Sir Winston Churchill, the great British Prime Minister, prolific author, and distinguished orator who addressed some of the most august assemblies in the world, once delivered a speech to the boys at Harrow School in Britain:
Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy
Sir Winston spoke those words in 1941and they have reverberated down through the decades as a model of an inspirational speech. But the Prime Minister was using negativity to inspire; he was telling his audience what not to do.
Negativity is difficult form of communication. It has become the campaign method of choice in politics. While it often proves effective—as we saw in Mitt Romney’s victorious primary campaign to become the 2012 Republican candidate for president—it leaves a hostile residue and a divided electorate.
In business, negativity fails to provide information. How often have you heard this statement in a presentation?
What we’re not is…
Huh? Well then, what are you? Tell your audiences what you are, not what you are not. Moreover, negative statements sound defensive.
One of history’s most famous negative statements was President Richard Nixon’s infamous defense of himself in the Watergate scandal, “I am not a crook.”
Had he framed his statement positively as “I am an honest man,” history might have remembered him more forgivingly.
Does this mean that you should never say “never” unless, like Sir Winston, you are exhorting your audience? Mardy Grothe, the author of Neverisms, a collection of quotations that begin with the ultimatum “Never,” defines Sir Winston’s technique as “dehortations,” or statements intended to advise against a particular action.
By all means, when you want to inspire, dehort to your heart’s content; you will be in good company. In an article about Mr. Grothe’s book, Erin McKean, the founder of the online dictionary Wordnik.com, extracted some famous dehortations:
- “Never send a boy to do a man’s job.”
- “Never speak ill of the dead.”
- “Never judge a book by its cover.”
- “Never count your chickens before they’re hatched.”
- “Never make the same mistake twice.”
My personal favorite dehortation was coined by Leroy “Satchel” Paige who, after a lengthy career in the Negro Leagues, became the oldest rookie—at 42— in Major League Baseball after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. When asked about how he was able to stay youthful and competitive, Mr. Paige said,
Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.
However, in business, negativity for negativity’s sake brings problems to the forefront and can lead a presentation into a black hole—the “Houston, we’ve got a problem!” problem.
Instead, focus on the upbeat, the potential, the road ahead, the actions you are taking, the vision that propels you.
This is not to say that you should sweep problems under the rug or ignore the elephant in the room; you must always be accountable and tell your full story. Just be sure that, if you bring up the negative, you balance it with the positive.
As the old World War II song advised, “Accentuate the positive.”
This chapter is from my new book, just published by Pearson, “Winning Strategies for Power Presentations“; it is one of 75 lessons from the world’s best presenters, and available now from Amazon.