I was about to step on stage and give a keynote speech, when my client offered some last minute advice.

“Don’t screw up,” he said.


As soon as I heard this, all I could think about was screwing up.

“So what you’re really saying,” I said, “is ‘knock ‘em dead.’”

“No,” my client said. “What I’m really saying is, ‘don’t screw up.’”

So I didn’t. But I kept thinking about the tightrope artist, Karl Wallenda, who plummeted to his death during his final performance.

His wife later revealed that he had been unusually preoccupied with not falling (source: On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis).

The mind has trouble with negatives. When someone tells you to not do something, it’s hard to imagine the not, but easy to imagine the something.

Still, you can motivate others (or yourself) with either negative or positive outcomes.

The don’t screw-up, negative method is powered by fear; you focus on avoiding the worst.

The knock ‘em dead, positive method is powered by hope; you focus on achieving the best.

Fear or hope—which do you prefer?

Both methods work. When my son was a teenager, I faced a choice each time I handed him the car keys: Either say, “Drive safely,” or “Try not to smash the Toyota into a tree.

I usually told him to drive safely. Then, later, I worried about the tree.

© Copyright 2007, 2018 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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About Paul

Paul consults & speaks internationally on how to make your point with maximum impact—in less time.

Latest books:
You’ve Got 8 Seconds (Amacom)
Naked at Work (Penguin)

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