“Last year we lost $3.77 billion” was the message Warren Buffett had to personally deliver to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders at the 2002 annual meeting. What’s a CEO to do with news that’s as bad as that?
I first learned about this in the summer of 2004 when Robert Cialdini was a guest speaker at several State Auto agency partner meetings. As Cialdini talked about influence and how to frame a message he shared the Buffett story with us.
As many of you know, Warren Buffett is one of the richest men in the world and Berkshire Hathaway has recovered quite nicely from its disastrous 2001. Nonetheless, having to tell shareholders their company value decreased by nearly $4 billion (6.2% in total value) was not something Buffet looked forward to. Fortunately he and his long time partner Charlie Munger were huge fans of Robert Cialdini and his work on ethical influence.
Let me lay the groundwork for how Buffet delivered his message: From 1965 through 2001, the overall gain in “annual percentage change in per share book value” of the S&P 500 was 4,742%. Not bad! Over the same time period Berkshire Hathaway’s gain was 194,938%!! Yes, you read that correctly, 194,938! (Click here to see the 2001 report). Put another way, if you had invested $1 in the S&P 500 in 1965 it would have been worth $48 by 2001. However, that same $1 invested in Berkshire Hathaway would have been worth $1,950 by the end of 2001. Wow!
So how did Buffett address shareholders? Paraphrasing, he said the following:
“Last year the value of your company went down by $3.77 billion. However, I’d like to remind you that the management team that’s been in place at Berkshire Hathaway for the past 36 years has outperformed the S&P 500 by more than 190,000%.”
Unbelievable! You’re left not focused on the company loss but rather the incredible long-term success of Berkshire Hathaway. What if Buffett had said this?
“I’d like to remind you that the management team that’s been in place at Berkshire for the past 36 years has outperformed the S&P 500 by more than 190,000%. However, last year the value of your company went down by $3.77 billion.”
Ugh! You can feel the difference. Now you’re focused on the loss, not the incredible long-term success of the management team.
I hope you realize the words and facts are the same in both cases. What Buffett realized, and few people pay attention to, is this: people remember what comes after transitional words like “but” and “however.” You know it’s true because you just felt the difference.
If you want to be a master persuader you have to understand this truism and always be conscious of what you want your audience to remember. There are times you want them focused on the negative to prompt action and there are times you want them focused on the positive. How you order the information makes all the difference.
The next time you have to deliver good and bad news think about what you want the audience to remember. Then think about the comparisons that will make your message shine. Last, be sure to order the information correctly. Following these three tips might not make you the next Warren Buffett but they can make you much more persuasive than you are today. Who knows, that might be your first step towards Buffett-like success!