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The Negative Priming Problem

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

Be careful not to negatively prime your communications to members (forgive the irony).

Negative priming occurs when we expose the audience to a negative stimuli prior to or during a communication.

It occurs when we say don’t panic instead of keep calm.

It occurs when we are tired, lazy, and not careful enough in selecting the words we use to convey a message.

There are times when you want people to feel bad. When a negative emotion is useful and valid. Those times are not when you’re making a major announcement.

The words and phrases you use, with their varied array of denotations, connotations, and associations will influence your audience’s reaction.

When I used this example (below) in our workshop recently, one participant asked; “This wasn’t really published right?” I’m afraid it was…as were too many others like it.


Do you imagine the audience of this post will respond positively or negatively to this announcement? The problem isn’t the content, it’s the craftsmanship.

What does “content policy update” make you think of? Close your eyes if it helps.

Imagine someone telling you there’s a content policy update. I bet you’re not feeling excited to receive the rest of the message.

Look at phrases like “consolidated the various rules and policies we have accumulated over the years”. What kind of person typically speaks like that? I’m going to guess it reminds you of someone you didn’t like much.

Consider “thank you for your feedback”. Does that sound like someone who really appreciated your feedback? What if the author instead wrote “Some of your ideas blew us away. You highlighted things we would never have considered. I especially liked Joe Smith’s idea about ensuring the list of banned words reflects other cultures”

Further down you see negative priming such as “not changing dramatically” immediately before announcing a dramatic change. Putting a not before two powerful words doesn’t negate the words. Using the words puts the idea into their heads. If things aren’t changing, say they’re staying almost the same (or, frankly, not write anything at all)

You can probably scroll through the rest of the announcement (noticeably the repeated use of the word ‘Quarantine’ with a capital ‘Q’ and see a dozen further examples of negative priming. There’s even a subtle insult to the readers at the end.

Positively Priming

A better approach is to begin with how this helps the community. Put that at the top and begin with positive associations.

In this case the core message is: ‘We’re going to spend more time helping the majority of you and less getting distracted by Reddit’s enemies’.

Now explain positively how you’re going to do that.

Here’s a simple tip. Write out what you’re going to say, then spend an extra few minutes to turn any unwanted negatives into positives.

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