Don’t think of a purple giraffe (and what else not to say)

A company I admire allowed an employee to blog, “You probably don’t want to come to our conference, but here’s why I think you should.” Really? I don’t want to come to your conference? Now that you mention it–I guess I don’t!

Are you telling people what you don’t want them to think, or don’t want them do? And then are you surprised when they (your customers and clients, your children, the general public) think and do the opposite of what you wanted?

When we tell a child, “Don’t touch!” what does the child do? And at lightning speed?

Toddlers hear our command as “Touch!” The “Don’t” does not register. Grammatically, that is the imperative. And our tone makes it an urgent command. To negate what we commanded–do NOT do what we forcefully said–is linguistically sophisticated, over their tiny heads.

Even mature brains take longer to process a negative, thinking, “This–no, NOT this.” And even if ignored, negative words retain subliminal impact: “You probably don’t want to come to our conference.” “These are not the droids you are looking for.”

If we want people to understand us, possibly even do our bidding, then tell them what we want them to do, not what we don’t want.

Say your cat or your antique vase are endangered by tiny hands. Guide the tiny hand as you say and demonstrate, “Touch it gently. Gently.” You might want to supervise and remind, “Gently,” or remove the object of interest, but the child’s joy and cooperation will amaze you.

Sometimes we need to warn. If it is a hot stove, we can say, “Hot! Owie!”

ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation) used to warn, “Don’t drive drunk!” That message includes “Drive Drunk!” That is like telling a toddler, “Don’t touch that stove!” I wanted to scream, “No! Tell them what TO do–like Designate a Driver!”

Not long ago, ADOT switched to “Drive hammered, get nailed,” which prompted at least one attorney to post billboards: “Got nailed? Call us!”

And finally this week, ADOT got it right. The signs now read, “Designate a Driver. Avoid a DUI.” YES! Give that reviser a raise! I expect the revision to prove more effective than checkpoints alone.

It’s easy to write, “Don’t think of a purple giraffe,” and forget what happens in the reader’s brain. What’s your favorite Purple Giraffe?

Reading is for Babies

Father reading to baby The American Pediatrics Association says, “Immunize your children against illiteracy.”

NPR’s Audie Cornish interviewed Professor Susan Neuman about new evidence showing that the younger you read to your children, the better. Reading benefits babies, from earliest vocabulary development though later achievements.

Were you one of those lucky children who was read to?

I have preschool memories of my dad reading me Dr. Seuss and, I kid you not, The Wall Street Journal, and my mom reading me a chapter of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi before every nap.

Reading to my own children was even more enjoyable. My first toddler was barely forming two-word sentences when he announced from his car seat, “No, Pat! No, Pat!” He was pointing to a cactus, alluding to Dr. Seuss: “No, Pat, no! Don’t sit on that!” My younger son, by 3 or 4 spoke fluent King James, holding a book, pretending to read, making up stories and admonitions with archaic verb tenses and expressions, never confusing it with our colloquial English.

Reading is not only for babies. Don’t let children outgrow it! Jim Trelease (The Read-Aloud Handbook) suggests that teens wash dishes while parents read aloud. Talk about a Win-Win. The Phantom Tollbooth made a favorite dish-time hit.

Reading obviously benefits brain development, language acquisition, and academic achievements, but what I love most about reading/being read to, in classrooms and families, is the social development, between the literature and the readers, and the readers amongst themselves.

  • Empathy: reading another’s mind, walking in others’ shoes, experiencing other ages, places, cultures, and times.
  • Common vocabulary, allusions, characters, and private jokes, instantly conveying a concept or strengthening a relationship.
  • It’s hard to read and argue at the same time. (Certain people can pull it off—it helps to be attached to the literal, as in high-functioning autism—but imagine where such a person would be without literature and those ensuing discussions.)

What is your favorite reading benefit? Your favorite memory of communal reading?

Interview: http://www.npr.org/2014/06/24/325229904/to-immunize-kids-against-illiteracy-break-out-a-book-in-infancy

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2014. All rights reserved. WritersResort.com

Photo © Liza McCorkle. iStockPhoto.

The Worst Birthday Card Ever

I’m excited to be turning 50 soon, and my friends are celebrating early–even Aetna. They sent a card: “Happy Birthday!” it says, with fourteen lighted candles. It says “aetna” in a font twice the size of the greeting, which somewhat braced me for the message to come.

Aetna birthday card 50 front 09 2012

The interior begins, “Wishing you a very happy birthday” and continues “and offering an important screening reminder.” Naturally. No surprise there. They do insure me, at a high deductible followed by extremely high coverage in case I ever get severely maimed, or I fail to kill a cluster of my own rogue cells. Can’t you just hear the cancer scare coming?

It’s all one sentence, with a poetic line break, allowing a nanosecond to pretend that, together, we celebrate my life and health.

Aetna birthday card 50 interior 09 2012

The type gets tinier, on a card with more white space than type, like a legal notice, a disclaimer, a space to admit that the cure is worse than the disease, the prognosis is poor, and results may vary.

Breast cancer, I assume, since we women are daily hexed that we should worry about that until we take our inevitable turn.

Imagine my surprise when they chose to focus on colorectal cancer. I laughed. Of all body parts that could possibly be endangered by cancer, this is the guest of honor–and the only one–chosen for my half-life celebration?

It gets worse: four bullet points on why this matters, three more on the types of tests I should be requesting. I spare you the grisly details. You can probably read them on the image above.

Obviously, Aetna didn’t hire me to help them word this, but they should have.

First, I’d wipe Aetna off the cover. Clearly, we all remember who you are, having paid you often enough. Go for the sneak attack. Let us think it’s a real card from an actual friend, then sign it: “Aetna.” Or better yet, sign it in real ink by a live person representing Aetna. (Signature machines count.) I would give bonus points for offering this live person’s direct phone number.

Second, knock it off with the medical hexing. Promote health, not cancer.

Personalizing it would be nice. You managed to put my name on the envelope.

And Keep It Simple, Sweetie. Here’s a draft for you. “Gwyn, we wish you the best of health, and look forward to partnering with you each year to protect it.”

If you can’t leave well enough alone, you might say, to minimal offense, something like, “We are proud to cover many (most? all?) of your annual screenings at no cost to you. Please call me if you have any questions about your coverage or screening recommendations.”

The ad on the back is fine. You could even add a chart of recommended screenings by age. (Our medical records do include gender, so it would not be hard to personalize that as well.) Be sure you cover at least forty more years in the range; suggest that you believe we’re relatively young and want us to outlive life insurance as well.

Better yet, offer the top ten ways to promote health after age 50–eat more plants, exercise, meditate–things that do not involve lab techs and radiologists–the attitudes and activities that could make your bottom line and our bottom ends equally healthy.

Have you received a corporate birthday card you actually enjoyed?

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved. WritersResort.com
Images: Scans of Aetna’s Age 50 birthday card. Used for critique. Please don’t plagiarize their work and ruin your own customer service reputation.