Word Power

Two tricks can improve persuasive print messages

Know when to tell people what they’ll gain or lose

While we can’t promise that this information will take all the pain out of putting your ideas into words, it can take away some of the guesswork. Psychologist Peter Salovey, PhD, of Yale University in New Haven, CT, has discovered how to improve the odds of getting the desired response to your written messages.1,2 His tips can work as well with consumers as with colleagues. The trick is knowing when to tell people what they’ll gain and when to tell them what they stand to lose.

- Gain-framed messages persuade people to engage in risk-free behavior. They’re most effective with prevention behaviors. Salovey explains, "Just tell people [simply] the good things that can happen if they do the behavior."


• Use sunscreen to help your skin stay healthy.

• Eat a low-fat diet to help you control your weight.

• Match patient ID tags with the labels each time you dispense drugs.

- Loss-framed messages persuade people to engage in riskier, but desirable, behavior. Mammography, pap testing, or HIV screening, for instance, involve the risk of discovering health problems. While acknowledging the immediate risk, loss-framed messages explain the more serious risk of avoiding the action. In health matters, Salovey finds that they work best where an immediate risk can head off serious long-term consequences. In the workplace, loss-framed messages are effective when you ask people to make short term sacrifice to avoid future problems.


• When you put off your regular mammogram, you fail to take advantage of the best method for detecting breast cancer early.

• While a pap test might discover cervical cancer, it can find it early when it is most treatable.

• We realize that attending Saturday’s electronic medical record workshop means giving up your day off. But look at it this way, it’s your one-time opportunity for individual coaching by experts who will not be here when we go live in three months.

- The element of surprise, by framing messages in unexpected ways, is another way to command attention — and possibly compliance. "It depends on what you’re trying to sell," Salovey notes.


• Put money in your pocket and air in your lungs. Stop smoking.

• Tired of phone tag? Try e-mail.


1. Detweiler JB, Bedell BT, Salovey P, et al. Message framing and sunscreen use: Gain-framed messages motivate beach-goers. Health Psychology 1999; 18(2):189-196.

2. Rothman AJ, Salovey P. Shaping perceptions to motivate healthy behavior: The role of message framing. Psychological Bulletin 1997; 121(1):3-19.