How often have you evaluated an idea by saying it was “not bad” or “not like” other things? Probably many times. But regardless of what you meant to communicate, what did you actually convey with those words? Was the idea amazing, engaging, empowering, or rewarding? Was it even good?
Your audience will never know because the only clue you gave them was one thing it was not. This wording also wrongly shifts the burden of clarifying your point away from you, where it belongs, and toward your audience, who doesn’t know what you’re talking about and is rightfully expecting that information from you.
Some classic examples of defining something by what it’s not include:
“That’s not the worst idea in the world.”
“This is not like anything that’s come before it.”
“That was not your finest moment.”
“This is not like competing products.”
By couching your message in this ineffectual way—perhaps to soften a dispiriting blow, as in the case of “not bad”—you’re defeating your purpose because effective communication is about delivering something valuable, not vacuous. Your goal as a speaker is always to strengthen your point, not soften it. And if your idea is indeed provocative, are you actually “softening the blow” or delaying an important point?
Why ‘nots’ are not professional
We frequently use “nots” in informal communication and hear it constantly on TV talent shows. (How many times have we heard some variation of “Not your best performance, Ashley”?) But imagine having this communication handicap in a crucial, real-world scenario like a job interview, client meeting, sales presentation, status report, or strategy session. No competent job candidate says, “You should hire me because I’m not the other candidate.” And no seasoned salesperson begins with, “Let me show you why this product is not the worst!”
In professional settings, being clear and direct is crucial. So, when it’s your turn to make a strong point, keep these recommendations in mind:
- Focus on conveying what your point or idea is, not what it’s not. There may be value in comparing your idea to another, but remember to explicitly state your point within that comparison, rather than settle on a “not this.”
- Identify the most unique and valuable aspects of your idea in advance and emphasize those aspects throughout your communication. Remember that you’re not just conveying your point; you’re championing it.
- Look for “nots” in others’ speeches and emails. See them as red flags of wasted breath, and let that understanding guide your own communications.
- Remember that 100% of the burden of effective communication is on you. Don’t ask your audience to do your conceptual heavy-lifting by trying to guess your point.
- Never couch the truth in a “not” when the truth matters. There are only two appropriate things to do with truth: say it clearly, or don’t say it at all.
As a communicator, making strong points is more about good decision-making than innate talent. Avoiding a “not” is typically a good decision because, in the end, which would you rather be: an effective communicator or just one who isn’t bad?
Written by Joel Schwartzberg.
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