Sometimes there’s no way around delivering bad news to your audience. No matter how much you’d like to avoid it, the news might be information your customers need to do their jobs or it might be health news that your community needs to protect themselves and others.

Delivering bad news is never easy, but you often know that your audience will be just fine if you can get them to see that steps have been taken to counteract the bad news and that the overall situation may even have improved.

Too many times, though, despite your best efforts, you cannot get your audience to focus on anything but the bad news. This is because of something called “negative dominance.”

Negative Dominance Theory

Negative dominance theory states that people under stress put much more weight on negative information than on positive information. Three to four positive or constructive messages are typically needed to offset negative information.

Negative dominance theory is closely associated with the seminal research of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Daniel J. Kahneman on loss aversion. To address the adverse impacts of negative dominance and loss aversion, information provided to stakeholders in high-stress situations should be free of unnecessary negatives. It should focus on what is being done rather than on what is not being done.

A practical communication consequence of negative dominance theory is that additional efforts must be made in high-stress situations to communicate positive, constructive messages.

Templates and Tools for Overcoming Negative Dominance

As discussed further in Dr. Vincent Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication, several templates help achieve this communication goal:

• 1N = 3P template (the One Negative Equals Three Positives tool)

• KDD template (Know, Do, Do tool)

• KDG template (the Know, Do, Go tool)


The most powerful of these tools in high-stress situations is the 1N = 3P template, sometimes called the “Bad News” tool. The 1N = 3P tool calls for five messages.

Message 1

The first message is a preamble message that goes before the N. It is an authentic and sincere message of compassion, empathy, caring, or listening. It helps create a soft landing for the negative or bad news.

Message 2

The second message (the N message in the tool) is the negative message or bad news.

Messages 3, 4, 5

The third, fourth, and fifth messages (the 3P messages in the tool) are the positive, constructive, or solution-oriented messages.


Another useful tool in high-stress situations is the IDK template, which describes how best to say “I don’t know.” The IDK structure is as follows:

1. Start with a positive statement to show that you’re listening and to demonstrate empathy and caring; then say, “I don’t know.”

2. Follow up by saying how you will get the information.

3. Tell the person asking the question what you do know.

Here is an example: “You’ve asked me … I don’t know the answer to your question. I’d be happy to follow up by doing … In the meantime, I do know …”

Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide

Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.

The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice.

More information, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing

Dr. Vincent Covello

Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books. Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, speaker, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.