Cut the Not: Why banishing one word can power up your communication

A FrameLab tip for supercharged writing and communications

Cut the Not: Why banishing one word can power up your communication
“Don’t Think About a You-Know-What.” (Photo by James Hammond on Unsplash)

There’s one simple step you can take to instantly make your writing more powerful. By eliminating just one word from your writing you can automatically avoid a major communication pitfall.

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The word? Not. Cut the Not!

Think about it. You normally use this word to say the opposite of what you are trying to say or do. You use it to counter an argument or idea, as if positioning this three-letter negation in front of bad idea is a magic trick to make it disappear. But this is the exact opposite of how human brains process information.

When you repeat a false argument, even for purpose of saying it’s “not true,” you help make the argument stronger in the minds of your readers. Because of the way your brain’s neurocircuitry works, you activate the frames you are trying to negate.

That’s a key point of “The ALL NEW Don’t Think of An Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.” When someone says “don’t think of an elephant,” you automatically think of an elephant.

Think about it. It’s tough to get, and keep, a reader’s attention in today’s crowded information environment. To be successful, be succinct. This is true whether you’re trying to make a point in a debate, or writing business memos, articles or speeches. Clear and concise writing has never been more important.

Powerful communications get to the point quickly, make it effectively, and provide the reader with clear paths. So, how much time and space do you waste saying the opposite of what you’re trying to say?

Eliminating the word “not” from your writing forces you to make the proactive case instead of just (lazily) negating your opponent’s argument. Try it!

Warning: In this section, we will break our own rule in order to illustrate the point with examples.

Let’s take the issue of immigration. Immigrants are under attack from Republicans, who use the issue to stoke political polarization and energize their base. One of their tactics is to make false accusations against the immigrant community. And how do many progressives respond to these attacks? Too often, they respond by repeating the attacks.

When Republicans accuse immigrants of being “dangerous criminals.” Progressives respond by saying immigrants are “not dangerous criminals.” Republicans accuse immigrants of being “terrorists,” progressives often respond by saying “immigrants are not terrorists.”

This also happens when talking about the environment. Republicans created the concept of “clean coal” so that opponents would be forced to argue “coal is not clean.”

Yet by constantly associating the word “coal” with “clean,” environmental activists have often done the work of their opponents. The same is true on the immigration issue. When immigrant rights advocates take the bait and repeat the negative labels that Republicans apply – even to negate them – they strengthen the association between the two.

President Richard Nixon famously labeled himself as a crook when he said “I am not a crook” on television. In today’s news, we have George Santos – the new Republican congressman from New York who admitted to fabricating his entire résumé and has declared “I am not a criminal” while facing multiple investigations, including a criminal investigation in Brazil.

So how to avoid this trap? First, Cut the Not!


When anti-immigrant politicians say: “Immigrants are [negative label]”

Respond by saying: “Immigrants are [positive label]”

Examples: “Immigrants are our neighbors.” “Immigrants are our families.”

Never say: “Immigrants are not [negative label]”

The same goes for environmental issues.

When fossil fuel companies say: “Coal is [positive label]”

Respond by saying: “Coal is [negative label]”

Examples: “Coal is dirty.” “Coal is dangerous.” “Coal is harmful.”

Never say: “Coal is not [positive label]”

Always say what you believe, directly. Whatever the issue or argument at hand, remember that the word “not” generally ensures you will repeat your opponent’s argument.

Practice: Try cutting “not” from your writing. It may be impossible to avoid using it in some contexts. But by simply becoming more aware of how this word functions, your communication will automatically become more powerful and direct.

Give it a try, and let us know how it works out for you.

A version of this piece was first published in 2017. We have updated it and made it available to FrameLab readers because it was no longer available online.

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