Who wouldn’t like to have a few magic words that can warp reality? Shazam! Abracadabra! Hocus pocus! And then everything works out. We all yearn for a few elusive syllables that can produce linguistic sorcery but they seem about as easy to find as an original thought on Twitter. Well, believe it or not, it seems like there just might be a few magic words…
In the 1970s, researchers from Harvard approached people using a copy machine and asked if they could cut the line and go first. Sometimes they merely asked, but other times they added “because I’m in a rush.” Adding the word “because” increased the number of people who said “yes” by 50%. A fifty-percent increase is enormous in psychology studies.
Some people might not be that impressed. They might think, “Well, the people were being nice because the researchers said they were in a rush.” But that’s not what happened. So they repeated the experiment and this time gave a meaningless reason. They wanted to cut ahead “because I have to make some copies.” That’s not a good excuse at all.
Results showed it was just as effective as saying “because I’m in a rush.” The reason didn’t matter. It was the magic word “because” that made the difference. Holy Manchurian Candidate, Batman! We might have a secret to influence here.
And “because” isn’t the only one…
Saying you “recommend” rather than “like” something makes people 32 percent more likely to take your suggestion. Using the word “whom” in online dating profiles makes men 31 percent more likely to get a date. Adding more prepositions to a cover letter makes you 24 percent more likely to get the job. And saying “is not” rather than “isn’t” when describing a product makes people pay three dollars more to get it.
(And, personally, I’ll add that when I say I did something at 5AM people think I am far more responsible than when I say I did something at 4AM.)
So what other magic phrases can we use to communicate more effectively? Well, somebody has dug them up…
Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His new book is “Magic Words.”
Want to learn how some small tweaks in how you speak can get you much better results? (Frankly, sometimes I say things so stupid I’m surprised they don’t give me lip cancer.)
Gather ’round, my rhetorical ruffians. Let’s get to it…
“Fred goes running” or “Fred is a runner” – which phrase makes you think Fred runs more often? Probably the latter.
“Category labels” give a sense of stability. They imply a behavior will persist. When we think that’s who someone is, we assume they will always be that way. Lawyers will say their client “isn’t a criminal; he just did something bad.”
Research shows changing verbs to nouns makes a big difference. So on your resume, say you’re “a hard worker”, not you’re “hard working.”
You can also use this to persuade others. Giving people a chance to confirm desired identities makes them more like to comply with requests. Asking people to “be a voter” vs “to vote” increased turnout by 15%. Telling students “don’t be a cheater” instead of “don’t cheat” more than halved the amount of cheating. You can powerfully influence people’s behavior and it doesn’t have to be as impossible as trying to cancel a subscription online.
You have an identity but children are still looking for theirs. And, yes, you can ruthlessly exploit this to get them to clean their bedroom. Asking kids to “be a helper” instead of “to help” increased compliance by almost a third.
Heck, you can even use this with yourself. If you’re trying to make that exercise habit stick, don’t say that you run. Start referring to yourself as “a runner.” It’s not something you do; it’s who you are.
Okay, your magic powers are growing. What other linguistic alchemy can we use?
If you’re going to persuade people, it helps to be concrete. No, I don’t mean you should encase yourself in a block of cement, though that would make for an interesting conversation starter.
Research shows using concrete language increases attention, support, and drives action. When service reps used more concrete words, customers were more satisfied with the interaction and spent 30 percent more with the company in the subsequent weeks.
Now you might think this is because concrete language is more clear but that wasn’t the primary reason it worked. The key was that concrete language makes people feel heard. When retail salespeople said, “Let me go find that shirt in gray” it was far more effective than when they replied, “I’ll go look for that.” It made it clear the salesperson was listening.
So next time your partner is complaining about their day, instead of replying, “That sounds bad” say, “I can’t believe the VP showed up 45 minutes late.”
Now there’s a flip side to this. When should you not be concrete? A Harvard Business School study showed that when startups were seeking funding, abstract language improved results. It made investors think the company had more potential for growth.
Abstract language signals a better future while concrete language increases understanding of the here and now. Also, abstract wording signals power and suggests someone might be a better leader. This can give you a leg up in the realm of office politics. (The corporate world is like Game of Thrones, but with less murder and more passive aggressive emails.)
Which brings us to the issue of power. Some people don’t respond as well to niceness as we might hope. There are folks you couldn’t draw empathy out of if you used an industrial centrifuge. They’re louder than a jet engine, more persistent than a telemarketer, and have the uncanny ability to turn every conversation into a one-person show about themselves. All they understand is power. So how do we persuade them?
Confidence is like the Spanx of emotions – it smooths out the bumps and lumps and makes everything look just a little bit better. Confidence is like the sriracha sauce of conversation, making everything it touches infinitely more appealing. But how do we convey it?
Use less hedging. Studies show that when speakers hedge, listeners are less likely to comply with a recommendation. So cut the “maybes” and “kind ofs.” Use words like “definitely” and “clearly.” This makes listeners more likely to follow your lead. Sometimes we need to hedge but make sure it’s deliberate.
Even more importantly, don’t hesitate. Reduce the “ums”, “ahs” and “like, you knows.” A few are okay, but too many reduced impact. Hesitation was even more detrimental than hedges. Studies show lower status speakers that didn’t hesitate were received better than higher status speakers that did. If you need time to think, deliberately pause and compose your thoughts before you speak.
Another powerful tip is to turn the past into the present. Music reviews with present tense verbs were found to be more persuasive. When doing a work presentation talk about “what you find” instead of “what you found.” Talking about things in the past tense sounds subjective and transient. Using the present tense sounds like it will endure and still be true for the listener. Don’t say the restaurant “made” great steaks, say it “makes” great steaks.
So confidence makes you more convincing – but is there a time when expressing doubt can help? Yes, when you’re discussing contentious issues and especially among people who have strong beliefs. We often think conversations are all about the information being conveyed but the first consideration listeners have is whether to listen to you at all.
Expressing doubt when discussing controversial topics conveys respect and shows that you’re open minded. It shows you feel the topic is complicated and makes people pay attention. Keep this in mind next time politics comes up (which is about every 7 seconds these days).
Okay, we’ve covered a few ways to make statements but statements aren’t the only way to magically influence others…
Across the board, the research shows asking questions makes people more likable. This held true for first dates, doctor-patient encounters, first meetings, etc.
But the impact of questions can vary widely. The type that consistently had the best results were follow-up questions. Across a broad range of situations, follow-up questions led to people being perceived more positively because it shows you care and proves you’re paying attention. Next time you’re uncertain what to say, instead of filling the silence with the usual verbal dysentery of rambling – ask a follow-up question.
In work contexts people often limit questions because they don’t want to sound ignorant. They’re afraid of looking like the kind of person who mistakes a bidet for a water fountain. But the research shows the opposite: asking for advice makes you seem more competent. Sounds counterintuitive but we’re forgetting the very human element of ego. Asking people questions makes them feel smart. And, of course, they know what they’re talking about so if you bothered to ask them you’re obviously competent enough to know a reliable source when you see one, right?
But what about when people ask us questions? And I’m talking about the tough ones. Like those awkward questions in a negotiation that you don’t want to answer. It’s a sticky situation. A battle of wills that would make Sun Tzu throw up his hands in defeat. Giving them the information might hurt your position but declining to answer seems rude. You feel like you’re on the wrong end of the food chain. There doesn’t seem to be a good answer. (I hate moments like this. But then again calling me a trained negotiator is like calling Panda Express “authentic Chinese cuisine.”)
So rather than committing an act of fiscal self-immolation, deflect. Jonah says that responding to a question with a question is a great move here. Hiding info doesn’t go over well but asking for more information is seen positively. It ties in with the ego-massaging issue we just discussed. You’re not being evasive, you’re engaged, flattering even. And all the while you shift the focus to something less threatening to your position. It seems like you’re seeking relevant information rather than hiding it.
And, in turn, how do we get people to divulge negative information even when it’s not in their interest? Change the default position in your question. When asking about that used car, don’t say, “It doesn’t have any problems, does it?” This assumes there are none and in studies it was less effective than flipping the default and asking, “So what problems does it have?” This assumes there are issues that need to be discussed and people were more forthcoming about revealing them.
And now we get to the magic words you need to use when you’re dealing with the most difficult person of all… yourself.
Turns out there are better and worse ways of doing this. Sometimes we’re trying to put term limits on our anxiety. And the best way to do that is by using the third person. Getting some distance helped.
When you need that personal hype man in your head to boost you up, don’t say, “I can do this.” Instead, go for, “You can do this” or “Eric, you’ve got this.” (Note: this will work better if your name is Eric.) When people avoided the first person they were more confident, less anxious and performed better in studies where they had to do public speaking.
And then we have the common struggles over willpower. To not eat the cookie, to not have the third glass of wine. One wrong move and your binge-eating indiscretions are scattered around you like a crime scene. Here you want to use the magic phrase “I don’t” instead of “I can’t.” Can’t implies you still want to. You’re at cross purposes. Meanwhile don’t is empowered and in control. It gets your identity in there. You’re not the kind of person who does that. And people who told themselves “I don’t have three glasses of wine” were twice as likely to resist temptation.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up – and we’ll also learn the magic words that predict who gets fired and who gets promoted…
Here’s how to use magic words to persuade others:
So what magic words predict who will get fired, who will quit, who will get promotions and raises – and even whether a first date will lead to a second date?
It all came down to similarity. Jonah’s research showed that in the office and our personal lives a level of assimilation around language is normal and expected. Consciously and unconsciously, we usually want to fit in. And people who used more similar language to others often did fit in and were more likely to get promotions and raises. When language diverged, the person often didn’t fit in or didn’t want to fit in. And those people were more likely to quit or be fired.
What’s interesting is that fitting in isn’t always good. Songs that were atypical (they used words not usually found in that genre) did better. The difference drove success. The lesson here? Similarity is safe but sometimes boring. Difference is exciting but sometimes risky. Fitting in at the office matters while excitement is good in entertainment.
So some changes in the words you use can make a big difference. Give these tips a shot. But most importantly, I’d like to thank you for reading… Oops.
I mean, I’d like to thank you for being a reader.