Across content and channels, how you frame your message matters. In most circumstances, you want your reader to have a favorable, affirming experience. When your writing helps them feel good, they’ll think constructively and take action.
While positive framing is the norm in plain language and business communication, sometimes negative framing comes in handy. By choosing certain words and constructions that evoke loss and worry, your message conveys unfortunate, urgent truths. With intent, you can craft a message that moves people.
Studies have shown that people triggered by loss can respond with urgency, dedication, and a desire to prevent further negative outcomes. In some instances, fear and worry can motivate your readers to act.
A case study from the Zuula archives illustrates this idea:
Saving Endangered Wildlife With Negative Framing
When we do content audits, we review existing writing to determine what works and what falls flat. One of the details we assess is how content’s negative and positive sentiments affect user engagement.
While auditing an international wildlife nonprofit’s website, we discovered a key user element: Negatively framed content was driving stronger traffic on social media.
Here’s what stood out:
- Social Media Shares:Content written with negative sentiments accounted for 80% of the top shares.
- Engagement:Users engaged with these posts for an average of 2 minutes and 35 seconds — more than twice that of the website as a whole.
Why did their negative sentiments create such traction?
Once analyzing the connection between sentiment and traffic, the answer quickly emerged: People feel passionately about saving animals. Sentiments like “Ivory’s Curse” and “the bloody ivory trade” triggered an injustice in readers. That emotion, along with loss and worry, fueled an urgency that kept them engaged in the nonprofit’s message. As a result, their audiences shared negatively framed social media posts far more than content framed in a positive light — encouraging a pattern of emotional responses from others.
The outcomes from our content audit align with the regulatory fit theory: When our goals align with an action, our motivation increases. Faced with the realities of elephant poaching, readers responded to the nonprofit’s message with vigor and allegiance. Protecting wildlife lit a fire under readers and caused them to act.
Negative framing doesn’t always have to drive readers away. Although we generally suggest positive framing as a default writing position, negative sentiments can motivate real change and action. Sometimes, the clearest way to deliver your message is to lay out the stakes — and let your reader know what they stand to lose.