Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Get your point across using positive statements

This is a simple one but amazingly important: use positive statements.

A positive statement is something like “to sprint you must run fast”. Conversely a negative statement is something like “to sprint you must not run slowly”. The problem with using negative statements is that for them to be processed by the listener the concept being negated (in this case running slowly) has to be represented first by the listener before being negated. Here’s two examples, one about software and the other about addiction. Then I’ll cover the more devious application of the technique before finishing with the positive application.

If you tell someone not to do something first they have to think about doing it, a bit like my purple penguin example in the introduction to this blog series.


Here’s an example from software process training I used to hear regarding RUP phases: “The RUP phases Inception, Elaboration, Construction and Transition are not requirements, design, implementation and deployment…” This was a well intentioned phrase aiming to dispel a common misconception when risk-value lifecycles were first being introduced to classic waterfall minded managers. Unfortunately this sentence actually reinforces the misconception one and maybe two reasons, firstly it’s a negative statement meaning the listener has to make that link in their mind between these phases and the waterfall stages and then negate it. The second reason is that it’s too easy for a tired person on a training course to miss that key “not” word and totally misunderstand the trainer’s intention.

This happened to a colleague of mine who used this sentence and the client’s training manager sitting on the course mis-heard (swore they didn’t when challenged) and never used my colleague’s training services again.


Imagine someone who’s going to give up smoking. Friends with decent intentions may say “Just don’t think about smoking” and yet the end result is that the listener has to think about smoking (linking in all of their anchored states).  In fact there’s a whole industry of negative statements around giving up smoking that are designed to make people think it isn’t an easy thing to do.

My first sentence might sound a little odd. Normally the phrase is “trying to give up smoking” but that’s because the word “try” presupposes failure which is why marketing folks have done their best to ensure it’s the normal way of talking about giving up. Just think of all of those adverts for giving up aids that tell smokers how hard it is. Sneaky.

The Sneaky Side

The problem is that a negative statement sneaks in a sliver of representation that counters the stated meaning. There’s a really insidious side to this when considering negative questions. Negative questions are any question including the word “not” (even in the form of a contraction when it’s even more sneaky) and they are a clever way of embedding pre-suppositions. Here’s an example:

“Don’t you think using positive statements is a good idea?”

Expand it out and it becomes:

“Do not you think using positive statements is a good idea?”

The second form of the question sounds very odd and unnatural. In fact it’ll confuse many people for a moment (excellent pattern interrupt) and yet the first form doesn’t sound so strange, and yet rather oddly people will almost always agree to a statement using a negative contraction. Magicians and mentalists use this trick a lot “Couldn’t you have changed your mind at any point?”, “Haven’t I been reasonably honest about …?”. And of course if the entertainers are doing it you can be sure the sneaky salespeople, callous cold-readers and other such charlatans are doing the same. In fact this particular construct is used especially heavily by cold readers, the effect is multiplied based on the level of rapport at one far end of the see-saw even slight nudge is enough to direct a listener.

If you consider the basic form of the question “Do you think using positive statements is a good idea?” you’ll notice that’s it’s neutral, it doesn’t presuppose an answer in any direction. That’s the difference.

The Positive Side

I’ve written a lot on the ethics of using somewhat sneaky linguistics before so I’ll leave out that discussion again. But there are some great positive ways to use this knowledge. Here’s an example from this very post (+10 internet points if you noticed it earlier)

In the section about addiction I wrote: ” there’s a whole industry of negative statements around giving up smoking that are designed to make people think it isn’t an easy thing to do”. I deliberately used a contracted negative statement that presupposes that it is an easy thing to do. I used a negative statement to cause a positive representation.

Another simple way to use this knowledge is to simply use positive statements. Tell people what you want them to do and think. Avoid telling people what not to think. (er.. two negatives in one sentence what the…?)

This works especially well with children, instead of telling them not do something (such as “stop being noisy”) tell them what to do positively (such as “be quiet”). The first makes the kid think about being noisy, the second makes them think about being quiet. However it must be said that even the most carefully crafted sentence isn’t going to get a little kid to be quiet, but that’s ok they’re meant to be noisy.


So, aren’t you glad you read this?

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

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One response to “Get your point across using positive statements

  1. Pingback: Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals « Mike MacDonagh's Blog

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