You can't see 'not'

We see in pictures. 
I say 'Cat' - you see a cat. 
I say 'House' - you see a house.
However we cannot 'see' a negative. 
So if I say 'Do not think of a dog' - you still see a dog!

As trainers, speakers, communicators we need to be very careful about what pictures we are putting into our students' heads.  Sometimes we do it accidentally: particularly at the beginning of a session when we are making the first and probably the strongest impressions.

How often have we heard opening phrases like:
' I'll try not to make this complicated.' or 'I hope this won't seem too boring.'
What do you have in your head? - 'Complicated' and 'Boring!'
With the best intentions we can find ourselves creating the exact opposite impression to the one we want.

Professional sales people and accomplished public speakers of course have learnt to turn this into an actual technique.
So that when a fashion salesperson says:
'I don't want you to think about how good you look in this coat;
I don't want you to think about how your friends will envy you;
I don't want you to think about how much time and effort went into the creation…'
…we of course end up thinking about all those things.
The rhetorical term for this is 'occultatio' - pointedly emphasising something by seeming to pass over it.
For instance I could say:
'Now is not the time to draw attention to you being late 3 times last week and coming in hung over on Friday.'
What are we thinking about?…... -  Exactly!

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, as trainers, when we use 'occultatio', we do it by accident and therefore create the exact opposite effect to the one we want.

I tend to think of it as the echo principle:
A child in the mountains shouts:
'I am not saying you're an idiot.' and the echo comes back
'You're an idiot, you're an idiot.'
'I don't need anyone to help me.' and the echo comes back
'Help me, help me.'
A 'not' in the sentence does not change the image we create in our heads.

Therefore - a key piece of advice, when preparing to deliver material:
Beware of the pictures you are creating in your audience's heads!
Are you accidentally telling people it is going to be 'difficult', 'tiring', 'boring' or 'dull'?
Rather than creating images that highlight the negative:
create clear, simple images that focus the audience positively on what we want them to be thinking about.
It avoids confusion and makes communication far simpler for everyone.

This article was written by Michael Ronayne, director at the College of Public Speaking and four-time UK National Public Speaking Champion.

To discover more of Michael's top training techniques, check out his professionally accredited Train the Trainer course here