Magic Words

What to Say to Get Your Way
Plenty of useful pointers to help us speak more confidently and persuasively. Like a lot of business books, most of the good stuff is in the first couple of chapters.
Jonah Berger

This Book in Three Sentences

  1. The specific words we use can make a huge difference in our ability to be persuasive – we need to choose our words very carefully.
  2. Understanding the core principles of human psychology can help us be more influential and impactful in our writing and public speaking.
  3. Certain words can help us be persuasive in one context and the same words can backfire in another – context matters!


  • People believe that what they say matters more than the particular words they use. It turns out that intuition is very wrong.
  • In one famous study, adding the word “because” boosted the number of people who let the researcher skip the line for a photocopier by over 50 percent. This occurred even if the reason they gave was meaningless. Persuasion wasn’t driven by the reason itself. It was driven by the power of the word “because.”
  • Why does this matter? Whether we realize it or not, we’re all writers. And we’re also all public speakers... but to be better writers and speakers—to communicate with intention and care—we have to know the right words to use.

Activate Identity and Agency

Use nouns rather than verbs to turn actions into identities.

  • Asking kids to be a helper vs asking them to help increased helping by almost a third.
  • Asking people to vote, asking them to "be a voter" boosted voter turnout by over 15 percent.
  • Saying “Don’t be a cheater” vs. "don't cheat" more than halved the amount of cheating.
  • Nouns make it seem like person’s attitudes or preferences were more dispositional, and thus stronger and more stable.
  • This works through the principle of consistency - they take consistent actions in line with how they view themselves.

Change can'ts into don'ts.

  • Struggling to stick to a goal? Try saying “I don’t” rather than “I can’t.”
  • Saying “I can’t” often implies that we want to do the thing but something or someone else is getting in the way – there's an external constraint getting in our way.
  • When we say "don't", the locus of control is internal.

Turn shoulds into coulds.

  • Asking people to think about what they could do vs. should do made people more three times as creative.
  • “Could” led to more innovative solutions because it encouraged divergent thinking – more thinking outside the box.

Talk to yourself in the third person

  • Changing self-talk words like “I” or “me” to third person words like “you” helped people give better speeches. They were more confident, less nervous, and performed better overall.

Pronouns can draw attention, but also suggest responsibility

  • Social media posts that used the word “you” increased engagement. They're like a stop sign, flagging something as worthy of attention.
  • But on customer support pages, using "you" can create a sense of responsibility or blame.
  • Compared to more passive voice (“Space can be freed up by . . .”), active voice (“You can free up space by . . .”) suggests that the user needs to do the work.
  • Whether to use pronouns or not depends on how we want to assign credit or blame, and how subjective or objective we want it to feel.

Convey Confidence

  • Speaking with power makes people seem confident. It makes them seem more certain, self-assured, and knowledgeable, which makes audiences more likely to listen and change their minds.
  • Speaking with power is something you can learn.

Ditch hedges, use definites instead

  • Words like “definitely,” “clearly,” or “absolutely,” it suggests a high degree of confidence. They’re pretty certain about what’s going to happen. If they use words like “might” or “could,” though, it signals more uncertainty.
  • When someone says “around,” “arguably,” “I believe,” “generally,” “kind of,” “maybe,” “presumably,” “rarely,” or “usually,” they’re hedging.
  • If someone’s uncertain that a potential solution will work, why move ahead with it?
  • Unless we want to signal that it’s subjective, prefacing the statement with “I think” or “In my opinion” limits our impact.

Don't hesitate

  • Hesitations and filler words make people seem less powerful and authoritative and less effective at getting across whatever they are trying to communicate. When someone says “uh,” “um,” or “er” a lot, it suggests they don’t know what they’re talking about. That they’re not really an expert.
  • “lower-status” speaker who didn’t hesitate was perceived more positively than a “higher-status” speaker who did.
  • Studies my colleagues and I conducted found that pausing led speakers to be perceived more positively.

Use the present tense

  • A study that analyzed a quarter of a million Amazon book reviews revealed that present tense increased impact. Saying a book “is” rather than “was” a good read led people to find a review more helpful.
  • Past tense suggests something was true at a particular point in time – it conveys a degree of subjectivity and transience.
  • Present tense suggests communicators are confident enough to make a general assertion about the state of the world. It suggests that speakers don’t just have an opinion, they are relatively certain about it.

Expressing doubt can helps make people more receptive to our ideas

  • Persuasion can be broken up into two stages. The second is where people consider someone else’s views or the information provided and decide whether to update their beliefs. But before getting there, people must first decide how receptive to be. Whether or not they should listen in the first place.
  • This is why expressing doubt can help. Showing that we’re conflicted or uncertain makes us seem less threatening.
  • In situations like these, the best course of action can be to express doubt.

Ask the Right Questions

  • Asking questions can signal that we’re interested in someone’s viewpoint.

Use follow-ups

  • Introductory questions, like “How are you?” are an automatic part of everyday discourse. As a result, it’s hard to know whether someone is really interested or just being polite.
  • Volleying back the same question requires little effort, it’s less likely to have interpersonal benefits.
  • A better type of question to ask is one that follows up on what was just said. If someone says they’re a foodie, for example, asking them what types of food they like to eat.

Deflect difficult questions

  • Questions are like spotlights: They shine attention on a particular topic or piece of information. By responding to a difficult question with a relevant question of our own, we move the spotlight away from us and on to something else.
  • Deflection was the best way to respond to difficult direct questions.
  • Deflecting works in a host of difficult situations. In negotiations, for example, when asked what the highest amount is that we’re willing to pay, we can respond by asking “Is there a number you had in mind?”

Use the fast friends technique

  • Compared to partners who just engaged in small talk, those who practiced the fast friends technique felt closer and more connected.
  • The idea is to go beyond the small talk and get to something deeper. To reveal things about oneself, learn things about someone else, and truly connect.
  • Deep self-disclosure requires social connection. But to get to that social connection, people need to have disclosed things about themselves previously. This catch-22 is part of the reason why the Fast Friends procedure is so effective. Rather than jumping to the heavy stuff right away, it eases people in, encouraging gradual self-disclosure.

Leverage Concreteness

Use concrete language to show you're listening

  • Concrete language boosted customer satisfaction, and purchase, because it showed customers that employees were listening to their needs. Responding to a customer’s specific, idiosyncratic needs requires comprehending those needs in the first place.

Concrete language helps people understand

  • The more people learn more about something, the more they naturally start to think about it abstractly. Finding solutions to problems becomes “ideation.” Determining why someone should buy from you becomes “identifying a value proposition.”
  • If we want to help people understand what we're saying, concrete language is best.

Know when to use abstract vs. concrete language

  • When deciding whether to fund a startup, understanding isn’t the main thing investors are looking for. They're also trying to forecast its growth potential. Abstract language helps them see the big picture.
  • Want to help people understand a complex idea, feel heard, or remember what was said? Using concrete language is going to be more effective... But if we want people to think our idea has potential, or that we’re a forward-thinking visionary, abstract language is more effective.
  • Want to be more concrete? Focus on the how. Want to be more abstract? Focus on the why.

Employ Emotion

Showing mistakes humanizes people

  • When incompetent people made mistakes, it reinforces people's negative impressions of them. But  when otherwise competent people make a mistake once in a while, it humanizes them. It makes them more real, which makes them more likable.
  • Hearing about someone who started a company, grew it fast, and sold it for $100 million just isn’t that exciting. It's not that surprising, and few people can relate.

Build a roller coaster

  • Kurt Vonnegut, for example, author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, suggested that “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper.” He theorized that the ups and downs that characters go through could be graphed to reveal that story’s shape.
  • When people are asked to describe an ideal day, most people would fill it with positive experiences and leave out the negative ones. But that’s not what makes a good story.
  • Movies which interspersed highly positive moments with strongly negative ones were more successful.
  • Shows are actually more enjoyable when they’re broken up by annoying commercials. These less enjoyable moments break up adaptation to the positive experience of the show.
  • Is this the moment when the bottom drops out? Are we halfway up to the top or almost there? That uncertainty makes the ride all the more engaging.

Emotions help in some context, backfire in others

  • For utilitarian products (e.g. razors), emotionality can backfire. Emotional reviews were less helpful, made people less willing to purchase whatever was reviewed.
  • Utilitarian things are often bought to do a job, and people pick them because their thoughts (rather than emotions) suggest they will do that job well.
  • For utilitarian products, reviews that show too much emotion can lower trust in what was said and the person who said it.
  • For products that are about practical functionality, less emotional words like “brilliant,” “flawless,” and “perfect” will be more persuasive. Calling a dictation app “brilliant” rather than “awesome,” for example, should encourage purchase and use.

Connect first

  • When solving problems, start with warmer, more emotional language before diving into addressing the issues. Eventually decisions need to be made and problems need to be solved.
  • Don’t just solve. And don’t just connect. Connect, then solve.
  • In these, and similar situations, the distinction between attracting and holding attention is key. Senders don’t just want recipients to open their emails, they want them to read them.

Uncertainty creates engagement

  • People were 30 percent more likely to finish an article that made them feel anxious, for example, than one that made them feel sad.
  • Anxiety is uncertain. It usually involves doubt, ambiguity, or insecurity. Not knowing what will happen and being scared that it might be bad.
  • Language that evoked uncertain emotions (e.g., anxiety and surprise) led readers to keep reading, while language that evoked certain emotions (e.g., disgust) had the opposite effect.
  • Sustaining attention is about opening a curiosity gap that makes them want to learn more.

Harness Similarity (and Difference)

If your goal is to fit in, use similar language

  • Employees whose linguistic style was more similar to their coworkers’ were three times more likely to be promoted. People with a dissimilar linguistic style were four times more likely to be fired.
  • People adapt to the group's language over time. Adaptability is more important than initial fit.
  • Most companies say they want innovation and creativity, but really they want people to fit in and to follow directions. Using similar language to the group signals you are a good fit.

If the goal is to stand out, use different language

  • Similarity can get tedious, eventually people tire of hearing the same thing over and over. They have an ingrained drive for novelty and stimulation.
  • Note: Reminds me of Tony Robbin's description of the six human needs – people seek both familiarity and novelty, it needs to be in the right balance.
  • A good example is in music. Atypical songs are the most successful (except in pop music). A country song about girls and cars, for example, tended to do pretty well, but one that was about more atypical themes like dance moves or street cred was even more likely to be a hit.
  • Similarity feels familiar and safe but can also be boring. Difference can be exciting and stimulating but can also be risky.

Start slowly, then speed up to drive engagement

  • Within stories, there were times when plots should move faster and times when they should move more slowly. At the beginning of a book or movie, the canvas is blank, so starting slowly is key. A plot that moves too quickly at the outset may confuse people.
  • The beginning of a piece should be slower to make sure everyone is on board, and then the story can move more quickly as things progress.
  • If the goal is to entertain, speed is good. Moving faster helps keep an audience stimulated and engaged.
  • If the goal is to inform, speed is detrimental.
© 2023 Mike Fiorillo
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