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By Natascha Gast
Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities, American Public University
“You’ve got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative.” That advice for achieving happiness from the 1940s song by Johnny Mercer is a good guideline for business writing, too.
For instance, how often have you read a work-related email that sounded unnecessarily negative or even threatening? With a few tweaks to the wording and content choices, a negative message can be turned positive.
Use Positive Language Whenever Possible
Subtle word choice changes can have a big effect on the overall tone of a message. For example, state what to do rather than what not to do:
Negative: Avoid negative language when possible.
Positive: Use positive language when possible.
Emphasize what is the case rather than what is not. For example:
Negative: The meeting room can only fit 20 people due to limited seating.
Positive: The meeting room has seating for up to 20 people.
The negative words “only” and “limited” make the sentence wordy and sound negative in tone. However, the second sentence communicates the same idea in a more concise and positive way.
Emphasize the Benefits for the Reader
When asking your readers to do something, show what’s in it for them. Explaining the benefits provides positive rather than negative motivation. Here are some examples:
Negative: If your form is not submitted on time, you will not be able to attend the event.
Positive: Submit your form on time so you can attend the event.
Negative: Visitors without passes will not be allowed in.
Positive: All visitors with passes will be allowed in.
By using positive-sounding language in each of these examples, you emphasize the benefit gained by the reader of being allowed to attend the event or of having visitors (rather than emphasizing what will not be allowed in each case).
Also, while threatening your readers may sound like an obvious no-no, threatening language often appears in business communication. For example:
Negative: Failure to comply with this new policy will result in termination.
Positive: To ensure continued employment here, be sure to comply with this new policy.
Although such threats usually have the good intention of protecting the reader in some way — after all, most people want to keep their jobs — threatening sentences can be rephrased to emphasize the positive. The idea is to promote a benefit that will happen when the reader takes an action.
Ensure that your writing focuses on the benefits to be achieved by meeting a requirement rather than emphasizing the penalty for not adhering to the requirement. However, if your intended audience has a history of not following directions, you may need to make the repercussions explicit and list the penalties for first or second offenses.
Choose Positive Colors (If Using Color)
Some colors have positive or negative connotations. Black, white and gray are neutral colors, while blue, purple and green evoke positive feelings.
Red, however, makes people think of danger or something to avoid. This color is appropriate when you’re offering a warning or citing something not to do. In such cases, red is actually used in a “positive” way by helping the reader know what should be avoided.
Minimize Negative Language in Your Writing
Sometimes, stating something in the negative is necessary, such as messages that involve denying a request, rejecting a suggestion or offering negative criticism.
When a negative idea must be expressed, say it just once. Be straightforward and direct.
Adding a qualifying buffer before negative content and a positive ending will ease the negativity of the message for your reader. For example:
Negative: Your proposal was not accepted.
Positive: Thank you for your submission. The committee received over 50 proposals and unfortunately, your proposal was not accepted. We encourage you to resubmit it next year.
Thanking the reader and the neutral indication of the number of proposals received are buffers. The suggestion to resubmit next year focuses on the future and offers encouragement.
Even when a negative must be included, minimize the type or number of negative words you use. For example:
Negative: You failed to include key details in the report.
Positive: The report was missing key details.
“Missing” is more neutral than “failed.” Also, using the second person “you” creates a more negative tone by assigning specific blame, but using the passive voice avoids assigning blame and focuses on the outcome (what was missing from the report).
Therefore, you may not always be able to “eliminate the negative,” as the song says, but you can certainly “accentuate the positive” in business writing. Doing so gives your reader an overall more positive impression of the message and you.
A positive tone helps to build a positive relationship between you and the audience, one of the goals of both business and personal communication. In writing, people often remember how something was said more than what was said!
About the Author
Natascha Gast is a full-time English instructor in the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University. She has professional experience as a developmental editor of trade publications and has taught literature, composition and business communication courses since 1998. She currently assists in the development of the business writing and American poetry courses at APU and serves as faculty advisor for the APUS R.E.A.D. Book Club. She received her M.A. in English from the University of Connecticut and a B.A. in English and philosophy from Louisiana State University.