The Media Training Professionals Blog

Avoid negative language in media interviews

April 11, 2022


Avoid negative language like the word don’t, it’s inevitably counterproductive. 

By negative language, I mostly mean the use of negating modifiers such as ‘not’ and ‘don’t’. But it can also mean the use of imagery or descriptions that create pictures, feelings and ideas you’d rather avoid planting in people’s minds. So avoid using negative language.

It’s a human instinct to deny accusations (“No, I didn’t rip off that vulnerable elderly gentleman!”), correct false information (“It’s not a seedy den of iniquity, as you suggest”) or issue a caution (“Don’t you dare touch anything in this shop full of fragile and expensive items”) by using negating words.

Inevitably negative language is counterproductive

In doing so, however, we often inadvertently reinforce the idea we want to avoid. Common wisdom in psychology suggests the unconscious mind fails to process negative modifiers. Logic might tell us what the ‘not’ or ‘don’t’ mean but not before the idea or image these words are meant to negate takes root. To use a popular example – and a trap spokespeople constantly fall into – the term “don’t panic” is inevitably counterproductive. Think about it: your audience might not have realised there was potential to panic – that is, until you planted the idea with your reassurances. Now they are on the lookout for a reason.

Grab from New South Wales, Orange MP Phil Donato illustrating the negative language in his response to a decision that parts of NSW’s Central West would be going into snap COVID-19 lockdown. The action was taken in mid-2021 after cases leaked out of Greater Sydney’s growing Delta variant outbreak. You can read the ABC online news coverage, here, where the same negative language appears in a quote taken from him.

Here’s another example, a silly YouTube scenario – called, unsurprisingly, Don’t Get in the Kiln, for a bit of a laugh for anyone with a sense of the absurd. It makes a great point about negative language and how it can backfire.

Jump into this video by Australian comedians Aunty Donna at 1:28 mark.

Avoid negative language and deny the chance to write a denial story

Denial stories are a common tool of journalism. If a journalist feels they have credible information or a legitimate angle to explore but are struggling to confirm it, the next best thing is to put it to the subject of the story, who will naturally deny it.

In another ‘denial’ strategy, opponents and competitors have been known to use negatives (“I’m not suggesting he’s a conman”; “She’s not doing anything dodgy”) to hint there might have been reason to believe the thing they are negating.

While it is difficult to control what others suggest (and journalists will always have the option of writing a ‘refused to confirm’ story), you can help water down the ‘poison’, as it is often called, by saying what something is rather than what it isn’t.

Simply saying “no” or “not at all” without repeating the negative image is still problematic because it can still be seen as a denial. In fact, it can be worse because it may leave some ambiguity around what you are denying.

Instead try “Actually”

Instead, you can try “Actually” or “Rather than that …” or “In fact, it’s this …” approach. The picture or impression you want to create should follow phrases such as this.

You still need to be real and believable, so sometimes the best you can hope for is turning a “complete and utter disaster” into a “a dreadful accident”. But at least you are taking more control of your message and the images you are planting.

The instinct to refute and deny is a hard one to override, but the techniques for doing so are relatively simple. All it takes is some awareness and practise. A good media trainer can help you with this, working with you to deal with the negatives in a practical way that helps you to tell the story as you see it and maintain your reputation without leaving journalists and their audiences feeling like you have something to hide.

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