What is a Word to Avoid When Giving Instructions?

What is a word to avoid when giving instructions?

Whenever we ask anybody to do anything, we are influencing them. We cannot not influence. Nuances of your word choice can have a profound effect on outcomes.

If I say to you, ‘Don’t think of a blue hippopotamus’, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind . . . ? A blue hippo, correct?

Whatever follows the words ‘do not’ or ‘don’t’ becomes dominant in your mind.

Neurolinguistics suggests the word ‘don’t’ is ignored by the sub-conscious mind; it’s an abstract device of language. What the brain thinks about or remembers are the words immediately following the word ‘don’t’.

Curiously, ‘Don’t forget to return the keys’ is sub-consciously heard as ‘Forget to return the keys’; (‘don’t’ is invisible). If you tell a child, ‘Don’t slam the door’, it registers as ‘Slam the door’.

Don’t Forget Vs. Remember To

Why is it more common for people to say, ‘Don’t forget to . . . ’ when what they really mean is, ‘Remember to . . . ’?

Instead of telling people in an emergency, ‘Don’t panic!’, (the idea of panic is now planted in people’s brains), the instruction should be, ‘Stay calm.’


Knowing this has implications for written procedures.

A sign in a warehouse reads, ‘Do not double-stack thin-grade cardboard boxes or they’ll collapse.’ But if double-stacking is what they DON’T want them to do, what DO they want them to do?

The positive version of the instruction becomes either, ‘Please single-stack all thin-grade cardboard boxes’ or ‘Thin-grade cardboard boxes can only be single-stacked’.

The way we use language impacts the way we influence others and their ability to remember important to-dos.


  1.  Observe with your clients, colleagues and family whether using ‘Remember to . . .’ provides a better outcome than ‘Don’t forget to . . .’
  2. Avoid negation in statements. Phrase things in the positive, describing what you want someone to do, not what you want them to avoid. ‘Don’t slam the door’ becomes ‘Close the door quietly please’; ‘Don’t forget to return the keys’ becomes ‘Please remember to return the keys’.
  3. And don’t say ‘don’t’.

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