28 Jun Negative power words to avoid
A further thought on the dangers of negative messages, as explored in the last blog post. There we were talking about the difference it makes to rephrase a message in a positive way. But there’s more. Certain words have an extra powerful negative impact, and it’s worth sensitising your awareness of them.
Persuasive writers sometimes talk about ‘power words’ or ‘trigger words’, meaning those words which typically generate a powerful subconscious response in the reader. There’s nothing mysterious about these words – ‘agree’ might be an example – but they do have an impact, usually not noticed by the reader. We’ll talk about these positive power words another time, but there are negative power words too. And because it’s so easy to use them, even when you’re trying to convey a positive message, it’s important to know what they are.
Here’s a selection:
can’t won’t didn’t urgent difficulties problem mistake unfortunately judgement rigid strict extremely difficult impossible attempt try maybe unimportant never always ought should must
You might think these are obviously negative, but look closer.
Clearly saying ‘won’t’ sounds negative, but have you ever written ‘that won’t be a problem’? You’ve got two negative power words right there, and you’re trying to be reassuring and positive.
What about writing to a customer to explain that something has gone wrong but that you are going to make this up to them – have you ever begun by writing ‘Unfortunately…’? That’s exactly the wrong way to start. You’re priming them to feel bad. Instead, begin on a positive initial note. ‘Thanks for your recent order’, for example. Or ‘We always aim to be honest and open with our customers…’
You think that’s manipulative? It’s only manipulative if smiling at someone is manipulative: it’s simply sending out a positive message of intent.
How about ‘strict’? Sounds offputting on its own, but have you ever written something like ‘we operate strict standards to ensure we never let our customers down’? A sentence like that is meant positively but is packed with subconscious negative trigger words.
It turns out that subconsciously people generally don’t like absolutes – we don’t like ‘never’, but we don’t like ‘always’ either. Perhaps it makes us feel hemmed in. ‘Strict’ is something similar. It just sounds oppressive, even if you mean it positively.
‘Ought’, ‘should’ and ‘must’ are similar – they’re coercive. Obvious when you step back, but not obvious when you’re trying to urge your audience to take up an offer. ‘If you’re looking for a new mortgage, you should take a look at our rates’. Sounds innocuous, but it contains coercion. And people don’t like being told what to do.
The more you can avoid negative power words, the more likely you are to get a positive response. And if this sounds like a trick or a formula that really good communicators don’t need to bother with, then consider this: however naturally talented you are, learning to do anything more effectively (tennis, for example), starts by paying conscious attention to certain habits, and then consciously changing them.
And the habit of using these words that bring a little charge of negative energy is one that’s worth changing.