There’s one simple step you can take to instantly make your communications more powerful. By eliminating just one word from your writing you can automatically avoid a major communication pitfall. The word?
Not. Cut the Not!
Think about it. You normally use this word to say the opposite of what you are trying to say or do. You use it to counter an argument or idea, as if positioning this three-letter negation in front of a bad idea is a magic trick to make it disappear. But this is the exact opposite of how human brains process information.
When you repeat a false argument, even for the purpose of saying it’s “not true,” you help make the argument stronger in the minds of your readers. Because of the way your brain’s neurocircuitry works, you activate the frames you are trying to negate. Those bad ideas become stronger in the brains of your audience. You also waste space at a time when concise writing has never been more important.
Think about it: It’s tough to get, and keep, a reader’s attention in today’s crowded information environment. Twitter only gives you 280 characters. An effective Facebook post is just as brief. To be successful, be succinct. The same is true for business memos, media pitches, press releases, and speeches.
Powerful communications get to the point quickly, make it effectively, and provide the reader with clear paths. So, how much time and space do you waste saying the opposite of what you’re trying to say?
Eliminating the word “not” from your writing forces you to make the proactive case instead of just (lazily) negating your opponent’s argument. Try it!
That’s the simple point.
For more examples, keep reading.
Warning: In this section, we will break our own rule in order to illustrate the point with examples.
Let’s take the issue of immigration. Immigrants are under attack from Republicans, who use the issue to stoke political polarization and energize their base. One of their tactics is to make false accusations against the immigrant community. And how do many progressives respond to these attacks? Too often, they respond by repeating the attacks.
Republicans accuse immigrants of being “dangerous criminals.” Progressives respond by saying immigrants are “not dangerous criminals.” Republicans accuse immigrants of being “terrorists.” Progressives respond by saying “immigrants are not terrorists.”
This also happens when talking about the environment. Republicans created the concept of “clean coal” so that opponents would be forced to argue “coal is not clean.”
Yet by constantly associating the word “coal” with “clean,” environmental activists do the work of their opponents. The same is true on the immigration issue. When immigrant rights advocates take the bait and repeat the negative labels that Republicans apply – even to negate them – they strengthen the association between the two.
President Trump makes this same mistake when he tweets “No Collusion!” He automatically makes us think about collusion with Russia, just as Richard Nixon made everyone think of a crook when he went on TV and said, “I am not a crook.”
So how to avoid this trap? First, Cut the Not!
When anti-immigrant politicians say: “Immigrants are [negative label]”
Respond by saying: “Immigrants are [positive label]”
Examples: “Immigrants are our neighbors.” “Immigrants are our families.” “Immigrants are our heroes.”
Never say: “Immigrants are not [negative label]”
The same goes for environmental issues.
When fossil fuel companies say: “Coal is [positive label]”
Respond by saying: “Coal is [negative label]”
Examples: “Coal is dirty.” “Coal is dangerous.” “Coal is harmful.”
Never say: “Coal is not [positive label]”
Always say what you believe, directly. Whatever the issue or argument at hand, remember that the word “not” generally ensures you will repeat your opponent’s argument.
Practice: Try cutting “not” from your writing. It may be impossible to avoid using it in some contexts. But by simply becoming more aware of how this word functions, your communication will automatically improve.
Give it a try, and let us know how it works out for you.
Gil and George