Don't always be positive (or: the joy of being negative)

Apparently, being negative is, well, a bit negative. "Be positive", we're instead told. Today's email looks at the joy of being negative. You see how it helps client pitches, new-initiative launches, business plans and more. And you get a Groucho Marx quote too.

Here are four positive reasons to be negative.

We clarify: “We won’t buy USA-based firms because of its litigious culture”. That spells it out. Saying what we won’t do narrows down alternatives and clarifies plans. Also, people talk about barriers to entry - conditions when we can’t easily enter a market - and that's being negative. Finally, Warren Buffett tells investors what he won’t invest in, and if it’s good enough for him to be negative, it’s good enough for us.

We engage and incite interest: journalists often take the negative view to create reader interest. A UK newspaper wrote about modern manners - compare three possible headings: (a) How to behave in 2023; (b) The Guide to Modern Manners; (c) How not to behave in 2023. The last version draws readers in more. So when you next deliver compliance training, maybe headline it as: “How not to pass your audit”.

We address concerns: imagine telling staff that we’re rolling out budgets down to unit-level. Don’t just tell them what budgets are. Instead, create a theme for your talk: "Budgets: what they are - and what they aren't". E.g. "Budgets aren't how we compute bonuses. They're an input into bonuses." It helps address staff’s concerns, plus tightens your thinking - by juxtaposing two contrary views, it forces presenters to address not just what they know, but what contrarians think. Result: we do more than trot out corporate truisms (“hey, everyone, budgets help!”) and instead address obvious objections and concerns.

We persuade: by being contrary, it helps the obvious seem less obvious. I once read a seemingly dumb sentence: “Communication must be targeted to meet the needs of people to whom it’s sent”. Surely it doesn’t pass the Not test – no-one would say: “Communication should not be targeted to meet the needs of people”.

But it’s not dumb, as we realise when we ponder the opposite thought: “We’ll send everyone the same thing, regardless of what they do and who they are”. Now that sounds dumb. It also gives clues on how to avoid saying stuff that, on the surface, seems dumb but which isn’t:

(1) Mention a seemingly sensible, but ultimately dumb idea.

(2) Expose the flaw in it.

(3) Propose the opposite – which now seems really rather sensible.

For the ‘communication’ example, we’d say: “To update staff, we could do a newsletter that outlines progress. We won’t though. Staff aren’t homogenous, so one size does not fit all. We’ll do three different newsletters, plus emails and posters, each tailored to - and meeting the needs of - different audiences.” Much better. Our words are more compelling and persuasive.

So next time, don’t write in a tender: “To design your new IT, we’ll work closely with your staff”. Instead, try this: “We’ve designed loads of IT like yours, so can design it for you. But we won’t. Not without first talking to your staff. The IT must meet your needs, etc”.

Please don’t think these are strawman arguments. By looking at the opposite of what we seek – “Let’s not be targeted in our comms” – we see that targeted comms are better. Valid, helpful. Compare that to strawman arguments – they refute an argument different from the one actually under discussion, while not recognizing or acknowledging the distinction, e.g. if I were to say: “A brief table would be better than that graph”, someone might retort: “No-one wants 100 pages of dense tables“. Invalid, unhelpful.

Negatives can backfire though, so here are cautionary comments.

We might demoralise: “Currently, we can’t do this, can’t do that, and can’t do the other, so give us cash for new IT please”. Depressing. Instead maybe paint an upbeat picture of the future, not a downbeat picture of the present.

We might annoy: a boss of mine would tell me: “Don’t tell me what we shouldn’t do, don’t bring me problems.” His remark was both laughably ironic (he was telling me what not to do) and helpful. It told me how to do work he liked... I should avoid negatives.

We might unwittingly insult: in talks, say: “As you probably know”, as opposed to: “As you probably don’t know”. Assume people are informed, not ignorant.

We might confuse: double negatives can be tough. Positives are easier to grasp, plus they can seem less bureaucratic and bossy. “Don’t invoice if it’s not a widget” – it creates a riddle. Instead, use the positive: “Invoice only if it is a widget”. Also, don't say: “We shouldn’t assume this won’t happen”. Instead, say: “This could happen”.

That's it for this month, albeit let's leave you with a fancy word: some of the above are examples of a paraprosdokian (bet you were thinking that as you read them...). That is, we take the conversation one way, but reveal it to be something unexpected. It’s a comic’s best friend - Groucho Marx said: "I've had a perfectly wonderful evening - but this wasn't it."

Til next month.


P.S. When I looked up 'paraprosdokian' in Wikipedia, it gives 16 examples - and I was delighted that the fourth was on, of all things, graphs: "If I am reading this graph correctly... I'd be very surprised". For me, it really was living the dream.  


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