We’re going to start this post with a thought exercise. Take a moment to think about this: when writing, how often do you use negative words or phrases? Avoiding negative words and phrases is a challenge, but knowledge activation tools like TextExpander make it easier.
There’s a lot of talk about being positive. We know that negative words and phrases can sap our energy and make us feel bad, but what do we do when we want to be clear? How can we make sure that we’re getting our point across without beating someone up over it?
Let me give you an example of a paragraph that I saw recently, and then I’ll follow it with a better version of the same message.
There were errors in the work that you turned in. Unfortunately, there is little value in the feedback that you offered. One mistake could mean that we don’t land the contract.
Now, a better version.
We want to make sure that we’re providing valuable feedback to our customers. It is best to double check everything before we send out a communication. Let’s correct the work that you’ve done so we can make sure we’re making progress toward a signed contract.
The adage of “you reap what you sow” comes into play here. If you want a positive response, then you are best served by sending out a positive message. Walking the line between kind and firm, it’s not uncommon to see a situation where a message comes off harshly, even if we did not intend that way.
The problem that most of us have is that we don’t see the sentiment of our own writing as being negative. To correct our mistakes, we first need to be aware of them. When we’re reading words that others have written, it’s easy to spot negative terms. But our own bias toward ourselves makes it a harder task to self-police.
Fortunately for us, there are sentiment analysis tools available, many of which are free or at least have a free trial. The method that works best for me is to take my last 100 emails, run them through analysis, and then find the negative terms that I use most often.
From Negatives to Positives
Once you’ve done the work to find the negative words and phrases in your communication, it’s time to make them positive. There are repositories of positive words across the Internet, but probably none so complete as this one.
The goal, however, is to change negative words and phrases into something more positive. So while it’s good to have a list of positives to choose from, it only gets us halfway there. Now it’s time to do some homework.
There are some common phrases that have a negative connotation to them. For creating a positive spin on language, it’s often best to consider what action could make a situation better. For example, you can easily change “I forgot” to “I’ll set a reminder.” Likewise, “criticism” is easier to take when it’s “feedback.”
Once you’ve run through your sentiment analysis, find the negative words or phrases that you lean on most often. Then spend some time thinking about how you can paint them in a positive light. Create Snippets for words and phrases that you want to change.
One thing to keep in mind here is that you don’t want to use a normal naming convention for these Snippets. Where you might start a Snippet with a semicolon or other special character, in this case you’ll want to have a word-for-word replacement.
Be Mindful of Meanings
Language is an interesting thing. It evolves over time, and phrases may mean something completely different in one location than in another. If a Southerner has ever said “bless your heart,” there’s a good chance that it wasn’t meant to be as nice as it might have seemed.
In fact, many of the words that we use today had meanings that were vastly different. Fun, awe, terrific…and the list goes on!
When you’re choosing the words that you want to use, rather than your default terms, it’s worth taking a moment to look at your audience. How will their location or culture impact the way that they perceive that you’re saying? Is there a clearer, more positive word that you can use instead? Sometimes, the risk of plain language is the price of clarity.
Clarity is paramount, especially in the written word. There are definitely times when flowery language is appropriate and appreciated. But more often than not, clear is better than pretty.
The good news is that clear language is short language. You might save time and be more productive just by changing your vocabulary. Here are a few examples:
- “At this time” – “Now”
- “As of this date” – “From”
- “In the event of” – “If”
To put these examples into context, let’s look at two paragraphs that have the same meaning, but that use different words.
As of today’s date, I will only approve PTO requests, at this time, in the event of a family emergency.
From today, I will now only approve PTO requests if there is a family emergency.
The second sentence is easier to read, and it’s also shorter. As you clear up your language, you’ll get more work done in a shorter amount of time.
For some final steps toward replacing negative words and terms with positive ones, checking your work is important. When you’re writing about negative news, look for ways to give a positive tone. This is especially true in business, where the tone that you send will often dictate the response that you get.
Look for where you’re placing the information. If something is bad, try to bookend it with a positive at the start and finish. If you’re telling someone that something can’t be done, try to find an alternative that can be accomplished. Be mindful of the word “you” when it comes to sentences that can appear to be placing blame.
Finally, before you hit send, re-read your message. If you’re uncertain about the tone, have someone else proof the message for you. Getting that outside perspective can be the difference between clarity and insult.
What negative words or phrases do you use too often? Are there other ways that you use TextExpander? The comments section is all yours and we’re excited to hear from you.