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What's the Magic Word?

Magic Words

Jonah Berger 2023

“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. The language used in earnings calls influences companies’ stock price, and the language used by CEOs’ impacts investment returns.” Jonah Berger

Words are the main way that we communicate and get our points across. They can hurt, inspire, inform, or transform. We often take them for granted, unaware that others are deftly manipulating us with their own words to entice us to follow their lead. Knowing some of the secret code words and how they work is important if we want to get in on the game, or at least protect ourselves from unscrupulous wordsmiths who know how to push our buttons.

Writer and marketing professor Jonah Berger covers this topic in his newest book- Magic Words. I've been a fan of Berger's other books including Contagious and The Catalyst, and his expertise in the world of persuasion and marketing has made him something of a national expert in the field.

Berger examines several areas in which the presentation of content is more important than the content itself. Presentation and choice of words can make all the difference in attracting and audience and persuading them. Entertainers and politicians have known this for a long time. Content is important, but the bells and whistles that accompany it are even more important in getting it noticed. Here are several of the magic word strategies that Berger covers:

1- Activate Identity and Agency. Words can present content that seems abstract and hard to identify with. But changing the wording to invite the reader to take on an identity with a topic raises the stakes. Instead of asking someone to help out, try asking for them to be a good helper. Being a helper is an identity that people value, and they will subconsciously gravitate to identities that make them feel good about themselves. Encouraging people to vote isn't nearly as powerful as calling them a voter. If they are primed enough to think of themselves as a "voter", they will be that much more motivated to get out and actually vote. By turning any action into an identity, we tap into a deep need to be a part of a desirable group, and persuasion is the result.

2- Convey Confidence. We all know this instinctively- we are more likely to believe someone if they look and sound confident. Even if they are lying or bluffing, if they can put out a speech that comes off as authoritative and confident, we will give it more weight. The alternative is speakers who qualify things with hedges like "probably", "I think", or "about". While most of life is uncertain and hedging is the honest thing to do, absolutes and clear choices are what people crave. The problem comes when persuaders gloss over complexities and lead groups into extremism or foolish short-term choices. When possible, conveying confidence in an ethical manner works much better than hesitation, filler words like "um" or "uh",and pauses.

3- Use present tense. Statements that are in the past tense convey things that are either over or subjective. If something "did the job", there might be some doubt as to whether it will work again, but if something "does the job," there is more confidence that it works all of the time.

4- Ask good questions. People love a good question, especially if it is pertinent to their own situation. Asking smart questions that show you've been listening to others and have considered their concerns. Don't assume you know it all- probe with the right questions to uncover the keys to stronger relationships. Questions can even be used to deflect uncomfortable topics when you don't want to go into something embarrassing or difficult. Questions can divide people, but a cascade of thoughtful questions can build on safe topics and open up possible friendships, assuming each person listens and reflects as things get more intimate to enhance safety.

5- Leverage concreteness. Using concrete language makes language more real. Tight blue jeans are more memorable than pants, yellow floral print skirt is more concrete than dress, and tall goldendoodle is more effective than dog. Concrete language helps our brain to visualize things more easily, and when used in a conversation it lets both parties know that they are listening to each other and drilling down to the important details.

6- Employ emotion. Telling a story with a predictable trajectory risks losing people in the middle. The best stories are like a roller coaster- full of emotional highs and lows that keep the reader guessing as to what will happen next. Volatility, especially in the realm of fiction, is essential to build and keep interest. Make characters three-dimensional and imperfect, and that will make them more relatable and likeable. Writing in the space of non-fiction is a different situation where emotion has to be used sparingly, but even the driest topics have an interesting story with real stakes buried within.

7- Harness Similarity. No two audiences are alike. To connect with them, writers and speakers need to match specific language cues like slang, terminology, and even accent. Only once an audience feels like they can trust you will they listen attentively. That said, you don't want to be TOO similar- you need to start with similarity and build to a creative peak with surprises and stimulation, or the audience could get bored. It's a common dilemma- we don't want to hear something too different, but we also get bored when hearing the same old same old.

Berger closes the book with an introduction to natural language processing, (NLP), a new frontier technology that uses artificial intelligence to analyze words and extract information from the choices of words used. While content is what most of us focus on, these programs can sift out hidden emotional contexts and reveal a lot about the person who created them. NLP can detect prejudices, attitudes, and lies hidden below the surface, predicting who is more likely to do what they claim to do. As artificial intelligence grows in power and usage, be aware that your words could be used against you, so choose them carefully.

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