What you will learn from reading Magic Words:
– Language’s Influence: Discover the science behind how words shape perceptions, trigger emotions, and drive action in various contexts.
– Communication Strategies: Learn practical techniques to craft compelling messages, establish trust, and inspire action through effective communication.
– Practical Applications: Gain actionable tips to enhance your communication skills, increase influence, and achieve better outcomes in business, sales, leadership, and personal relationships.
Words are integral to almost everything we do, from communicating ideas and expressing ourselves to connecting with loved ones. They serve as the medium for leaders to lead, salespeople to sell, and parents to parent. They enable teachers to teach, policymakers to govern, and doctors to explain. Even our private thoughts rely on language.
Despite our extensive use of language, we rarely give much thought to the specific words we use. While we may focus on the ideas we want to convey, we often overlook the particular language that we use to communicate them. After all, individual words may seem interchangeable.
However, some words possess a unique power. For example, studies have found that using the word “recommend” instead of “like” can increase the likelihood of people taking your suggestion by 32 percent. Similarly, incorporating the word “whom” into online dating profiles can increase the chances of men securing a date by 31 percent. These examples demonstrate the influence that carefully chosen words can have on the way we communicate and connect with others.
Six types of magic words:
The right words, used at the right time, can change minds, engage audiences, and drive action. So what are these magic words, and how can we take advantage of their power?
The book describes six types of magic words: words that (1) activate identity and agency, (2) convey confidence, (3) ask the right questions, (4) leverage concreteness, (5) employ emotion, and (6) harness similarity (and difference).
1: Activate Identity and Agency Words suggest who’s in charge, who’s to blame, and what it means to engage in a particular action. Discover why using nouns rather than verbs can help persuade others, how saying no the right way can help us achieve our goals.
2: Convey Confidence Words not only convey facts and opinions, they convey how confident we are in those facts and opinions, which shapes how we’re perceived and our influence. Learn how getting rid of the wrong words turned a floundering sales executive into a top performer and why the way lawyers talk can be just as important as the facts they share.
3: Ask the Right Questions In this chapter, you’ll learn about the science of asking questions. Why asking for advice makes people think you’re smarter and why asking more questions make daters more likely to get a second date. Which types of questions are more effective and the right times to ask them.
4: Leverage Concreteness This chapter showcases the power of linguistic concreteness. Which words show listening and why talking about “fixing” rather than “solving”.
5: Employ Emotion Chapter 5 explores why emotional language enhances engagement. Understanding the science of what makes a good story, why adding negative things can actually make positive ones more enjoyable, and why using emotional language boosts sales in some product categories, but not others. You’ll learn how to hold people’s attention, even for topics that might not seem the most interesting.
6: Harness Similarity (and Difference) This chapter will teach you about the language of similarity. What linguistic similarity means and why it helps explain everything from who gets promoted or becomes friends to who gets fired or goes on a second date.
7: What Language Reveals The first six chapters focus on language’s impact. How you can use it to be happier, healthier, and more successful. In the last chapter, Berger explores some of the powerful things words reveal.
Each chapter focuses on one type of magic words and how to use them. Some insights are as simple as saying “don’t” rather than “can’t”; others are more complex and context dependent.
Chapter 1 – Activate Identity and Agency
In an attempt to understand how to persuade children and others, scientists conducted an experiment. They asked a group of four- and five-year-olds to do something that children are often reluctant to do: tidy up. The task involved putting blocks into a container, putting away toys, and cleaning up an overturned cup of crayons. To make persuasion even more challenging, the scientists waited until the kids were already engaged in some other activity, such as playing with toys or drawing with crayons, before asking for their help. This was done to ensure that the children would be particularly uninterested in lending a hand.
The children were reminded that helping is a good thing and that it involves everything from picking things up to lending a hand whenever others are in need. However, for another group of children, the scientists tried an interesting intervention. The children received almost the same speech, including the same message about helping others and different ways to help. But one detail was different. Instead of asking the children to “help,” the scientists asked them to be a “helper” instead.
TURNING ACTIONS INTO IDENTITIES
If I were to introduce you to two people, Rebecca and Fred, and told you that Rebecca goes running while Fred is a runner, who would you assume likes running more?
There are multiple ways to convey the same message. For instance, someone with left-leaning political beliefs can be described as “liberal” or “a liberal.” Similarly, a person who loves dogs can be referred to as “loving dogs” or “a dog lover.” Although these distinctions may seem minor, the latter phrasing implies categorisation.
Category labels indicate a level of permanence or stability. Rather than describing what someone does, thinks, or feels, category labels suggest an underlying essence: who they are. This aspect of their identity remains constant across time and situations.
In a study, participants were told that someone named Rose “eats a lot of carrots.” Describing Rose as a “carrot-eater” led observers to view this aspect of her personality as more stable. They assumed that Rose had been eating lots of carrots in the past, would continue to do so in the future, and would persist in doing so even if others tried to prevent her. This behaviour was considered unchanging, irrespective of past or future circumstances and external factors.
Use Identity Labels:
The power of labels can be so strong that people often make an effort to distinguish labels from the behaviours they represent. For instance, a lawyer may argue for leniency for a client by saying, “He made a bad decision; he’s not a criminal.” Similarly, a sports fan may say, “I watch some games, but I’m not a fanatic.”
Numerous studies across various topics and fields indicate that transforming actions into identities can influence how others view individuals. For instance, hearing someone referred to as a coffee drinker (instead of someone who drinks coffee frequently) or a PC person (instead of someone who uses PCs often) leads observers to infer that this person prefers coffee (or PCs) more, is more likely to continue holding that preference in the future, and more likely to stick to it even if others don’t share the same preference.
On a resume, describing oneself as a hard worker instead of hard working is more likely to create favourable impressions. Additionally, referring to coworkers as innovators instead of innovative should lead to positive perceptions of them.
Changing Behaviour with labels:
The impact of turning actions into identities goes beyond influencing perceptions; it can also be employed to alter behaviour. By framing actions as a means of asserting desired identities or selves, it becomes possible to shape the actions of others.
Verbs are commonly used when requesting help from others, such as “Can you help clean up the blocks?” or “Can you help with the dishes?” However, the same request can be rephrased by turning the verb into a noun. For instance, instead of asking for help with cleaning up the blocks, try using a noun, such as “Can you be a helper and clean up the blocks?” This simple modification transforms what was once a mere action into something more profound. Now, picking up blocks is not just a way to help but also an opportunity to claim a desired identity.
So naming the verb, or turning it into a noun, turns what would otherwise just be an action (helping) into an opportunity to claim a positive identity (being a helper). Now picking up blocks is a chance for me to show myself, and maybe even someone else, that I’m a good person. That I’m a member of this desirable group.
Want people to listen? Ask them to be a listener. Want them to lead? Ask them to be a leader. Want them to work harder? Encourage them to be a top performer.
The same idea can even be used to encourage people to avoid negative behaviours.
Research finds that rather than saying “Don’t cheat,” saying “Don’t be a cheater” more than halved the amount of cheating. People were less likely to cheat when doing so would signal they held an undesirable identity.
Rather than saying “Please don’t litter,” say “Please don’t be a litterbug.” Trying to get kids to tell the truth? Rather than saying “Don’t lie,” saying “Don’t be a liar” should be more effective.
CHANGE CAN’TS TO DON’TS
The fact that language can encourage desired actions is intriguing. Beyond just desired selves, though, language also does something else. It indicates who is in control.
When faced with temptation, people often resort to the word “can’t” as a way to express their inability to do something. While the difference between “can’t” and “don’t” may seem trivial, the latter proves more effective in shaping behaviour because of how it makes people feel.
“I can’t” implies that something or someone else is preventing us from doing what we want, such as a doctor or a spouse. In contrast, “I don’t” suggests that the reason for saying no is a more permanent, internal attitude.
By shifting the locus of control from external to internal, “I don’t” empowers individuals to assert their agency over their choices, making it a more effective way to resist temptation.
TURN SHOULDS INTO COULDS
Moral dilemmas often present ethical challenges that require a judgement call between right and wrong. Some situations, however, lack a clear “right” answer. For instance, in the case of a pet with cancer, neither stealing nor letting the pet die is an ideal solution.
When faced with such challenges, we tend to ask ourselves, “What should I do?” We frequently use the word “should” to consider our options. Manuals instruct us on how we should use products, employee handbooks tell us what we should do at work, and corporate codes of conduct outline what an organisation should do in terms of issues like diversity or the environment.
In some situations, focusing on “shoulds” can be unhelpful. When faced with a complex moral dilemma, such as whether to steal a drug to save a sick pet, thinking in shoulds can trap us in a trade-off between two unsatisfactory options.
Shifting the focus with “could”:
To find creative solutions, or to gain insight into the problem, we need to look beyond the usual shoulds and consider what we could do instead. This shift in thinking can make a significant difference.
According to research, people who focus on what they could do generate more creative and higher quality solutions than those who merely consider what they should do. So instead of limiting ourselves to the usual shoulds, we should explore the range of possibilities and alternatives that lie beyond them.
By asking individuals to consider what they could do, it encourages them to approach the problem from a different perspective. This involves taking a step back, gaining a wider perspective of the situation, and considering multiple objectives, alternatives, and outcomes. Instead of limiting themselves to black and white thinking, individuals are encouraged to explore alternate paths beyond the apparent choices between saving the pet and stealing.
By thinking in terms of “could,” individuals were motivated to see things from a different angle, envisioning how things could be instead of how they are. To foster creativity or overcome a difficult problem, one should cultivate a “could” mindset. Rather than thinking of what should be done, ask what could be done instead.
Ask what you could do:
The same holds when asking others for advice. When asking for help, we tend to do so in a specific way: we ask people what they think we should do. Though this makes sense in some ways, it’s not always the best approach. Asking what they think we could do will encourage them to think more broadly and give us better, more creative direction.
TALK TO YOURSELF
Typically, when we attempt to understand our emotions or address anxiety, we use first-person language such as “I,” “me,” or “my.” We ask ourselves questions like “Why am I so upset?” or “What’s causing me to feel this way?”
However, using different language can have a significant impact on our performance. By taking an outsider’s perspective and referring to ourselves using our own name or using second-person pronouns like “you,” we can improve our speech-giving abilities. This shift in language leads to increased confidence, decreased nervousness, and overall better performance.
Therefore, encouraging individuals to view themselves from an outsider’s perspective and changing their language accordingly can be beneficial for their well-being.
KNOW WHEN TO USE “YOU”
Using “you” can be helpful in drawing attention on social media, but it can be detrimental on customer support pages, as it may imply that the user is at fault or to blame. Asking questions such as “Did you feed the dog?” or “Did you check when the paperwork is due?” may come across as accusatory and could be interpreted negatively. It is important to note that the intent behind the questions may be benign, but the phrasing can still be problematic. By shifting the wording slightly to something like “Has the dog had dinner?” and focusing on the action rather than the actor, any suggestion of reproach can be removed. This approach helps to clarify that the responsibility is not being placed on the user, but rather the aim is to gather information.
Avoiding accusatory language is crucial to avoid placing unintended blame. Dropping the “you” and switching to something like “I wanted to talk, but now didn’t seem like the best time” helps to avoid finger-pointing and convey a caring rather than demanding tone. When expressing opinions, it is important to use first-person pronouns to clarify that the comments are subjective. Using statements like “This isn’t right” or “Dinner isn’t yummy” can come across as stating objective facts, but adding “I” can help clarify that these are personal opinions.
Personal pronouns take ownership. So whether we should use them or not depends on how much responsibility we want for whatever we’re talking about.
Turn actions into identities. Asking for help or trying to persuade someone to do something? Turn that verb (“Will you help?”) into a noun instead (“Will you be a helper?”).
Change can’ts to don’ts. Having trouble sticking to your goals or resisting temptation? Rather than saying “I can’t,” try saying “I don’t” instead (e.g.,“I don’t eat sweets right now”).
Turn shoulds into coulds. Want to be more creative or come up with a creative solution to a tough problem? Rather than asking what we should do, ask what you could do instead.
Talk to yourself. Nervous about a big presentation or trying to psych yourself up for a big interview? Try talking to yourself in the third person (“You can do it!”).
Pick your pronouns. And whether trying to get someone’s attention, or not fight with a spouse, think carefully about how to use pronouns like “I” and “you.” They can draw attention and take ownership, but they also suggest responsibility and blame.
Chapter 2 Convey Confidence
SPEAKING WITH POWER
While scientists have identified the specific elements of “powerful” language, the underlying concept remains unchanged. Speaking with confidence and authority can make individuals appear more self-assured, certain, and knowledgeable, which in turn, increases the likelihood of audiences listening and being swayed.
Speaking with power and confidence is not an inherent trait but rather a skill that can be learned.Four ways to speak with confidence are to: (1) ditch the hedges, (2) don’t hesitate, (3) turn pasts into presents, and (4) know when to express doubt.
DITCH THE HEDGES
When it comes to selecting a financial manager, evaluating a witness’s testimony, or electing a president, individuals are more easily persuaded when the communicator appears confident and certain about their message.
Similar to the findings of the financial adviser study, certain words also influence how confident a communicator appears. For example, the use of words like “definitely,” “clearly,” and “absolutely” conveys a high degree of confidence and certainty.
On the other hand, words such as “might” or “could” are known as hedges, which express ambiguity, caution, or indecisiveness. Similarly, words like “guess,” “speculate,” and “assume” suggest a lack of certainty and confidence.
Hedging is a common practice where we express our thoughts or recommendations with words like “think,” “could,” or “might.” However, we often fail to realise that hedging can undermine our impact by simultaneously undercutting our message.
Hedges can suggest a lack of confidence, leading others to believe that we are uncertain about our recommendations. For instance, phrases such as “I think this is the best restaurant,” “the solution might work,” or “it’s probably time to fix the engine” indicate indecisiveness, reducing our ability to influence others.
To convey confidence and assertiveness, it’s best to avoid using hedges. Instead, we can follow the lead of communicators like Donald Trump and use definitive words like “definitely,” “clearly,” and “obviously.” These words eliminate any doubt and present our recommendations as unambiguous and irrefutable. The evidence is undeniable, and the solution is precisely what is required at the moment.
Examples of Definites to use:
Definitely, Guaranteed, Unambiguous, Clearly, Irrefutable, Unquestionable, Obviously, Absolutely, Essential, Undeniable, Everyone, Every time
Most of us use verbal tics like “uh,” “um,” and “er” when we’re trying to gather our thoughts or figure out what to say next. However, overusing these hesitations or filler words in everyday speech can weaken our message.
According to research, these hesitations are even more damaging than hedges as they make us appear less powerful, less authoritative, and less effective at communicating our message.
While occasional use of filler words is acceptable, excessive hesitation undermines our effectiveness and makes us seem tentative and uncertain. This lack of confidence can erode trust in our opinions and diminish our credibility. So, it’s best to avoid overusing these verbal tics and speak confidently and clearly.
TURN PASTS INTO PRESENTS
One way to speak with confidence is to avoid hedges and hesitations, but there is another subtler approach that is often overlooked: verb tense.
While the situation often dictates verb tense, there are times when people can choose which tense to use. Using the present tense can be more impactful than the past tense. Saying that something “is” rather than “was” great or that something “does” rather than “did” a good job makes opinions more persuasive and helpful. Present tense suggests that something is enduring and not just true at a particular point in time.
Present tense also indicates that communicators are confident enough to make a general assertion about the world, rather than just expressing a personal opinion. It suggests that what is being said is not just a belief or judgment, but an objective and universal truth.
To increase influence, use present tense when talking about results, actions, or experiences. Instead of talking about what was found, talk about what is found. Rather than describing how something was done, describe how it is being done. Even using the present tense to describe food at a restaurant can make others more likely to go there.
KNOW WHEN TO EXPRESS DOUBT
Research has found that expressing uncertainty on a contentious issue can actually increase persuasion, especially among those who hold strong beliefs. When we show that we’re conflicted or unsure about our own opinions, it can make us seem less threatening and more open-minded to the other side’s perspective. This acknowledgement of conflicting beliefs can make the other side feel validated and more willing to listen. It also recognises the complexity and nuance of the issue, which can increase receptiveness.
Ditch the hedges. When the goal is to convey confidence, avoid words and phrases like “may,” “could,” and “in my opinion,” which suggest that things, and the people saying them, are uncertain
Use definites. Rather than hedging, use definites instead. Words like “definitely,” “clearly,” and “obviously,” which suggest whatever was said isn’t just an opinion, it’s an irrefutable truth.
Don’t hesitate. Ums and uhs are natural parts of speech, but too many of them can undermine people’s confidence in us and our message. So cut the fillers.
Turn pasts into presents. Using the present tense can communicate confidence and increase persuasion. So to signal certainty, rather than using past tense (e.g., “I loved that book”), use present tense (e.g., “I love that book”) instead.
Know when to express doubt. While seeming to be certain is often beneficial, if we want to show we’re open minded, receptive to opposing viewpoints, or aware of nuances, expressing doubt can help.
Chapter 3 Ask the Right Questions
When the scientists analysed the results, they found that asking for advice had made people think their partner was more competent, not less. And the reason why has everything to do with how asking someone for advice makes them feel. People like feeling smart. They like feeling that other people think they’re intelligent or have valuable things to say.
Rather than telling someone they’re great, asking them for advice shows that you hold them in high regard. That you think they’re smart and value their opinion.
THE ADVANTAGES OF ASKING
Asking for advice is just a single instance of a larger linguistic category, which is questioning.
Questions have multiple functions. They collect information, satisfy curiosity, and affect how the person asking is viewed, the conversation’s flow, and the social relationship between the individuals involved. However, in any social exchange, there appears to be an endless number of questions that could be posed.
So, are there particular types of questions that are more successful than others? And how can we determine which types of questions are appropriate to ask?Four strategies for asking better questions are to: (1) follow up, (2) deflect difficulties, (3) avoid making assumptions, and (4) start safe, then build.
Researchers from Stanford and UC Santa Barbara studied thousands of first dates to uncover the elements that shape first impressions. Along with demographic information and physical characteristics, such as age, height, weight, and hobbies, the researchers captured the interactions between the participants. The recordings revealed that in general, individuals who asked more questions were perceived as more likeable and enjoyable to be around, particularly in conversations between strangers. Additionally, in doctor-patient interactions, patients reported greater satisfaction when physicians asked them more questions about their lives and experiences.
Further analysis showed that certain types of questions were more effective than others. Follow-up questions were particularly useful in encouraging conversation partners to provide more detail or texture. Individuals who asked follow-up questions in various settings, including conversations with friends, strangers, clients, or colleagues, were perceived more positively. Follow-up questions signal responsiveness, showing that the questioner listened, understood, and was interested in learning more. In dating conversations, follow-up questions were particularly helpful in creating a positive impression.
Difficult questions arise frequently in various situations, such as when negotiating a price or selling a car. These scenarios can be uncomfortable, and sometimes even illegal, leaving us feeling trapped and without a way out.
The initial response is often to answer honestly, but doing so can be costly, particularly in negotiations where disclosing private information can lead to exploitation by the other party. Refusing to answer is also problematic, and lying or omitting relevant information can have negative consequences if discovered.
However, there is another option: deflection. Instead of providing a direct answer or declining to respond, some responders deflect by asking a related question of their own. For instance, when asked about the highest amount they’re willing to pay, they might ask, “Is there a number you had in mind?” Or when asked about their previous salary in an interview, they might respond with, “Can you share a bit more detail about the salary range for this position?”
Deflecting works because it shows interest in the topic at hand, making us appear engaged and invested in the conversation. By asking a relevant question, we signal that we are seeking more information rather than hiding something. This approach can be applied in a variety of difficult situations, making us appear trustworthy and credible.
To elicit negative information from people, it may seem logical to ask them directly. For instance, during a job interview, we may ask candidates if they have ever been fired, or when buying a property, we may ask realtors if there are any downsides to the neighbourhood. However, the way we phrase sensitive questions can influence whether people disclose the truth.
When we ask questions like “It doesn’t have any problems, does it?” we assume that there are no issues. As a result, respondents may focus on the positive aspects and avoid mentioning negative information. On the other hand, questions that presume the existence of problems, like “What problems does it have?”, encourage respondents to reveal negative information.
Questions not only seek information but also convey information about our knowledge, assumptions, and level of assertiveness. When it comes to sensitive topics, it’s crucial to avoid making assumptions that could discourage disclosure.
For instance, instead of saying “You don’t have any questions, do you?” during a presentation, we can ask “What questions do you have?” This phrasing encourages people to ask questions if they’re unsure rather than assuming that they understand everything.
START SAFE, THEN BUILD
Not all questions are equally effective in fostering connections, and certain types of questions may be more appropriate to ask at different stages of a conversation.
While small talk questions like “How did you celebrate last Halloween?” or “What did you do this summer?” can be used to break the ice, they may not necessarily lead to deeper connections. Developing close relationships often involves self-disclosure, and moving beyond small talk is important to foster a deeper connection.
Thought-provoking questions that encourage reflection and thoughtful answers can help facilitate deeper conversations. These questions encourage people to open up and reveal something about themselves, fostering self-disclosure and self-revelation. By starting with less personal questions and gradually moving towards more thought-provoking ones, people can ease into self-disclosure and establish a deeper connection.
Ask for advice. Not only does it garner useful insights, it makes us seem smarter as well.
Follow up. Asking questions makes us look good, and facilitates positive interactions, but follow-up questions are particularly useful because they show we’re interested and care enough to learn more.
Deflect difficulty. When someone asks an unfair question, asking a related one back allows us to direct the conversation in a different direction, showing interest while keeping personal information private.
Avoid assumptions. When trying to get people to divulge potentially negative information, be careful of questions that assume things away.
Start safe, then build. Deep self-disclosure requires social connection. But to get to that point, people need to feel safe first. So to deepen social relationships, or turn strangers into friends, start simple and build from there, encouraging reciprocal self-disclosure.
Chapter 4 Leverage Concreteness
Fourth type of magic words: what’s known as linguistic concreteness. Three ways to apply it are to: (1) make people feel heard, (2) make the abstract concrete, and (3) know when it’s better to be abstract.
HOW TO MAKE PEOPLE FEEL HEARD
In addition to some things being naturally more concrete than others, there are situations where the same thing can be expressed in either a more or less concrete manner.
For instance, the customer service calls that were examined revealed that a service representative could use different levels of concreteness while responding to requests. For instance, when asked to find a pair of shoes, the representative could say they would look for them, those shoes, or those lime green Nikes. Similarly, when asked about a delivery, the representative could say the package will be arriving there, at your place, or at your door, and when discussing a refund, the representative could say they will send something, a refund, or your money.
The latter examples, which are more concrete, resulted in higher customer satisfaction. Customers perceived the representatives to be more helpful when they used more concrete language.
However, it is easy to rely on stock phrases, such as “I’d be happy to help with that” or “Sorry about the issue,” which are general and applicable to almost any situation. Though, when someone calls customer service or visits an office, they want to feel that someone is listening to their concerns and will address them. To achieve this, three things must happen: they need to feel like the other person paid attention to what they said, they must feel like the other person understood what they said, and the other person must demonstrate that they listened.
Simply listening is insufficient; we must show that we listened to make people feel heard. Using concrete language is one approach to do this, as it demonstrates that we comprehend the specifics and can build on or respond to them.
MAKE THE ABSTRACT CONCRETE
Despite the numerous benefits of concrete language, it raises a valid question of why it’s not used more often. If concrete language makes communication easier to understand, remember, and connect with, then why do people still rely on abstract language?
One possible explanation is that knowledge can be both a blessing and a curse. Once individuals become knowledgeable about something, it can be challenging for them to remember what it’s like not to know as much. They tend to use their own knowledge as a starting point for estimating what others know or don’t know.
Furthermore, as people acquire more knowledge about a particular subject, they tend to think about it abstractly. For instance, finding solutions to problems becomes “ideation,” and determining a value proposition turns into “identifying why someone should buy from you.”
KNOW WHEN IT’S BETTER TO BE ABSTRACT
While it may seem like the language used in a pitch shouldn’t matter much, research has shown that it can actually have a strong impact on investment decisions. Even when controlling for other factors such as the business and leadership team, pitches that used more abstract language were perceived as having greater potential for growth and scalability.
The reason for this is that concrete language tends to focus on observable aspects of things, while investors are more interested in forecasting a company’s potential for success. For example, Uber could have been described simply as a ride-hailing app, but one of the co-founders pitched it as a “transportation solution that is revolutionising how we get from a to b.” This more abstract language suggests a broader market and greater growth potential.
Whether to use concrete or abstract language depends on the desired outcome. Concrete language is more effective for helping people understand complex ideas, feel heard, or remember what was said. But if the goal is to convey potential or visionary thinking, abstract language is more effective and can suggest strong leadership skills.
Want to be more concrete? Focus on the how. How does a product meet consumer needs? How does a proposed new initiative address an important problem? Thinking about how something is or will be done encourages concreteness.
Want to be more abstract? Focus on the why. Why does a product meet consumer needs? Why does a proposed new initiative address an important problem? Thinking about why something is good or right encourages abstractness.
Make people feel heard. Want to show someone you’re listening? Be concrete. Give specific details that show we paid attention and understood.
Be concrete. Don’t just pick things that sound good, use words that listeners can see in their minds. It’s a lot easier to imagine a red sports car than ideation.
Focus on the How. Thinking about the nuts and bolts of how something will happen, and focusing on specific actions, makes things concrete.
Focus on the why. Thinking about the reasoning behind something helps things stay high level and communicate that big picture.
Chapter 5 Employ Emotion
WHEN IMPERFECTIONS ARE AN ASSET
According to the study, mistakes themselves do not have a clear positive or negative impact. It all depends on the context in which they occur. When incompetent individuals make mistakes, it reinforces the negative impression others may have of them. It’s more of the same. On the other hand, when competent individuals make mistakes, it has the opposite effect. Successful people are often difficult to relate to because they seem so flawless. This is where mistakes come in. The so-called “pratfall effect” demonstrates that imperfections can actually be an asset.
If all people know about someone is that they have succeeded at everything they have done, it can be challenging to empathise with them. They seem so different that it’s hard to relate. But if they make a mistake or overcome adversity, suddenly it becomes easier to connect with them. The pratfall effect is just one example of a larger phenomenon: the value of employing emotion.
Four ways to do that are to: (1) build a roller coaster, (2) mix up moments, (3) consider the context, and (4) activate uncertainty.
BUILD A ROLLER COASTER
The role of stories in our daily lives is undeniable. Whether we recount our weekend adventures, explain how a meeting went, or present our qualifications for a job, stories are a crucial part of our communication. We use them to make a point, connect with others, and sell our ideas. And when we’re not sharing our own stories, we’re enjoying them through books, movies, shows, and podcasts. However, not all stories are created equal.
For centuries, people have pondered what makes a good story. Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, suggested that stories have discernible shapes that can be graphed. His idea was that the ups and downs of a character’s journey could be charted to reveal the story’s shape. Although Vonnegut’s theory was rejected, it captured popular imagination, with videos of him discussing various shapes going viral, and news outlets claiming that all stories can be reduced to a few common patterns.
Despite our preference for positive experiences over negative ones, when it comes to stories, it’s the tension that matters. Endless positivity would be dull, and instead, successful stories tend to follow a similar structure. Characters must overcome various trials and tribulations before they achieve a happy ending. Each obstacle or hurdle is something the character must confront before reaching their final destination.
In fact, Jonah found that successful movies are those that balance highly positive moments with strongly negative ones. The ones that fluctuate between the lowest emotional lows and the highest emotional highs are the most enjoyable. The depths of despair make the high points that much more powerful, and victories are more satisfying when they’re snatched from the jaws of defeat. So while positive experiences are preferred in our everyday lives, it’s the combination of highs and lows that makes for a compelling story.
THE VALUE OF VOLATILITY
According to Jonahs research, a story’s emotional trajectory is critical to its appeal. Although ups and downs are essential, it’s the unpredictability that really draws people in.
For example, two stories might have the same highs and lows, but the trajectory can differ significantly. In Story 1, the path is steady, with increasing positivity until a turning point. In contrast, emotionally volatile stories are unpredictable, with the reader or viewer uncertain about whether things will improve or worsen.
Such unpredictability makes the experience more enjoyable, increasing the level of engagement. Our analysis of thousands of movies revealed that volatility was a key factor in making a story more appealing. Great stories are like roller coasters, with big ups and downs, as well as unpredictable moment-to-moment changes that create excitement and engagement.
CONSIDER THE CONTEXT
Expressing attitudes and opinions can take on many forms. People can use a variety of words to convey their thoughts on a movie or restaurant, such as “loved,” “hated,” “awesome,” or “terrible.” These words not only communicate their level of liking but also suggest the basis of their evaluation, whether it is rooted in emotions or other factors.
Likewise, opinions on cars can be more feeling-based, such as “fun to drive” or “looks amazing,” or less so, like “well-built” or “good gas mileage.” The words used to describe something can be sorted based on their positivity/negativity, but also on their emotionality and whether they elicit a feelings-based response.
Research shows that emotional language has a greater impact on hedonic products like music, movies, and novels, whereas it has the opposite effect on utilitarian products like razors. Emotional reviews on utilitarian products are less helpful and may make people less likely to purchase the item. This is because emotionality violates people’s expectations regarding what they are looking for in a utilitarian product.
When marketing a product or pitching an idea, it’s important to consider the context and choose the right words. Words like “brilliant,” “awesome,” “excellent,” and “superb” suggest a high level of goodness, but differ in their degree of emotionality and effectiveness depending on the situation.
For utilitarian products like job applications, evaluators are looking for people who can solve a problem or add value. Therefore, it’s not enough to simply list positive adjectives; the right words must be chosen to convey the necessary qualities.
Words can impact attitudes and actions in different ways through positivity, emotionality, and engagement. In today’s world of endless distractions, keeping an audience engaged is a challenge, especially in virtual meetings. Many believe that only “interesting” topics succeed, and others fail. However, using “clickbait” or sensational headlines isn’t always effective.
Research by colleagues and Berger on how almost a million people consumed tens of thousands of online articles found that emotional language increases engagement. The more emotional language used, the more likely audiences were to keep reading. However, some emotions encouraged sustained attention while others discouraged it.
Therefore, it’s essential to use the right language and magic words to encourage attention, regardless of the topic’s perceived level of interest. By using language that evokes uncertain emotions, readers are more likely to stick around and find out what happens next.
Individuals were 30 percent more likely to complete an article that evoked anxiety rather than sadness. Our analysis of thousands of content pieces revealed that uncertain emotions were the most effective in promoting engagement.
Language that triggered uncertain emotions such as anxiety and surprise resulted in readers continuing to read, whereas certain emotions such as disgust had the opposite effect. Uncertainty captured readers’ attention by encouraging them to remain in order to resolve their questions. With the right language, including magic words, we can create interest in any topic, whether it is perceived as fascinating or dull.
Highlight the hurdles. As long as we’re already seen as competent, revealing past shortcomings can make people like us more, not less.
Build a roller coaster. The best stories blend highs and lows. So to increase engagement, know when to go negative. Talking about all the failures along the way makes the successes evermore sweet.
Mix up moments. The same intuition applies to moments as well. Smooth rides are easy, but not the most engaging, so to hold people’s attention, mix it up a bit. C
Consider the context. When trying to persuade, it’s not just enough to say something positive. Emotional language can help in hedonic domains like movies and vacations, but backfire in more utilitarian domains like job applications or software.
Connect, then solve. Solving problems requires understanding people. So rather than jumping into solutions, connect with the person first. Starting with warmer, more emotional language helps set things up for the more cognitive, problem-solving discussions that come later.
Activate uncertainty. The right words can make any topic or presentation more captivating. Evoking uncertain emotions (e.g., surprise) will keep people engaged.
Chapter 6 Harness Similarity (and Difference)
Groups are constantly changing, with members coming and going, causing shifts in the group’s dynamics. For example, a group of coworkers may regularly have lunch together in the conference room, but over time, as older members retire and new employees join, interest may wane.
Researchers were interested in studying these shifts in the context of language. They wanted to know how group members’ language evolves over time, and whether new members adapt their language to fit in with the group. They also wanted to see if these language changes could predict which users were more likely to remain in the group long term.
The language used by users on the site also provided insights into how long they would continue to post. Some users stayed engaged for years, while others left after just a few months. Users who adopted the site’s linguistic conventions or adapted to the community language for a longer period were more likely to remain active. Based on their initial language use, it was possible to predict how long they would remain engaged.
The beer study highlighted the importance of linguistic similarity, rather than suggesting that certain words are good or bad. People whose language matched that of the group were more likely to remain active.
With this in mind, we need to know (1) when to signal similarity, (2) when to be different, and (3) how to plot the right progression.
The topic of organisational culture is currently trending. Companies aim to establish and maintain a robust culture, and to recruit candidates who fit the mould. However, what exactly is organisational culture? Can it be quantified beyond the ambiguous concept of beliefs and values?
Organisations have their own language and linguistic norms. Different groups use different jargon. For instance, startup founders use the term “pivoting,” retailers talk about “omnichannel,” while Wall Street traders use words such as “pikers” and “junked up.”
Although the content is clearly significant, linguistic style is an aspect that is often overlooked. Consider the phrase “They said to follow up in a couple weeks.” The content conveys what needs to be done, but within the content are words such as “they,” “to,” and “a.”
The study on emails highlights the advantages of fitting in. Using similar language can lead to better performance evaluations, higher bonuses, and an increased likelihood of promotion.
WHEN SIMILARITY IS GOOD AND DIFFERENCE IS BETTER
evaluations, higher bonuses, and a greater likelihood of promotion. Linguistic similarity can foster a sense of teamwork and belonging, improving liking, trust, and affiliation. Friends often use similar language, and those who use language similarly are more likely to become friends.
However, differentiation can also be advantageous. Hearing the same song or having the same conversation repeatedly can become tedious. People have an inherent desire for novelty and stimulation, and new things can satisfy these needs. Differentiation is linked to creativity and memorability, and it may be more important for cultural products like music and movies to be atypical to stand out and be successful. Hamilton’s unique style and departure from traditional theatre contributed to its success. In contrast, fitting in is often emphasised in the workplace, where companies value employees who follow directions and complete tasks.
PLOT THE RIGHT PROGRESSION
Just as unconventional lyrics can make songs more captivating, a swifter plot progression makes a story more stimulating. Moving faster between more diverse topics and ideas creates a more thrilling experience that audiences tend to react more positively to. Furthermore, our research shows that within stories, there are moments when plots should speed up and other times when they should slow down.
A slow start is crucial. It allows time for the audience to comprehend the characters, their relationships, and the overall setting, ensuring that a plot that progresses too rapidly in the beginning does not leave them feeling lost or bewildered.
While similarity is helpful in establishing the context and building expectations, once the audience has established a connection with the characters and understood the story’s background, the narrative should start to pick up pace.
The pace of a story is crucial, but whether faster or slower is better depends on the narrative’s point. The most effective plots begin slowly, but once everyone is caught up, they gain momentum, creating excitement and involvement along the way.
Signal similarity. When familiarity is useful or fitting in is the goal, similar language can help. Paying more attention to how our colleagues are using words, for example, and adopting some of their mannerisms should help us thrive at the office.
Drive difference. But similarity isn’t always good; there are also benefits to differentiation, particularly if you’re doing a job in which creativity, innovation, or stimulation is valued, standing out might be better.
Plot the right progression. Further, when drafting presentations, writing stories, or crafting certain types of content, think about the progression of ideas. Start slowly to make sure the audience is on board before speeding up to increase excitement, particularly when entertainment is the goal.
Chapter 7 What Language Reveals
WHAT LANGUAGE REVEALS
Words have the power to not only influence and affect those who listen or read them, but they also reflect and reveal characteristics about the people who created them.
The distinction between warmth and competence may appear insignificant, but it has far-reaching implications. Hiring and promotions, particularly for leadership positions, typically depend on a person’s perceived competence. However, since language used to describe women is less likely to focus on their competence, it puts them at a disadvantage.
This gender disparity is not limited to music. Male characters dominate children’s books, even when animals are used, and are three times more likely to be mentioned. Three-quarters of people mentioned in textbooks are male, and only 30% of speaking characters in movies are female. In business school case studies, only 11% of protagonists are female.
When men and women are discussed in newspapers, men are more likely to be referred to as a captain or boss, while women are more likely to be referred to as a homemaker or receptionist. Female characters in movies speak less about achievements, and female tennis players are twice as likely to be asked unrelated questions, such as where they got their nails done.