Sunday, September 2, 2012

Positive Language Works

Positive language works!
The next time you meet a friend in the corridor, stop him and say, "Psst... don't look behind," and see his reaction. Nine out of ten of your 'victims' will jerk their heads to look behind! The same thing happens when you put up a sign saying 'Wet Paint. Do not touch'. You had better put up a container of paint remover nearby; quite a few of those who read the message are going to touch! So why do we behave in this way? NLP professionals, and even those who have casually read NLP literature, will smile and nod wisely; they know why: The human mind reacts to positive words, even if they are contained within negative messages.
In other words, when we tell someone not to do something, they tend to do it. This is especially true with children. When we tell them not to touch something, they will touch it at the first opportunity when we are not looking. My two-year-old son gave himself a mild shock when he put his hand into a VCR player slot. He was inspired by his cautious mother who had reminded him a few times not to put his hand into the slot.
This reaction to negative messages is not new knowledge. As early as 1965, my 'Principles of Education' lecturer in Teachers' Training College (Now Institute of Education) told my class that children do not react to 'don'ts'. If you tell them 'Don't forget to do your homework', they forget; if you tell them 'don't make noise' the noise level will increase and so on. Their minds automatically reinterpret 'don'ts' into 'dos'. The classic example is when someone says 'Don't panic' and everyone panics! I do not know of any logical explanation for this. It looks like the human mind just works this way. The remedy: reorganise the message in positive terms. Tell children 'Remember to do your homework' or 'Please keep quiet' and in a situation when people may panic say 'Keep calm', or to use modern terminology 'Stay cool'.
In the real world, lots of people are beginning to show that we understand this concept and bending the way we talk and write. It is heartening to note that LTA's messages on the expressways are no more 'Don't Speed' or 'Speed Kills'. Now they write 'Drive with care. Think of our loved ones'. Perhaps this is also why 7-Eleven changed their message from 'Always Close, Never Closed' to 'Always Near, Always Open'. Anti-Smoking campaigns are now more oriented towards healthy living instead of condemning the habit. By the way, I have yet to meet someone who had been frightened into stopping smoking after looking at the frightening pictures on cigarette packets. Strangely, the number of new people who light-up seems to be increasing every year! Here are some messages we could re-write in positive terms.
Instead of... Say...
Closed on Sunday Open Monday to Saturday
This gate (or car park) will be closed from 11PM to 5AM. This gate (or car park) will remain open from 5AM till 11PM.
In case of fire, do not use lifts. In case of fire, use the stairs.
No running on the stairs. Walk carefully on the stairs.
No children allowed. Only adults (above 21) allowed.
Implications for Business Communication
This tendency has useful implications on how we should talk, and write, to customers and clients. Besides that, business communication gurus advocate that a better impression is created when we speak in positive rather than in negative terms. Hence, we do not tell the customer 'We regret to inform you that the item is presently out of stock'. A better impression is created when we say 'Fresh stocks will be arriving in just three weeks'.
Here are some positive ways of speaking and writing business messages:
Instead of... Say...
We cannot send you the goods as you have not sent us the payment. We will send you the goods as soon as we receive payment.
You cannot take leave now because of Chinese New Year. I will gladly approve your leave if you apply after Chinese New Year.
The model you have asked for is no longer in production. The model you have asked for has now been replaced with a better model.
Sorry, I cannot meet you on Monday. I will be happy to meet you on Tuesday.
We cannot replace the item as it was not damaged by us (or worse: as it has been damaged by you). We will happily replace any item damaged by us or by the manufacturer.
Please do not be late for the meeting. Please be punctual for the meeting.
I am sorry; I cannot submit the report by Monday. Please give me another two days to complete the report.
Mr X's services have been terminated. (I have even seen 'Mr X has been terminated. Poor man!) Mr X has been released from his services to the company. (The Americans say 'We had to let him go'.)
Your application has not been successful. Thank you for your interest. The position has been filled. (Or: The contract has been awarded.) Thank you for your interest.
The shipment has been delayed because of bad weather. In spite of inclement weather, the shipment will arrive next week.
Notice how the positive messages take away the gloom of the negative messages and replace them with brighter, happier moods, though the message remains the same.
Actually, using positive language to describe negative or unpleasant news or situations seems to be part of good business language. Whoever heard of 'bus fare increase', 'retrenchment' or 'pay cut'? It is always 'bus fares have been adjusted'; the company has undergone re-organisation'; or 'pay as been revised'. In fact, using euphemisms has been part of the human psyche in every language. We do not say 'died' but 'passed away'; 'cemetery' but 'memory garden', or 'ill' but 'indisposed'. If these are not enough, new ones have been recently created, such as: 'visually challenged', 'hearing impaired' and so on.
Even for Self-Improvement
To top it all, self-improvement gurus swear that thinking, saying and writing positive language actually makes us become positive people and can lead us to success. Hence, all in all, it seems that making a special effort to think, speak and write messages in positive terms have great, positive implications for all of us. We have everything to gain.