Throughout my sassy teenage years, my mom often told me, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” And I agree with her—most of the time—if we’re speaking face to face. In writing, what you say is just as important as how you say it since it’s difficult for others to hear your tone of voice—especially if you don’t use just the right words. Some marketing writing makes me cringe. My internal editor alarm goes off as I think, “If only they had said it differently…”
It’s the Little Words: “But” vs. “And”
For example, we write websites for several small, rural schools. Frequently, I see, “We may be small, but…” I shudder. Right off, they apologize for being small. Then they explain that even though they’re small, they have great programs and many advantages. What’s so bad about that? Well, why not skip the apology and say that because we are small, we have many advantages and great programs? The change could be as simple as “We are small, and…” The simple “and” in place of “but” completely changes the tone. The list of small-town advantages is long and varied, from a tight-knit community to small class sizes and individualized learning and much more. Own it; don’t apologize for it.
Negative: “Ms. Jones, can we go out to recess?”
“Yes, but we need to get our math lesson finished first.”
“Ugh, okay. I’ll do my math.”
Positive: “Ms. Jones, can we go out to recess?”
“Yes, and we can do that as soon as we get our math lesson done.”
“Yay! I’ll hurry and get it done!”
What About Rules?
Obviously, you want to make sure everyone understands the rules so there is no chance for misinterpretation of your expectations. You might ask, “What’s wrong with writing ’We do not allow…’”? “Do we really have to be upbeat and positive all the time?” Why yes, some things do require an iron fist, and you may want to make sure there is no question about the severity of your meaning. But these situations are probably a lot less often than you may think.
For example, we see student handbooks from schools from the east to the west coast and everything in between. They all have the same general rules and standards: dress standards, bus rules, cafeteria rules, tardy/absence rules, etc. And though they come from myriad schools with varied student body, staff, and community situations, almost all present the rules as “thou shalt nots.” Wouldn’t it be great to see a handbook that spouts all the great things students can do, what they can wear, and how they will rather than won’t behave?
Focus on the Positive—What You CAN Do
You can create a positive, encouraging, and supportive tone simply by using positive, rather than negative, words. Every time your sentences take a negative slant, identify the negative word(s) in your sentence, and rephrase with positive words and ideas.
Here’s what a positive spin on the rules might look like:
- Because we respect ourselves and each other, this is how we dress.
- This is what we do.
- “We are the Spartans, and…”
Focus on Solutions
Shine a light on the solution instead of the problem. Tell us what we can do and what will happen when it’s done rather than on the things we can’t do and the consequences of our failure to comply.
Let’s take a look at this approach:
Negative: “I cannot meet with you this week.”
Positive: “I can meet with you next week.”
Negative: “We know many students may feel uneasy, but, unfortunately, parents may not walk their children to their classroom on the first day of school.”
Positive: “To ensure every student’s comfort and safety on the first day of school, our teachers and staff are available to help them to their classrooms.”
Use Antonyms to Remove the Word “Not”
Using antonyms whenever the word “not” appears is a simple trick for turning the negative into something positive.
Negative: “The office will not be open.”
Positive: “Our office will be closed.”
Negative: “We will not be holding our school carnival this year.”
Positive: “We have canceled our school carnival.”
Avoid Negative Words
Stop and think before writing (or saying) these common, negative, words and phrases:
Negative: “Although we can’t meet in person, we’re excited about our new, virtual platform.”
Positive: “We’re excited to meet with you via our powerful, virtual platform.”
Negative: “No problem.”
Positive: “My pleasure.”
Another trick of our trade is to shift the focus to what we do want rather than on the negative outcome (what we don’t want). It’s as easy as getting rid of the word “don’t” at the beginning of a sentence. For instance:
Negative: “Don’t forget to bring your library book back on Friday.”
Positive: “Remember to bring your library book back on Friday.”
Negative: “Don’t talk.”
Positive: “Quiet, please.”
Common Negative Words to Avoid
Stop. Think. Banish these negative words from your writing:
Say This, Not That
Substitute those negative words with these happy, positive words.
I’m sorry, but…”
Since my pet peeve word, “but,” is already on the negative list, allow me to interject another argument to stay away from it in your writing and speech. Consider “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but you’re getting completely off track.” Are you truly sorry? The simple word “but” negates your entire apology. Let’s try that again: “I’m sorry to interrupt you. Let’s get our conversation back on track.” Phew! Now doesn’t that sound better?
Use “I” Instead of “You”
“You” can often sound accusatory. “You forgot…” “You didn’t…” “You should…” “You never…” “You always…” So, when faced with a difficult issue, think “I.” Let’s practice:
Negative: “You are always late.”
Positive: “I get frustrated when we begin after the scheduled start time.”
Negative: “You forgot to send the attachment in your email.”
Positive: “I am missing the email attachment.”
We’ve all said it, “Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?” Even when you take care to write positively, not everything is going to come across as great. So, always give the good news first, and then approach the bad news softly (while still phrasing it as positively as possible). And always finish up with more positive.
Using the examples above, here’s a positively-positioned paragraph:
“We’re excited to return to school and to see our students’ smiling (even if mask-covered) faces. To keep our students safe and make sure they are comfortable on the first day of school, teachers and staff will be available to help them find their classrooms. Our teachers are prepared with teaching tools and lessons that will empower your children and prepare them for an exciting future. Let’s do this!”
In a Nutshell
In our speech, in our attitude, and especially in our writing, there’s power in being positive.
- The simple, three-letter word “and” is one of the easiest ways to convey an upbeat tone. That little word can change your marketing efforts from mediocre to phenomenal. And being aware of positive wording will change the way you talk to and treat others, how you make them feel, and how it makes you feel.
- Writing the solution, the “can do,” is a great positive writing tool. If you start to apologize or defend yourself for things that cannot or did not happen, pause and take a moment to think about what can happen or about what you will do to make things right. Then write that.
- Use positive words.
- Avoid those “but” sentences.
- Use “I” statements.
- Soften the not-so-good (you know, the stuff that the Debbie Downer will latch on to) by padding the front and back ends with the positive and upbeat.
The words you choose really matter. I once heard of a man who received a letter laying him off from his job. The phrasing was so positive, he didn’t even feel bad or get angry. Now that’s good writing! So, Mom, you were right. How you say it is important, and what you say matters too. A lot.
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Posted by Judy Bittner, School Website Lead Copywriter