TED Talk – Niro Sivanathan: The counterintuitive way to be more persuasive


Why is merchandise that is slightly damaged, but still functions, sold at a discounted price?  The answer can be found in a term called the ‘dilution effect’. 

Organizational Psychologist, Niro Sivanathan, illustrates the significance of the dilution effect in this TED Talk not just from the marketplace standpoint, but also in the form of the interactions we have every day with family, friends, and co-workers.  Similar to the damaged merchandise, how we package or deliver our messages can have a profound impact on their effectiveness. 

Sivanathan shows that a body of work, like our physical bodies, can reveal both strengths and weaknesses.  If we were to continue to train one body part or muscle group exclusively and then demonstrate that isolated strength by itself to others, the perception of our overall strength would be much higher than if our audience saw both our strength in one area and the weaknesses in others. 

The detriment of such perception is that regardless of the weakness in a second muscle group, the strength in the first area is lessened in the eyes of the audience.  The strength is impressive overall, but when paired with weaknesses becomes less remarkable.

Sivanathan tells us that we put information into two categories – diagnostic, or relevant information and non-diagnostic, or irrelevant information.  Despite hearing and processing information which maybe highly relevant, that information can become diluted when sandwiched between or combined with irrelevant information.  Sivanathan illustrates this point when looking at the side effects of a pharmaceutical drug.  If only the most severe side effects were listed, the drug would be perceived as less safe.  Yet, when those side effects are included in a list of others which are far less severe, the drug is viewed in a safer light. 

The lesson to be utilized through the dilution effect is, as Sivanathan says, that “quality trumps quantity.”  Oftentimes, we feel the need to throw as much as possible at someone in order to make our point.  The thinking is that they can’t argue with so many notable points.  The problem, however, is that in the midst of all those notable points is most likely several weaker ones.  The inclusion of those weak points can be just enough for someone to dismiss an otherwise salient argument. 

The dilution effect shows us that less can be more.  Before speaking up or making an argument, consider the strongest and best points.  Make those points clearly and efficiently and then allow time for those points to resonate.  As Tom Petty once sang, the waiting is the hardest part.  Many times, leaders don’t allow their points to be absorbed or pondered.  Instead, the silence becomes deafening and the desire to make additional points takes over. 

Conversely, we sometimes need to find the quality in the midst of the quantity.  Are we too quick to dismiss value when its damaged or we don’t like the packaging?  Dilution can affect both our ability to impress and be impressed upon. 

Leaders who strive for quality over quantity may not be viewed as vocal or as passionate as their zealous counterparts, but their messages will resonate long after the diluted energy of others has dissipated. 


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