handprintThere are many rules about positive-not-negative writing, ranging from 5 to 101 dos and don’ts according to my recent Google search. Rule of thumb: it is preferable to accentuate the positive. So words like cannot, damage, do not, error, fail, impossible, little value, loss, mistake, not, problem, refuse, stop, unable to, and unfortunately are to be avoided, according to the positivists. You’ll find handy exercises in positive writing further down this post, but point #1 of 3 is that while the Rule of Positivity is valid, it is important to not worship it slavishly at the expense of reader resonance.

Especially when it comes to the question of ‘no’. More on this in a few seconds but first a recent Case Study:


Target audience:     Caravaners
Problem:                   They won’t take their caravan on board the ship because they think that they have to reverse.
Message:                  You don’t have to reverse.

As a current CWiA student and I were collaborating on an opening line of copy addressing the target audience’s perception, we came up with: ‘No, you don’t have to reverse …’ This ‘no’ raised the question of negativity in writing by my student. It also revealed the fixation we have with rules at the expense of making a real connect with our readers, in a way that is immediately relevant to them. Yes, we could have written something along the lines of: ‘You can drive your caravan in and out without reversing …’ but the line does not acknowledge their immediate concern — the very thing, in this case, that establishes an instant and genuine connection. A simple way to test this is to imagine you’re talking to them in person:

TA:      But I’ve got to reverse my caravan out of the ship.

YOU:   You can drive your caravan in and out without reversing.

Versus

TA:      But I’ve got to reverse my caravan out of the ship.

YOU:   No, you don’t have to reverse at all.

That singular syllabic utterance of ‘no’ makes all the difference in acknowledging the reader and their concern. It also makes a good opening hook line because it is, in fact, a procatalepsis. This is an important rhetorical device for anticipating and responding to an audience’s objection or perception. Used widely (and wisely) by speech writers, it also shows your audience that you are grounded in their reality.

From a psychological point-of-view, ‘no’ is easily confused with negativity, but they are distinctly different psychological states. Whereas negativity is an ongoing attitude,  ‘no’ is a moment of clear choice. Neuroscience supports the fact that the human brain is hardwired to respond to No more quickly, more intensely, and more persistently than to a positive signal. No is stronger than Yes.

Of course, copywriting is more about problem solving than rules and regulations. So if you really must always until the end of time insist on the Rule of Positivity that discounts The Power of No then water logic offers a third way around our impasse:

TA:      But I’ve got to reverse my caravan out of the ship.

YOU:   You’ll be glad to know you don’t have to reverse.

Point #2 of 3 is that rules and regulations should never get in the way of a good story or a genuine dialogue with your reader.

Sometimes saying 'no' is the most positive thing you can say about something.

Sometimes saying ‘no’ is the most positive thing you can say about something.

Having said that, it’s good policy in academic and business writing to say what something is rather than what it isn’t. This doesn’t mean disguising or misrepresenting the facts. It means finding positive ways to express ideas — say what can be done rather than what can’t be done.

Example:


Negative:   You failed to tell us your color choice, so we are unable to complete your order.
Positive:     As soon as we receive your color choice, we will complete your order.

Practical: convert the following from negative to positive messages (suggested rewrites are below in copy editor red):

  1. You cannot submit your application until January 1.
  2. We can’t send the digital camera you ordered because we are out of stock until March 1, when we will begin shipping again.
  3. As we gather customer information, we would like to know if you have any complaints about our products or services.
  4. Your June 2 letter claims that you were treated rudely by our customer service agent.
  5. We will have to refuse your claim if we don’t receive your application before September 1.
  6. The footings on this new home can’t be poured until it stops raining.
  7. In the event that a client is unable to submit a completed enrollment card, we cannot enroll a spouse as a dependent in the group insurance plan.
  8. Liberty Mutual refuses to process any claim not accompanied by documented proof from a physician showing that the injuries were treated.
  9. You won’t be sorry that you applied for a Capitol One credit card.
  10. Without the support of the entire community, the new athletic field cannot be built.
  11. Because of the numerous flaws in your proposal, we cannot accept it. It didn’t compare favorably with the other proposals that were submitted. Other finalists were accepted.
  12. If you fail the entrance examination, you cannot be admitted to the program.
  13. We are withholding payment of your fees until the manager informs us that the work is completed satisfactorily.
  14. We regret to announce that the special purchase laptop computers will be available only to the first 25 customers.
  15. All employees who appear without photo identifications will be turned away.

Suggested Rewrites:

  1. You may submit your application on January 1.
  2. Although we are temporarily out of stock, we expect to send your digital camera on March 1.
  3. Can you suggest ways for us to improve our products or services?
  4. Your June 2 letter describes the behavior of our customer service agent.
  5. We will be able to consider your claim if we receive your application before September 1.
  6. The footings on this new home can be poured as soon as it stops raining.
  7. A spouse may be enrolled as a dependent in the group insurance plan when a client submits a completed enrollment card.
  8. Liberty Mutual processes any claim accompanied by documented proof from a physician showing that the injuries were treated.
  9. You will be happy that you applied for a Capitol One credit card.
  10. With the support of the entire community, the new athletic field can be built.
  11. We received many outstanding proposals for this project. Although other finalists were accepted, we appreciate your entry in a highly competitive field.
  12. If you pass the entrance examination, you will be admitted to the program.
  13. We look forward to sending you your fees once the manager tells us the work has been satisfactorily completed.
  14. The first 25 customers will be able to purchase our special laptop computers.
  15. Only employees with photo identification will be admitted.

To finish on a positive note, I’d like to quote Alistair Crompton, author of the seminal book, The Craft of Copywriting, which is full of valuable rules. In it he says there are many silver rules of copywriting but only one golden rule and that is  — ‘there are no rules’.

Point #3 of 3 is that yes, creative ideas and solutions often lie outside the square. No, writing is not like mathematics where answers are right or wrong. Yes and no, humans are complex beings and only empathy can inform how to communicate most effectively. My golden rule is this —  know the rules before you know how to break them. That’s the power of Know.

Meanwhile, these 15 exercises should get you (and your reader) into a positive mood.

7 Comments

  1. Cecilie says:

    The positive re-writes felt easier to read than the negative initial messages. I also found them easier to read and understand. It’s a bit like movie directors using certain musical tones to make the viewer feel uneasy. It’s amazing how much power is in the words when they’re re-written.

    • NICOLAS DI TEMPORA says:

      In fact, you are a movie director when you write — you’re directing your audience’s reception to the thinking and feeling you want them to have as they engage in your story.

  2. Christopher says:

    I think the positive tense is more focused on the website user or prospect.
    They are reading your copy on your website or add becAue they want to do something.

  3. Mel says:

    This can be so powerful and one of the key differences between the spoken and written word. For example, on a website when a visitor does not have the libert of hearing tonality or having conversation, it’s super critical to present things as positive, clear and friendly as possible, where over the phone there’s so much more opportunity to determine mood etc. I like this article’s point though that you shouldn’t have to always avoid negative words, as sometimes they’re used in different contexts where it’s needed (particularly with FAQs!)

  4. Jessie L says:

    I especially like the golden rule – knowing the rules before you break them.

  5. Chloe says:

    Insightful, thankyou. I found the check, “what would it say if you were actually talking to the person?” particularly helpful.

  6. Rebecca L says:

    It is useful to understand the psychology of human reactions or preferences when writing copy, like ‘No’ is stronger than ‘yes’, and positivity is preferred over negativity. This post reminds me that we don’t have to look far from our own experiences and preferences to understand our target audiences. For example, I like being around people with a positive attitude and it grates me when people are addicted to complaining! So it makes sense that people will having the same preferences when reading copy. I concur with the ‘no rules’ rule as well. I think it’s best to write copy with the TA needs and desires in mind and focused on building a meaningful connection, and then maybe the ‘rules’ can be overlaid during the editing process if they are relevant.

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