June 13, 2024
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The Power of the Positive Word

The power of the positive word is positive results.

So obviously true is that statement that it can be offered aphoristically, namely, standing by itself without need for explanation or defense. But let’s look at two sterling examples anyway.

In November 2004, two municipalities—eight miles apart from each other in affluent Bergen County, New Jersey—had open-space initiatives on their ballots. Strikingly similar, the two were high on the socioeconomic scale, with populations consisting of professionals in medicine, business, education and the arts. They both had lovely homes, good schools, robust social scenes, vibrant downtown shopping districts and ample open space. (High property tax rates, too, not unrelated to a vote on expenditures).

Municipality No. 1 worded its ballot question like this: “Should the township create a municipal trust fund for land preservation based on a tax of 1% per $100 of assessed value?” Note these positive words: create, trust fund, preservation.

Municipality No. 2 posed this question: “Should the village impose an additional tax levy of up to 1% per $100 of assessed value for its municipal trust fund?” Note the negative words: impose, additional tax levy.

Do I need to tell you the results? In municipality No. 1 it passed by a margin of 52-48; in No. 2 it failed by—oh my!—52-48. And you can look all day long for other differentiating causal factors, but you won’t find them. That’s how similar the two were. Conclusively, the differentiator was the wording of the ballot questions.

Two explanations are possible. Either the leaders of each municipality knew what they were doing, consciously or instinctively, and got the results they wanted; or the leaders of No. 1 knew what they were doing and how to get it done, while those in No. 2 didn’t.

One way or the other, the power of the positive word was positive results.

On a far more vast scale, John F. Kennedy knew this as well as anyone in modern history—and he displayed it every day. On May 25, 1961, just four months after the historic and immeasurably positive “Ask not…” moment in his inaugural address and still four days shy of his 44th birthday, JFK addressed a joint session of Congress.

Said the president, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” For historic context, remember that we Americans were still feeling a little less than positive about ourselves after nearly four years of the Soviets beating us to space with an unmanned capsule, then a monkey, and then a cosmonaut. But look at JFK’s choice of positive words: believe, commit, achieving, goal, before, landing, returning, safely. Twenty-seven percent of the words in that one sentence have a positive valence—even out of context.

So powerful were his positive words—and so well-crafted—that when he warned, in the very next sentence, that “No single space project in this period will be … so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” it didn’t matter. That difficult and expensive challenge became merely a requisite challenge, as the inspiration was already there. And, of course, we know the positive results: eight years and two months later—and nearly six years after his assassination—JFK’s positive words were still yielding positive results. Neil Armstrong took that one small step, that one giant leap.

It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened had JFK begun with the “difficult and expensive” part. Would Congress—and the people of America—have been as receptive? Would the speech have been as effective? Would the results have been there? Would the influence of his positive leadership have sustained that long after his death?

That’s the power of the positive word, and great leaders know it instinctively, but still work on it every day. More than anything else, it’s what makes great leaders great. All great leaders are great communicators first.

Getting back to those two municipalities for a moment, here’s an interesting footnote. In 2008, municipality No. 1, they of the positive word, repeated their open space initiative, this time loaded with even more positivity: “Should the township extend for four years its open space trust fund for the acquisition, development, maintenance, and preservation of recreational land…? ” It passed by an overwhelming 62-38 margin.

Municipality No. 2? It never got back onto the ballot.

Indeed, the power of the positive word is … positive results.

Career coach Eli Amdur provides one-on-one coaching in job search, résumés, and interviewing.


By Eli Amdur

 Reach him at [email protected] or 201-357-5844.

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