Why a song lyric from 1944 has a lesson for business today

The lyrics of the song are probably better remembered than their writer Johnny Mercer – but either way they still hold a lesson for business. He said we should accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative. You can start today: Try dropping these seven words from your vocabulary to inject optimism into your more positive and productive mindset.

Sir Paul McCartney, crooner Bing Crosby and Chicago punk band The Vindictives all recorded versions of Johnny Mercer’s 1944 classic Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive – and if such a diverse musical bunch latched on to a song, there must’ve been a strong message in it.

There is. But it’s unlikely that Mercer thought it would have much value for business 70 years after he wrote it; after all, he was just writing a song for a film.

Words convey far more than their literal meanings. Tone of voice, context, even your age or the continent on which you live can change the meaning of a word in the same language.
However, it’s a universal truth that some messages are positive, and some are negative. You can work on tone of voice yourself, but another invaluable tool lies in the words you select.

Here are seven suggestions for words (and their connotations) that you should ditch right away.

1. Hate: you might say this one’s the worst of the lot, because it’s changing the world even as you read. It’s a powerful word, and too often we use it when we don’t mean it. Think about the times you’ve used it in the last couple of days; it’s very likely that all you meant was that something was hard (like getting out of bed early) or something that’s mildly irritating or frustrating.

Business Lessons2. Clique: In a beehive as many as 50,000 bees work in perfect harmony, all focused on the common good. There’s no ‘us and them’, no little groups having private water-cooler meetings whilst looking over their shoulders and turning up their noses at co-workers. Stamp out cliques, which are invariably divisive.

3. Try: This implies that failure’s an option in whatever it is you’re trying to do. Is it a meeting? Have the courage to say ‘no’, I can’t make it, if that’s true. Don’t hide behind mealy-mouthed sentiments like ‘I’ll try’, when everyone knows what you really mean is ‘I don’t want to’. Have the courage of your convictions!

4. Me: The personal pronoun ‘me’ is associated with going it alone. Even self-employed people don’t do business alone; they’re part of larger networks of clients and suppliers. Far better to say ‘we’, and in doing so to have people understand that they’re working together for mutual benefit.

5. Should: Saying “I should” suggests you’re faced with a task you don’t want to do. That makes it a chore, and therefore harder to accomplish. You might ask yourself if you want to do whatever it is; chances are, if you’re in employment, choice doesn’t come into it. Far better then to change ‘I should’ into “I will” and take pride from doing whatever it is well. Think of the positive energy that will replace negativity when you’ve done whatever it is to the best of your ability.

6. But: This simple conjunction normally comes before an excuse; it’s a sign that you’re about to contradict what you’ve said only seconds ago. We once worked with a man who, when asked to tackle a particular task, would spend a long time devising reasons for it being impossible rather than gong out and making it work. Don’t tell me why you can’t; tell me how you’re going to overcome the obstacles!

7. Just: This is in the context of ‘only’ rather than ‘fair and equitable’. Too often people use the word to qualify an achievement, and thereby to minimise Be Carefulthe effort that went into it. “I’m just a Dad” or “I’m just a physics graduate” are phrases you may well have heard, and both are patent nonsense. Being either of those things takes years of dedication and hard work. Be proud of every achievement and hold your head up high.

And here’s a final thought – be careful about the way you write email. It’s possible to say something to someone in a face-to-face situation that will create no issues; but write the same thing in an email and you could stir up a hornets’ nest of trouble. In that situation think twice, or even three times. Use neutral language. Hide no potentially misunderstood message in the words you choose.

After all, wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone was simply nice to everyone else?