Framing language in a positive way to improve readability

Be a positive Pat

I was going to open with ‘Don’t be a negative Nellie’ but that’s demonstrating the opposite language of this writing tip I’m sharing. 

People respond better to positive statements than negative statements. When writing instructions or giving advice, try to frame it in a positive way. That is, be a Positive Pat.

For example: 

❌ You must not speak loudly in the library

✔️ Speak quietly in the library

Not only is the second sentence shorter (yay for brevity!) it’s also much friendlier. When I read instructions like ‘YOU MUST NOT SPEAK LOUDLY IN THE LIBRARY’ my mind conjures a crotchety old woman with a snarling face, poking me with a gnarled finger. That’s not how I want my words to represent my brand.

I’d much rather she spoke like a Positive Pat and said, “Speak quietly in the library”.

What is positive language?

Positive language structures sentences in a way that uses words and phrases that have a friendly, supportive and helpful tone.

Customer service staff are often trained to deliver positive responses.

Rather than saying, “I can’t help you because I don’t have access to your account,” they’ll say, “I’ll put you through to someone with access to your account who can help you.”

I know which one of these responses I’d prefer, even if I might sigh about being transferred and having to repeat my request.

We can take lessons from the customer service industry and apply them to our everyday business writing, blogging and social media posting.

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Examples of positive language

Here are some more examples of turning negative statements into positives. it’s really easy to flip negative phrases into positives.

❌ It’s unkind to not offer a cup of tea

✔️ It’s kind to offer a cup of tea

❌ The search term ‘zombie apocalypse survival’ is not searched as much as ‘surviving a zombie apocalypse’

✔️ The search term ‘surviving a zombie apocalypse’ is searched more than ‘zombie apocalypse survival’

❌ You can’t eat dessert until you finish your dinner

✔️ Finish your dinner then you can eat dessert

❌ Don’t ride in the front seat of a taxi

✔️ Ride in the back seat of a taxi

I hope you can see how much stronger the second examples where I’ve reframed the message in a positive way. 

Should I always use positive language?

I’m not saying you can never use the negative language – sometimes it’s appropriate.

But keep in mind that using positive language is not only friendlier, it can also be much clearer and more succinct. In each example above, the positive example is shorter than the negative example.

How to check your writing for negative language

Do a search for negative language. Search for words like:

  • not
  • can’t
  • won’t
  • don’t

See if the text would work better with those words either cut out or rephrased with positive language terms. Flip those negatives into positives.


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