Use words to your advantage.
What comes to mind when you think of magic words? Perhaps “Abracadabra” or “Expecto Patronum.”
But this book summary is not about fictional incantations. It turns out that there are real-world phrases that make certain outcomes more likely than others – almost like magic.
For instance, saying that you “recommend” something makes a person 34 percent more likely to follow your suggestion than if you were to simply say that you “like” it. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
This book summary shows you how to use the hidden science behind the language to your advantage. It teaches you how to use words to sell an idea, resolve conflict, and get ahead – at home and in the office.
Activate a sense of identity
Words are all around us. We each use about 16,000 of them a day. Yet we rarely think about which words we use.
It turns out that this choice can be pretty important.
In 2014, scientists conducted a study to find out how to get kids to tidy up. They allowed 4- to 5-year-old children to play for a bit and then waited until they were engaged in another activity. Then, they asked them to tidy up. They asked one group of kids to “help” clean up the toys, while they asked the other group to be “helpers” in cleaning up the toys.
Which group do you think was more likely to tidy up?
The ones that were encouraged to be “helpers.”
This brings us to our first trick in the bag: using words that activate a sense of identity.
One way to do this is to use nouns instead of verbs – like in the study. Nouns evoke category labels. It’s the difference between “Rebecca runs” and “Lisa is a runner.” Category labels such as “runner” imply a certain permanence. They make us think that a trait is an integral part of someone’s personality. Running seems like a stable part of Lisa’s identity, whereas Rebecca simply jogs once in a while.
That’s why it can help to use nouns to get people to do something good. Kids may not want to “help” at the moment, but they want to be seen as a “helper.” In 2008, political strategists used this principle to increase voter turnout. Instead of encouraging people to “vote,” campaigns talked about “being a voter.” It worked: voter turnout rose by 15 percent.
Another way to activate our own sense of identity is to use the word “don’t” instead of “can’t.” When we’re on a diet, for instance, we tend to say things like, “I can’t eat chocolate cake right now, because I’m trying to be healthy.” But this suggests that we actually do want to eat cake – it’s just that some outside force is preventing it. This makes it much harder to resist. So next time you’re trying to change a habit, speak in don’ts: “I don’t eat chocolate cake.” “Don’t” activates our sense of identity, and that makes us feel empowered. It suggests that we’re not trying to be healthy, we are healthy.
Speak with confidence
No matter what you think of Donald Trump, you can’t deny that he captures his audiences. His speaking style is simplistic and repetitive – and yet he manages to convince a lot of people of what he’s saying.
If there’s one thing Trump gets right, it’s the power with which he speaks.
Confidence can make all the difference in whether your audience buys your point or not.
How can our choice of words influence the confidence we convey?
Do what Donald does. Pretend you’re 100 percent convinced of your point by using definites like “definitely,” “obviously,” and “clearly.” In casual speech, we tend to hedge a lot. Hedges are phrases like “I think,” “perhaps,” and “sort of.” We use them to signal that something is our personal opinion and we’re not quite sure of it.
However, hedges suggest a lack of confidence. Definites, on the other hand, suggest things are crystal clear. And people are much more interested in listening to something that seems irrefutable.
However, a word of caution: sometimes being overly direct can backfire. When people are confronted with facts that go against their own beliefs, they tend to shut down and stop listening. It’s like an anti-persuasion defence system. So when you already know someone has a drastically different opinion than you, expressing doubt about your own opinion can actually make them more sympathetic to your point.
However, when you’re speaking to an undecided audience, confidence is key. Another principle for conveying confidence is the elimination of filler words such as “uh,” “um,” and “er.” Speakers who use a lot of filler words are perceived as less powerful and of lower status. Simply waiting a little longer before you talk can reduce the number of filler words you’ll need.
Finally, speak in the present tense. When the author and his colleagues analyzed millions of product reviews, they found that those written in the present tense were rated as more helpful than those written in the past tense. Saying a book “is” an amazing read suggests that this is still the case. Saying it “was” an amazing read suggests that perhaps this was only true at a particular point in time.
Ask good questions
There’s the old saying that “There are no dumb questions.” The good news is, that’s probably true! But there are certainly better and worse questions depending on the situation.
Researchers at Stanford analyzed thousands of first dates to see which factors contribute to a good first impression. Apart from the obvious factors, like appearance, word choice significantly influenced how people were perceived.
The more questions someone asked, the better the first impression they had on their dates. People who asked lots of follow-up questions were perceived most positively of all. Probably because thoughtful follow-up questions signal that one is listening and genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. It turns out that people tend to be more interested in us when we show interest in them.
Asking questions is such powerful social glue that relationship researchers Arthur and Elaine Aron developed a 36-item questionnaire that can make any two people feel connected to each other. The 45-minute exercise builds from fun and casual questions (“Would you like to be famous?”) to deep and intimate inquiries (“If you died right now, what would be the thing you regretted not having told someone?”). It has helped thousands of strangers become fast friends.
Contrary to popular belief, asking for advice is often viewed positively. Researchers found that asking someone for advice on a task made people seem more, not less, competent.
Questions can also be a great way to deflect – as politicians know all too well. But the strategy also works for everyday life. Seeking information is usually viewed favourably. So if someone asks you an uncomfortable question, answering your own question can save you from sharing information you don’t want to share.
Imagine a potential employer asking you if you plan on having kids. Answering your own question, such as “Do you have any kids?” can serve as a deflection, helping you avoid answering this intrusive question.
On the flip side, you can learn to ask questions that coax people into sharing information they might otherwise withhold. In one study, researchers found that people were much more likely to divulge negative information when directly asked about it.
Imagine you’re buying a used laptop online. Asking “What problems does the laptop have?” instead of “Is there anything I should know about the laptop?” makes sellers about 50 percent more likely, to be honest about any existing issues with the laptop.
Be concrete or get abstract
Questions are a great way to signal to others that we’re listening to them. And feeling heard makes people like and listen to us.
There’s another way we can harness this effect: by using concrete language. Being concrete is the difference between a retail employee telling someone “I’ll go look for that” and “I’ll fetch you those green sneakers you asked for.” The action is the same, but the latter formulation makes the customer feel more cared for.
The author and his colleague analyzed hundreds of customer service calls to a big online retailer to study linguistic concreteness. They found that the more concrete language the service employees used, the more satisfied the customers left the conversation. And not only that: customers also spent 30 percent more money with the retailer in the following weeks.
Using concrete language makes people feel like you’re paying attention and that you understand them. It also makes it easier for those people to pay attention to you and understand you.
The problem is that the more we know about something, the more abstract we tend to think about it. For someone who doesn’t have the same knowledge, it can be hard to follow those abstract thoughts. That’s why it can be beneficial to take a step back from what you know and think about how to present a topic as if the other person had zero prior knowledge of it. Often, complicated expert jargon like “identifying a value proposition” can be replaced by simple languages, such as “making a case for why people should buy the product.” Using simple, concrete language rather than vague, abstract ideas helps people understand us.
Sometimes, though, being abstract can work in our favour. When researchers analyzed the impact of different startup pitches, they found that those that used more abstract language were more likely to receive investment. Abstract language made investors think a startup idea had more potential for growth.
Imagine, for instance, Uber had billed itself as a “ride-hailing app,” rather than a “transportation solution.” The first one sounds pretty useful, but the second one sounds like it could have a much broader impact. So if you’re trying to convince someone of the potential of an idea, abstract concepts are the way to go.
Consider two restaurants you know nothing about. The review for Restaurant A says “The food was delicious and the ambience electrifying.” The review for Restaurant B reads that “the food was expertly prepared and the ambience well-curated.” Which one would you rather go to?
Probably the first one. “Delicious” and “electrifying” are much more emotional words than “expertly prepared” and “well-curated.”
And emotions have a big impact on our judgment. For instance, restaurants with emotional reviews get more reservations.
It’s also why media outlets use clickbait headlines such as “10 Shocking Facts about Prince Harry.” Appealing to emotions is a powerful way to grab attention.
And a satisfying emotional arch is also the key to good storytelling.
When the authors analyzed the language used in blockbuster movies, they found that the most popular movies took people on an emotional rollercoaster. They switched between highly positive and highly negative moments.
Think about it: No one wants to hear a story about how a successful entrepreneur became even more successful. But people might like to hear a story about how an unemployed veteran became a successful entrepreneur. And people love to hear a story about how an unemployed veteran tried to start his own business, failed bitterly, pulled himself together again, tried once more, and finally became a successful entrepreneur. It’s the low points that make the high points feel that much more intense.
The more ups and downs the ride has, the more exciting it’ll be for people to follow. This goes for movies as well as for books, speeches, or online articles. Certain emotions are better at holding people’s attention than others though.
For instance, people are 30 percent more likely to finish an online article that makes them feel anxious than one that makes them feel sad. Overall, people pay more attention when the emotions evoked involve a degree of uncertainty – such as anxiety, surprise, or hope.
Appealing to emotions doesn’t work across the board though. When researchers analyzed Amazon reviews, they found that emotional language works best for lifestyle products such as music, movies, and books. For utilitarian products such as razors, tools, or appliances, the emotional language actually backfired. Emotional reviews were rated as less helpful.
So don’t get too teary in your review of your new dishwasher if you want other people to listen to you. But if you’re trying to tell a compelling story, using rich and varied emotional terms will work in your favour.
Blend in or stick out
Language serves as a tool for communicating with others. Its rules and rhythms change slowly over time, just as the community around it evolves.
Researchers at Stanford looked at the linguistic behaviour of users of a beer-rating website to study this development on a small scale. They found that the beer enthusiasts’ online lingo changed over time, like a living organism. For instance, users began using more and more fruit-related words such as “citrusy” – even though the beers themselves didn’t change.
But the researchers also found something else. New users who adopted the site’s linguistic conventions quickly tended to stick around for longer.
As it turns out, linguistic similarity is an important aspect of community-building. Individuals who adopt the same language as their group, meaning they use similar phrases and expressions, are more likely to remain part of that group.
This holds true even in the workplace. When researchers analyzed the email communication of employees of a mid-sized firm, they found that those whose linguistic style matched that of their coworkers were three times more likely to be promoted. On the flip side, employees with a different linguistic style were four times more likely to be fired.
Other research has linked using similar language to everything from better dates to more successful negotiations.
But fitting in isn’t always a path to success. When it comes to music, for instance, differentiation – both in language and style – is a plus. Take Lil Nas X’s super hit Old Town Road. The catchy tune mixes elements of country and hip hop, and talks of “cowboy hats” as well as “Porsches.”
In the creative arena, things that stick out because of their dissimilarity tend to be more memorable and popular.
So if you’re in a field that values creativity, innovation, and originality, not talking like others may benefit you.
The right word choice can get people to take action, change their minds, or invest in your idea. There are six linguistic strategies we discussed in this book summary.
One, use words that activate a sense of identity – nouns instead of verbs, for instance. Two, speak with confidence – ditch the hedges and filler words. Three, ask good questions – no one will fault you for it! Four, know when to be concrete to signal that you’re listening – and when to get abstract to sell a big idea. Five, use emotional language to capture people’s attention. And finally, know when to blend in with your language – and when to use it to differentiate yourself.
You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish with these simple linguistic magic tricks.