Watch Out for Sneaky Negative Words

Posted by Dan Keeney

Words You Use Everyday Are Quietly Eroding Your Positivity


I do a fair amount of spokesperson training and one bit of guidance that often comes as a surprise is my warning about sneaky negative words. The choice of the right words to express what we truly mean — Semantics — can be powerful. There are a few frequently used words that seem on the surface to be very positive, but when taken literally they are very negative. Here are a few that are pretty common:

Unbelievable – Usually a spokesperson would use this word when describing something that is out of the ordinary; something exciting. If you really think about it, the word “unbelievable” means it isn’t believable. It can’t be trusted. It is implausible, improbable, inconceivable and outlandish. Instead of saying something is unbelievable, I suggest saying exactly what you mean — it is extraordinary or say that you are really excited about it. Don’t ever say that your audience should not believe what you are saying!

Incredible – Similar to ‘unbelievable,’ the word ‘incredible’ literally means the opposite of credible. I spend a lot of time training people to be credible spokespersons, so you can imagine my horror when my highly credible spokespersons describe something as incredible. Oh sure, they mean well. They mean that it is amazing, awe-inspiring, astonishing, breathtaking, remarkable, stunning or wonderful. Each of those word choices would be preferable to incredible, which could be interpreted as preposterous, ridiculous, improbable or far-fetched. Just imagine a spokesperson unveiling a new product and saying, “We are proud to introduce this new product, which we expect the market will find ridiculous!”

Awesome – As anyone who spends time with anyone under 30 knows, the word ‘awesome’ has taken on a life of its own. It has its own Oscar-nominated song…

…and often is delivered over the course of two or three seconds. “Awwwwwesommmmmme!” The intended meaning is, ‘wow!’ The spokesperson means it is astonishing, impressive, magnificent, awe-inspiring or stunning. But look at some of the synonyms and you get a different picture of what your audience can hear when you say the word ‘awesome.’ They can hear alarming, awful, fearsome, frightening, horrible, horrifying or intimidating. Awesome can be an awesomely poor word choice.

Magical – I do some work with visionary technology executives, and one in particular kept coming back to the word ‘magical’ to describe the outcome of a project he had shepherded. He meant that it was wonderful, fascinating and extraordinary. Each of those words would be preferable, especially when discussing something in the science or technology arena. After all, there is a reason they call them ‘magic tricks.’ Most adults equate magic with trickery — an effort to fool you or pull the wool over your eyes. Deception, hoax, fraud and distortion are other words that could come to mind.

Ironically, the word ‘semantics’ itself is often misunderstood or used incorrectly as well. Most often if someone uses the word ‘semantics,’ they are dismissing the difference between two or more words or disparaging someone for calling attention to poor word choice. “Oh, that’s just semantics.” I really enjoyed the comments to this post, Is the phrase “it’s just a matter of semantics” meaningless? at the website, English Language & Usage, and I especially appreciated this comment:

“It is not just a meaningless phrase: it is offensive and dismissive. Semantics are about meaning, and meaning is without question the single most important thing in any communication…. So semantics is not a matter of no import as they would have you believe, but indeed the one single matter that is of undeniably paramount importance. People who use the phrase should have their fingernails ripped out.”

Forgive me, but I think that comment is awesome!

To learn more about DPK Public Relations’ Media Interview Skills Training and/or Presentation Skills Training sessions, please visit or call 800.596.8708.

Photo by MartaZ*

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 at 11:50 am and is filed under Public Relations Advice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. Eileen Keeney Says:

    My biggest gripe is the use of word insure when it should be ensure.

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