The 1998 film masterpiece The Negotiator is probably not the best place to school yourself in real-life hostage negotiation techniques. But when it comes to the slightly lower-stakes arena of copywriting, it’s probably as good a place to start as any.
What Samuel L. Jackson taught us in that seminal piece of schlock cinema is that negative words have no place in either hostage negotiation OR copywriting. In fact, aim to avoid introducing any negativity in copy at all – starting with the words you use.
Should I Use Negative Words In My Copy?
I just told you, no! Wait, that’s a negative word… What I mean, of course, is that it’s better to use positive words. Negotiators tend not to use negative words because it cuts off options. When a hardened criminal is pointing an AK at a bank full of helpless staff, it’s best to have as many options as possible.
Same goes for copywriting. Your customer is the thief under pressure. You are the calm, steady negotiator. (If anything, some clients and customers can be even more hostile than a gun-wielding bank robber, but that’s an article for another day.) Keep positive. Put options, confidence and openness in their mind. They have a problem. You can solve it.
How To Avoid Negativity In Copywriting
To get around negative words, simply reframe them as positive gestures. For example, instead of ‘We can’t’, ‘We won’t’, ‘No’ or ‘Don’t’, say things like, ‘We’ll look into this’, ‘The option is there’, ‘We’ll see what we can do’, ‘Get in touch’, ‘Talk to us about…’, etc.
Even if a hostage-taker is making outrageous demands (helicopter to Mexico, 10 million in cash, immunity, etc.), negotiators will still default to that positive, open language. Again, often the demands of clients can be more audacious than criminals with their back to the wall, so the same logic applies.
The general rule is to avoid negative words in copy, but like all good rules, this can be broken to make a point. For example, see the catchy title of this very article.
In those cases, you want to make it very obvious you’re doing it ironically, or looking to grab someone’s attention. Otherwise, negativity will come across uncertain, off-putting and a touch aggressive – traits people generally don’t want in people they hire (or in negotiators who might be a criminal’s only path to freedom).
As a final point: always remember to put in a final positive point! Go all out on the positivity at the climax, leave your reader feeling full of optimism that yes, you have what it takes to get the job done. For example: “Yes, sir, I will certainly ask about that helicopter to Mexico, and I don’t see how or why it could ever be a problem! Just don’t shoot the hostages! Uh… I mean, let’s keep those bullets nice and cosy in the magazine!”