The Gordian Not - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, July 04, 2009

I was listening to Brooke Gladstone's ON THE MEDIA podcast about the difficulty of obliterating public misconceptions (e.g. "Barack Obama is a Muslim"). She was talking about how people don't remember "not" well. If you try to sell people on the concept that "Barack Obama is a Christian," you might convince some of them that he's not a Muslim. But if you try to sell people on "Barack Obama is not a Muslim," it might have a short-term effect, but in the long term, all anyone remembers is "Barack Obama" and "Muslim." Your efforts actually entrench the misperception.

Similarly, when Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook," people identified him (even more than they already did) with the word "crook."

Partly this is the Denial Paradox. When a guy denies he's a crook, what goes through most people's minds is, "why does he have to deny it? There must be some truth to the accusation."

But there's something deeper going on. Negation is a surprisingly advanced concept, it turns out. I know because I got my 5 year old daughter's "report card." She's mildly autistic, so she's speaking at roughly a 3 year old level. She's learned basic grammar (SVO) and lately she's mastered the more difficult protocols for using "I" and "you." These are difficult because she can't just repeat what the teacher says. She has to swap the words. "I give you the brush" becomes "you give me the brush.") The two main things she hasn't learned at all are tense (was/is/will be and negation. If you ask her, "Give me the ball that is not red," she'll give you the red ball. So negation is at the same level of abstraction, it would seem, as time.

How does this help you writing scripts? Be careful when you use negation. It's easy to write a line like this:
  • Sandy's wearing a lot of makeup, but it's not at all whorish. It's actually rather well done.
Unfortunately, while you know what you mean, and your reader is intellectually capable of parsing your meaning, what she will actually take away from the sentence is the word "whorish." It's visual and grabby. The word "not" requires too much processing. It's likely to get lost. Your character will appear whorishly made up in her mind.

Instead, write this:
  • Sandy's wearing a lot of makeup, but it's beautifully done, like an actress going to the Oscars.
Use this power only for good. It would be wicked, in speechwriting, to say things like, "Sarah Palin is not a flakey bimbo," knowing the audience's poor ability to process negation...

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3 Comments:

This is a pretty terrific post. Thanks so much!

By Blogger Muffin MacGuffin, at 10:30 PM  

Sorry, all I got from your post was that Sarah Palin is a flaky bimbo who wears whorish make-up. Is that the gist of it?

By Blogger Tim W., at 11:24 PM  

One principle of advertising says slogans should always be affirmative because words evoke images.
Try not to think about a monkey with a hat.

By Blogger Legor, at 4:07 PM  

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