The only people who like change are wet babies.  I forget who originally told me that wonderful saying – I’m afraid it has been lost in the mists of time.  So if it was you, then please remind me and I’ll be happy to share the credit.

The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.  President Kennedy did not say that.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find out who did, originally, to no avail.  So again, if it was you, please do let me know and the credit is yours.

OK, now put these two great truisms together and you have a conundrum.  To change the world, you have to change the audience in front of you, as I’ve said many times and in many places.  And yet, people don’t like to change – remember the wet babies.

So how do you accomplish this remarkable feat?  Here’s the hard part:  you have to be willing to make the audience uncomfortable with their status quo.  And you can do that in two ways.  First, you can hold out the prospect of a different future, one so wonderful that the audience will be eager to change out of a desire for that future.  In short, you can bribe them to change.

Second, you can frighten them into changing, by holding out the prospect of a scary future, one so awful that the audience is motivated out of fear to change.

Now, I often have to argue clients into accepting this second mode of argument.  Most public speakers are optimists, after all, and they want to charm, not terrify, their audiences.  They want their audiences to love them, not be scared of them.

But the grim truth is that fear is a better motivator for change than any other emotion, and by a factor of two.  That’s the result of 50 years of psychological study of motivation and change, as a recent meta-study showed. Frighten me about the dangers of smoking, say, and I’ll be more likely to quit than if you tell me how much money I’ll save by dropping the filthy habit, as my grandmother used to say.

So you have to be willing to scare your audience if you want them to be likely to change.  And what’s more, the research has turned up several ways to make fear even more effective in getting people to change.

First, amplify the fear.  Show people the video of the smoker with the tracheotomy, who can only speak with a hoarse whisper and a tube in his throat.  That ups the ante, increase the fear, and drives the message home.

Second, stress the applicability of the fear – to you.  Tell me something scary, and I’ll try to wiggle out of it – figuring out ways to make it not apply to me.  Keep your sights trained on me and I’ll be more scared.

Third, make the fear as specific as possible.  Don’t just tell me smoking will make me sick – tell me all the special ways smoking can kill me.  Tell me about all the different carcinogens in smoking, and all the different kinds of cancer related to it.  Get down and detailed, and I’ll feel the fear.

Speakers who insist on staying positive will limit themselves and their effectiveness.  You may not initially be comfortable going over to the dark side, but it’s where change is to be found.



  1. An excellent post. Speakers are comfortable appealing to the head, and to the heart, but often shy away from appealing to the gut. This is where the most visceral, primal and deepest seated of human motivators live–the “fight or flight” level. We may stay away from this level because it’s the hardest to change, and gets into areas that are least under our control as public speakers. As you point out, though it’s the level that yields the greatest return..
    I’m sorry I can’t help with the source of the quotation. If it’s not you, the Bible, Shakespeare, Lincoln or Mark Twain, I’m lost. However, you are the source of my newest favorite quotation–“Remember the wet babies.”

    1. Thanks, John. I appreciate the thoughtful comment. The greatest return always comes with the greatest risk, for some reason!

  2. Yes! I call it focusing on “what’s at stake.” A bonus to making that clear: when you don’t just share the sunny side, there is a segment of the audience that feels reassured of your credibility. Your willingness to say something difficult is what good leaders do. Thanks, Nick!

    1. Thanks, Sally — and your point is especially true in our current era, where going to the dark side is more common, so much so that if you don’t you risk looking naive or Pollyannish.

  3. I will take the example of smoking. Fear increase anxiety and i wonder if that could make you smoke more. Maybe there is some research on that subject. What do you think?
    Beside that, I agree with the idea that a speaker might go to the “dark side”. It seems real to me.
    Ps I love you quote on babies

    1. Thanks, Paul — I’ve seen the research on anti-smoking campaigns over the years, and they do work, broadly speaking, and the more graphic the better. That’s why they keep upping the ante on cigarette packages. But there are caveats, and nuances, and I don’t know the full story. Anyone else deep into anti-smoking campaigns?

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