Almost everything we do involves words. From emails and power points to phone calls and meetings, words are how we engage, communicate, and connect.
But some words are more effective than others. They are better at changing minds, engaging audiences, and driving action. What are these magic words, and how can we harness their power?
Turn Actions into Identities
When asking people to do things, we often use verbs. We ask someone to “help” us revise a PowerPoint deck, for example, or “share” their thoughts in a meeting. Likewise, when trying to increase voter turnout, letters can encourage voters to go out and “vote.”
Using verbs is a logical way to request action, but it turns out that a subtle change in language can increase our influence. Instead of asking people to “help,” research has found that asking them to be “helpers” helping increased by almost a third. And instead of asking people to “vote,” the research found they were asked to be “voters” the turnout increased by 15%.
Committing actions (eg, helping or voting) to identities (ie, being a helper or voter) makes people more likely to act because this action is made into an opportunity to gain a desired identity. Everyone wants to see themselves positively: intelligent, competent, helpful, and effective. Thus framing actions as opportunities to confirm desired identities encourages people to behave accordingly.
People want to listen? Ask them to be listeners. Do they want to lead? Ask them to be a leader.
The same goes for unwanted behaviors, but in the opposite direction. Do people want to behave more ethically? Instead of saying “don’t cheat,” say “don’t cheat” more than half the amount of bad behavior. Trying to stop people from littering? Instead of saying “Don’t litter” say “Don’t be a litterbug.” Do children try to tell the truth? Instead of saying “Don’t lie” saying “Don’t lie” is more effective.
The effect of turning actions into identities, however, goes beyond persuasion. Imagine that I told you about two people: Rebecca and Fred. Rebecca runs and Fred is a runner. Who do you think likes to run more?
There are many ways to say the same thing. For example, someone who has left leaning political beliefs, may be described as “liberal” or “liberal.” Someone who likes dogs a lot can be described as “loving dogs” or “a dog lover.”
These may seem like small differences, but in each case, the latter evokes a category. When someone is described as liberal, that adjective suggests that they hold leftist beliefs. But describing someone as “a liberal” suggests that they fall into a particular group or type. They are a member of a certain group of people, which suggests something more permanent.
Working on a resume and want to show how dedicated you are? Don’t just describe yourself as hardworking. Saying that you are a hard worker should lead to more favorable impressions. Want to help a colleague get promoted? Portraying them as an innovator rather than an innovator should make them more likely to be considered.
How do we know all this? From the new science of language. Technological advances in natural language processing, computational linguistics, and machine learning, combined with the digitization of everything from cover letters to conversations, have revolutionized our ability to analyze language, which provides unprecedented insights.
Making actions into identities is just one insight gained from the power of magic words, but there is more.
Talk with Confidence
Look at great leaders, powerful orators, or famous startup founders, for example, and they often come across as somewhat charismatic. Whenever they open their mouths, people listen. They are good salespeople, have an uncanny ability to make complex things simple, and inspire any audience to action.
But looking at such individuals, they usually have one particular thing in common: They speak with great conviction. They say the answers are nothing is clearthe results are guaranteedand a specific course of action Really work. Even in a domain like financial counseling, for example, where goal-setting is paramount, research shows that people prefer advisors who are more assertive.
When people speak with certainty, listeners are more likely to think they are right. Which counselor will do the best job? It’s hard to know for sure, but when someone says something for sure, it’s harder to believe they could be wrong. After all, they seem to be very confident.
However, instead of saying it for sure, most of us do the opposite. Whether leading a team, for example, or pitching a client, we often hold back what we say. We say things like “this is the solution CAN work,””In my mind this strategy will be effective,” or “this it seems to me like this is the best action. “
And while hedging can be beneficial in some ways, it usually reduces our impact. Qualifying statements make listeners less likely to follow our advice or adopt a recommended course of action. Hedging hurts because it makes announcers seem less confident.
Does that mean we will never revolt? No. But this means that we need to use it more deliberately. If the purpose is to signal uncertainty, fine, but sometimes we get so used to qualifying statements that we throw them over a fence just because. And that is a mistake.
There are also particular types of fences that we can use to signal uncertainty without harming the appeal. Compared to general fences (for example, “it it seems like this works”), for example, found in our research those personal fences (ie, “this it seems to me that’s how it works”) is more persuasive because it conveys confidence. They suggest that the communicator has enough confidence to relate what they say to themselves, which makes others more likely to listen.
Similarly, if the goal is to provide certainty, use specifics instead. To say that a person Fundamentala strategy obviously effect, or mode of action is obviously the best of all remove any small doubts.
Definitions suggest that things are 110% clear. The speaker is confident and that the course of action is clear. Make the audience more likely to follow them, and do whatever they suggest.
The Power of “You”
Even a simple word like you can have strong effects.
A few years ago, a large technology company asked me to analyze their social media posts to find out what was working and what wasn’t. Automatic text analysis of thousands of posts found that words like you more engagement. Posts used youor other second person pronouns such as yourselfmore likes and received more comments.
We found that words like “you” can act as a stop sign, flagging something relevant and deserving of attention. Whether online on social media, or offline in one-on-one conversations or meetings, you makes the audience feel like someone is speaking directly to them, so they’re more likely to stop what they’re doing and listen.
But when we did a similar analysis of customer support articles (for example, pages on how to set up a new laptop, or troubleshoot a device), we found that words like you has the opposite effect. there, you hurt rather than help, making readers feel that the content is not very helpful.
Because while you suggests that the information is personally relevant, may also suggest responsibility or blame. Compared to “if the printer does not work…” for example, it says “if you can’t get the printer to work…” suggests that the printer is not working in some way due to user error. That the problem is not with the printer, but with the user who can’t seem to make it do what it should.
No wonder, then, while you can help social media by drawing attention, ill customer support pages where it can be suggested that the user is at fault. Words not only convey information, They communicate who is in control, and who is responsible, in good and bad.
Questions like “Have you checked when the paperwork is due?” or “Did you feed the dog?” feel an accusation. The intention may not be good, just a request for information, but it can easily be interpreted differently. Who said this? Am I responsibility, or why not I take care of it?
A subtle shift (eg, “Have the papers been submitted yet?”) is less likely to generate blowback. By focusing on the action, rather than the actor, it removes any suggestion of shame. I am not suggesting this YOUR work, I just want to know if this is happening so I can do it if it hasn’t.
Same with statements like “I’d like to talk, but you’re busy.” The statement may be true. We want to talk, and the other person is busy. But words like that suggest someone is to blame. That it’s not only bad that they’re busy, but it’s their fault that the conversation isn’t happening.
Drop in you, and switching to something like “I want to talk but it doesn’t seem like the best time,” avoids any finger pointing. Now it’s clear that it’s nobody’s fault, and we seem to care rather than demand. Avoid excuses you can help avoid placing unintended blame.
. . .
Some people are good speakers. When they open their mouths, everyone listens. Some people are good writers. They have a magical way with words, capturing our imagination, and holding our attention.
But what about the rest of us? Are we just out of luck?
Not much. Because being a good writer or speaker isn’t just something you’re born with, it’s something you learn how to do. Words have a tremendous impact. And by understanding when, why, and how it works, we can use it to enhance ours.