Suppose that you are looking to persuade a new client that yours is the company that deserves a lucrative contract. Alternatively, imagine you want to position yourself as the obvious choice for a new job or promotion. Will you be more successful by making small changes in your approach to highlight your previous experiences and past successes? Or would you be better advised to focus on your potential instead, pointing out to the client or recruiter what you can deliver in the future?

The answer to this question seems obvious. You should focus on your past experience and achievements. Actual and real achievements are surely more compelling than the potential to achieve in the future for good reason: They have already been accomplished. They are concrete. They leave no room for doubt. Therefore all other things being equal, when it comes to choosing which company will secure that lucrative new contract, the odds will surely favor the one with years of experience and a glut of industry awards as compared to the less experienced new-kid-on-the-block that merely has the potential to do well, right?

According to behavioral scientists Zakary Tormala, Jayson Jia, and Michael Norton, the common wisdom on this issue is dead wrong. You should focus on your potential because—somewhat counter-intuitively—the potential to be great at something will often seem more compelling to decision makers than actually being great at that very same thing. In other words, the promise of potential often outshines the reality.

In one of their studies, Facebook users were shown a series of quotes about a comedian through ads. Half were shown comments highlighting the comedian’s potential such as “This guy could become the next big thing” and “Next year everyone could be talking about this comedian.” The other half were shown comments that focused attention on the comedian’s actual achievements like, “Critics say he has become the next big thing” and “Everyone is talking about this guy.” Consistent with the researchers’ theory, Facebook users registered much greater interest (measured by click-rates) and liking (measured by fan-rates) when quotes about the comedian’s potential, rather than actual achievements, were highlighted.

Tormala and colleagues conducted a number of other studies showing the same outcome in other domains, like job candidate evaluations. Study after study, the researchers consistently found that those who were described in terms of their potential achievements were favored over those who had actually accomplished those very same achievements!

But why?

The researchers believe that potential captures attention more than reality due to the fact that reality has happened, making it completely certain. In contrast, the uncertainty that the audience experiences when evaluating the person with potential serves to offer a wonderful advantage—namely a tendency to arouse more interest.

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This research suggests that if you are applying for a promotion or a job, it may be advantageous to first highlight the future potential you will bring to the role rather than immediately leading with your prior experience. Doing so could increase the chances that you will capture a recruiters’ interest, meaning that the subsequent information you convey about actual achievements and experience will get more focused attention. Similarly, if you are asking someone else to act as a reference for you, provide a testimonial for you, or write a letter of recommendation for you, asking that person to highlight your potential will help immediately capture the audience’s interest in you.

Of course, once you get hired or get that promotion it’s up to you to turn that potential into actual achievements!

If you’d like to learn more about small things you can do that will have a BIG effect on your persuasion powers, feel free to check our latest book, co-written with Robert Cialdini, called The Small BIG: Small Changes that Spark Big Influence. You can purchase it from Amazon.com here (currently sold out but on back order!) or Barnes & Noble here (currently available).

For the original research on the persuasive power of potential, see:

Tormala, Z. L., Jia, J. S., & Norton, M. I. (2012). The preference for potential. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103(4), 567–83. doi:10.1037/a0029227

About the Author

Noah J. Goldstein and Steve J. Martin

Noah J. Goldstein is a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management; Steve J. Martin is the director of Influence at Work in the United Kingdom.

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