A weekend trip to Sainsbury’s reminded of the way that negatives impede communication – because your brain needs to unscramble the message before its meaning can be properly understood.
When I am coaching business people in presentation skills I explain that, if I were silly enough to give a small child a tray of drinks, saying: “Now, don’t drop it”, the way their brains would take in that instruction is as follows.
Main concept: drop; specific in this case: don’t.
By which time, they probably have dropped it, because that was where the focus lay. If, instead, I had said: “Hold it steady”, that would been a clear, positive instruction they could act upon, as well as visualise.
So why don’t Sainsbury’s get straight to the point and say ‘Remember to re-use your bags’? It might even leave them enough space to say: ‘Please remember to re-use your bags’.
It’s actually quite hard to provide firm proof of this principle, but I can provide a couple of pointers. First, if you had been a bit slow to fill in your Census form back in 2011 you might have received one of these through your letterbox.
I reckon they must have thought to themselves: ‘Hang on a minute, why are we saying “don’t” when we want them to do something? And why are we saying “forget” when we want them to do the opposite of that’? I say this because the follow up leaflet that arrived (not at my house, of course) a week later read like this.
Finally, many years ago my son received a half-term report that concluded:
He was in tears. His little 11-year old brain couldn’t or wouldn’t unscramble what his teacher was saying. I had to explain that what she actually meant was ‘with success’.