Defining The Negative In Radio


(By Ronald Robinson) Reader Alert: Language lesson ahead.

Almost all language delivered on the radio is made up of some combination of the natural, intuitive speaking habits of the writer or the presenter, and any acquired forms of speaking based on radio’s long-held but sloppily acquired and unchallenged traditions. These would also include the factors of tempo, speed, volume, intensities, range, pauses, and tonality. Only peripheral and occasional attention or practice has been devoted to any of these elements.

One of the many components of radio communications that has, I suspect, never been addressed, is the use of the many forms of the negative. It is the case where we, as natural speakers of the language, have always used the negative in our everyday speech and, of course, we use it on the air and in copywriting as well.

Since a personal, subjective experience can make for a more useful learning experience, I invite readers to participate in the following exercise.

My first request is for the reader to direct their attention to making a mental picture of any small, brown dog. Next, change the color of the dog to white. Some will construct a static photo of the pooch while others will have generated a video. The relative size of the image in the mind’s-eye will also be, comparatively, somewhat unique to each person.

The next part of the exercise is to go along with the following: Don’t make a mental image of any small, brown dog. And don’t change the color of the dog to white. Don’t’ make a static photo and don’t generate a video.

What happens? In a bizarre twist in our processing of our own language, the negative (“don’t”) becomes almost irrelevant. Those images are still being constructed even with direct instructions not to!

In an earlier piece, I introduced “transderivational search (TDS)” as a sophisticated process that every one of us goes through in order to derive understanding and meaning from what we have just heard or read. This TDS process is an ongoing, automatic, and unconscious behavior that we must experience in order to understand.

Essentially, the process considers the entirety of a listener or reader’s life-experiences in order to find matching elements that will corroborate the content of the new sentences being provided. For example: Anyone with no exposure to winter skiing will have more limited choices when asked to develop an internal representation of different kinds of snow.

The questions for communicators then, are: What do I want a listener to experience internally? Do I want them to internally generate the exact opposite of what I am suggesting they avoid? How do I get away from that habitual, but still undesirable strategy?

Here are some standard, everyday uses of the negative – on the street and in radio:

  • “Don’t miss it!” To understand that sentence, every listener must go through the unconscious process of coming up with internal experiences of what “missing it” would be.
  •  “Don’t worry!” The same principle applies.
  • “Don’t drink/text/phone and drive.” People are required to internally access the experiences of drinking/texting/phoning and driving – just to understand the sentence.

So. What parts of the messages are being reinforced? They certainly won’t be the desired ones.

The fix is in stating the communicator’s intent. “Drive sober.” “Drive fully alert.” A more influential replacement for “don’t worry” is, essentially, a form of “….and feel good.” Etcetera.

A local auto dealer is tagging all their spots with “Buy from us – with no regrets.” While a sincere statement, the listeners have no choice but to internally generate any number of regretful circumstances that might arise from buying at this dealership.

Some broadcasters might take the position that these are trifling matters. The danger, however, is in the fact that these approaches also have a cumulative effect.

Our language delivery practices are the last of radio’s elements that have yet to be developed. I am sure that most of radio’s ownership and leadership have never even considered these matters. And if they have, the evidence suggests they have no appreciation of how powerful a massive improvement in our communication methodologies would be to the future of the medium. Are we just an advertising platform that enjoys 7% of available revenue? Or, are we “communicators”?

Ronald T. Robinson has been involved in Canadian radio since the ’60s as a performer, writer and coach, and has trained and certified as a personal counselor. E-E-mail him at [email protected]


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