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Difficult Messages – Accentuate the Positive – BUT DO NOT Eliminate the Negative

You may be familiar with the old song lyric:

“You’ve got to Accentuate The Positive

Eliminate the Negative”

While I understand this is just a song lyric (where eliminate works well with accentuate) – I encourage you to NOT eliminate the negative when you have to deliver difficult messages. Don’t ignore or sugar-coat the negative.


From my experience as a speechwriter (political and corporate)  and presentation coach – your audience is more likely to believe your message if you honestly address the negatives – rather than try to eliminate or ignore the negatives.

If you are writing a speech or preparing a presentation where you have to deliver a difficult message – here are some techniques you can use to accentuate the positive while still addressing and acknowledging the negatives.

1. Structure – put the negative between the positives. Start with something positive. Don’t start with “a downer”

And don’t finish with a downer either.

A classic example is Obama’s Inauguration Speech (his first term).

I know Obama’s “brand” isn’t as bright as it was at the time of this speech – however at the time, veteran US speechwriters were very impressed with the structure of his speech and how it was “suitable solemn” yet “hopeful and encouraging”

The way he addressed the many challenges/negatives – and yet lifted the audience at the end.

2. Balance realism with optimism.

JFK’s  speechwriter  Ted  Sorensen  commented  that  Obama  was  deliberately  downbeat,  but  each time he “got solemn” he balanced and concluded downbeat sections of his speech with vital upbeat and hopeful words.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met. 

3. Encourage your audience to be part of the solution to the problem.

Using inclusive language (we/us/our/you), Obama reminds his audience that as some problems are due to collective failure, so too there is a collective responsibility for every American to do their duty and be part of the solution.

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. 

TB training group

It’s interesting, I work largely with helping people write for and present to Australian audiences.

Australian audiences can be very suspicious of authority and management and politicians.

Australian audiences, in my experience, prefer to be spoken to in a matter-of-fact, No BS style.

Don’t use words that sugar-coat a bad situation.

Don’t call a death an incident. (too coldly corporate)

Don’t call sackingsrestructuring or right-sizing. (not addressing the impact on jobs)

What are some more honest words that acknowledge the negative – yet maybe, are not  too negative.

When I help people write speeches or prepare to deliver difficult message, I’ll often listen to the speech or presentation and take note of “problem words” – and try to find better words.

For example – I think job losses more honestly deals with the impact of the restructuring/right-sizing.

In helping in a different presentation – the speaker (the boss)  spoke honestly about “John’s death”.

Death was more honest and real  than “incident”.

We changed the word “incident” – because it sounded so cold and detached and people were really hurting over the death.  And that’s what it was – a death.

word nerd CU

Anyway, my main message for you – is:  do not eliminate the negative or try to sugar-coat it.

By all means, Accentuate the Positive by starting and finishing with positive. But acknowledge the negative.

It’d be great to find a word that ends in -ate to describe what we should do with the negative. A word that means address it honestly.

Any suggestions? –  please add in the comments below.

Also, please share any sugar-coating words that really annoy you.

Personally, expressions like cost-efficiency measures make me shudder.

It’s an interesting dynamic – organisations often go for longer and softer expressions while the media will use shorter and more dramatic expressions – like slash and cut.

Try to find words somewhere “in between” – that honestly address the negatives.


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These days, lots of people and organisations need help with how to COPE with too much work, too much information, too many meetings etc. I like to help people COPE.



One comment on “Difficult Messages – Accentuate the Positive – BUT DO NOT Eliminate the Negative

  1. efangelist
    January 8, 2015

    Reblogged this on efangelist.

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