“A single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”
– Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, Words Can Change Your Brain
Words have always evoked emotions and inspired actions. One could even say we formed our country on the words, “Give me liberty, or give me death!,” as Patrick Henry moved leaders like Washington and Jefferson into action.
Similar to Henry, every writer or content creator has to decide how they’ll frame their message. And, when creating content rooted in plain language, positive framing becomes a crucial tool for encouraging reader engagement. On the flip side, negative phrasing can drive audiences away and leave a bad taste in their mouth, depending on the goals of your content.
Let’s take a look at the differences between positive and negative framing — and how each trait influences reader’s thinking.
Positive framing does wonders in our brain. When we read positive words, they activate our frontal lobe — which controls our memory, ability to solve problems, and judgement. We also experience a boost in our cognitive reasoning and motivation, the latter, thanks to a release of dopamine. And when we tap into that dopamine, we regulate our ability and motivation to act toward an outcome we desire. Further, the longer we focus on positive words, the language begins to beneficially impact even deeper parts of our brains.
Why do these details matter?
Positive framing enables us to better remember details, discern perspectives, and think through actions we need to take. So, content framed with language that inspires positivity keeps us sharp and increases the likelihood that the content will motivate us. And, if we continuously rely on positive framing to reach our readers, we can build useful and worthwhile patterns of thinking.
Studies show that negative language provokes fear. No one wants to purposefully drive people away from their message. But with subtle word choices, you can frame your content with a negative bent, even if you don’t mean to. While purposeful negative framing can sometimes drive a message, writers should rarely use the construction in business communications.
When you share negative sentiments, you interrupt the brain’s logic and reasoning, creating a stressful reading experience.ven the word “no” can cause breakdowns in our rational thinking. Further, repeated exposure to negative language harms the parts of the brain that regulate memory and emotions. In fact, exposure to negative words can heighten our anxiety and depression — and diminish happiness.
Don’t want to bum out your readers?
Avoid negative framing — especially when writing with plain language. Words that trigger stress will keep readers from receiving your message clearly. And, the more you rely on negative language, your audience will begin to associate your content and brand with anxiety. Removing these obstacles from your messaging ensures they can receive, engage, and act on the information you share.
Framing in Action
Let’s take a look at the differences between positive and negative framing:
- Positive: Your card’s PIN will let you deposit checks and cash between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
- Negative: Without your card’s PIN, we will not accept any deposits after 9 p.m. or before 8 a.m.
In the positive example, the reader has clear understanding of what they need to put money into their account after hours. The positive framing (“will let”) supports clear thinking and optimism. You focus on capabilities, encouraging action.
In the negative example, however, readers may react adversely. You’ve insinuated that they don’t properly store their important details — and shared the resulting action as if they’re being punished. This negative framing further focuses on what they can’t do, rather than supporting what they can. And, if you repeat negative framing throughout a document, you risk undermining your message and driving people away.
Had Patrick Henry reframed his famous message negatively — “If I don’t get liberty, I’ll die!” — who knows what outcomes would’ve resulted. One thing’s for sure, though — we wouldn’t remember those iconic words today.
Remember, positive framing supports clear and productive communication. When drafting content, your language will emotionally impact your reader — and you have a responsibility to be careful with that relationship. Meeting your audience with optimism and encouragement will make sure they’re given an opportunity to absorb your message without any negative blowback. So, stay positive!