relating to a ship can be used as long as the image isn’t strained in order to get the extra effect.

Also, don’t mix the metaphors, especially in the same sentence: “We were swamped with a shocking barrage of work, and the extra burden had a clear impact on our workflow.” A total of seven metaphors are mixed up in the images of marsh (swamped), electrocution or striking (shocking), a military assault (barrage), weight (burden), translucency (clear), a physical impression (impact), and a river (flow), all in the one sentence!

Ensure the symbols and metaphors aren’t overdone. It’s counter-productive to weave too rich a tapestry of words, sights and sounds – the audience will get turned off. And remember: avoid clichés like the plague!)

Image-based words are stronger

Research confirms that image-based words are stronger than concept-based words. A study of the comparative charisma and greatness of all the US Presidents concluded that the metaphorical images they used helped to distinguish the great Presidents from the average (assuming their achievements were solid). The great Presidents knew how to capitalize on powerful emotions in their messaging. This line of research provides one of the few opportunities to compare the attributes of various leaders over time.

The table below, based on the research, shows strong image-based words compared with concept-based words. Image-based words more easily arouse a sensory image in people’s minds, thereby engaging the readers or listeners more fully. A speaker talking of their “heavy heart” has more impact than a person with “sad news.”

Examples of image-based words compared with concept-based words are:

Image: From Emrich, Cynthia G.; Brower, Holly H.; Feldman, Jack M.; Garland, Howard. “Images in words: Presidential rhetoric, charisma and greatness.” Administrative Science Quarterly, Ithaca, September 2001.

Metaphors to motive staff

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, used images as part of his drive to motivate staff. When he introduced the massive ‘Six Sigma’ quality control program to GE staff around the world, he used the martial arts terms the ‘Black Belts’ and the ‘Green belts’ for the key project people and their subordinates. This was a deliberate approach by a man with a PhD to make his program widely accessible to the people who would be involved with it.

Get expert support to enable you to capitalize on powerful emotions in your messaging

Another way you can harness powerful emotions in your messaging is when you get experts to back up for the case you are making. Read my article on getting expert support to bring people over to your side.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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