Jonah Berger is a Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, an internationally bestselling author, and a world-renowned expert on word of mouth, social influence, consumer behavior, and how products, ideas, and behaviors catch on. He has published dozens of articles in top‐tier academic journals and teaches Wharton’s highest-rated online course. Over a million copies of his books, Contagious, Invisible Influence, and The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind are in print in over 35 countries around the world.
Below, Jonah shares 5 key insights from his new book, Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way. Listen to the audio version—read by Jonah himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Words tell us everything.
Almost everything we do involves words—from written emails and PowerPoints to the phone calls and pitch meetings that we pull together. We talk to others face-to-face and over written communication; words are how we persuade, communicate, and connect. They’re how leaders lead, salespeople sell, and parents parent. They’re how teachers teach, policymakers govern, and doctors explain. In fact, even our private thoughts rely on language.
But while we spend a lot of time using language, we rarely think about the specific language that we use. We might think a lot about the ideas we want to communicate when we make a presentation, for example, about the main idea that we want to get across. But we often think less about the particular words we use when we communicate those ideas. Unfortunately, that’s a mistake, because subtle shifts in the words we use can have a big effect on our actual impact. Take something like trying to persuade others: it turns out that adding one word to a sentence can increase the likelihood that others take our request by about 50 percent. Or the recommendations that we make, research shows that something as simple as saying, “I recommend a product or service,” rather than saying, “I like that product or service,” leads people to be about a third more likely to take your advice.
Words reveal exciting things about the people that produce them. Research shows, for example, that using similar language to your colleagues at the office can help predict whether you get promoted or get let go from a company. The language we use in loan applications allows the loaners to predict whether we’re likely to pay back the loan or not. It’s clear that certain words are more impactful than others. They’re better at changing minds, engaging audiences, and driving action. And so the key question is, “What are these magic words and how can we take advantage of their power?”
2. The six key types of words.
There are six key types of words, six types of language that we can use to increase our impact. To help make it easier to remember them, you can use the S.P.E.A.C.C. framework:
Similarity (and difference)
Agency (and identity)
Take something as simple as trying to persuade others. Maybe we’re asking someone to help with a particular problem, or if we’re a non-profit, maybe we want to get people to turn out to vote. Before you ask, remember it’s important to ask in the right way. If you use a verb like “help” or “vote” it can be ineffective. But a subtle shift in language—in fact, just adding one or even two letters to the end of those words—can have a big impact on success.
A number of years ago, a study at Stanford University asked children in an elementary school classroom to help clean up. They asked half of the children, “Can you help clean up?” For the other half of the group, rather than asking for help, they asked them to be helpers. The difference between help and helper is infinitesimally small; it’s only two letters, yet asking people to be a helper rather than to help led to about a 30 percent increase in help.
“If actions give us an opportunity to hold desired identities, we’re more likely to take those actions.”
Research states that the same thing happens with adults and more consequential behavior. Like with voting, for example; half of the people were asked to vote; the other half were asked to be a voter. It found that subtle shift, in this case, just one extra letter, led people to be about 15 percent more likely to vote. The reason why is simple. We all know that we should do things like help and vote, but we’re pretty busy. We don’t have the time and what we really care about is feeling like we hold desired identities.
We want to see ourselves positively. We want to see ourselves as smart, interesting, attractive, and athletic, so we engage in actions that support those ideas. If we want to see ourselves as athletic, we need to run every so often. If actions give us an opportunity to hold desired identities, we’re more likely to take those actions. If voting is an opportunity to show myself and others that I am a voter, I’m more likely to do it.
The same thing also holds in the negative direction. Losing is bad, but being a loser is even worse. Cheating is bad, but being a cheater is even worse. Research shows that when cheating would make you a cheater, you’re much less likely to do it because you don’t want to engage in an action that would lead you to show that undesirable identity. This even holds true for how we describe ourselves. Let’s talk about two people: one person runs, and the other person is a runner. Which of those two people runs more often? We’d probably all assume the runner because identities seem more stable. If someone runs, they go running once in a while, but if they are a runner, it seems much more persistent.
Similarly, you can see this effect in the different ways we describe each other. If someone were to say, “You’re hard working,” or, “You’re a hard worker,” the latter makes it seem more like a persistent characteristic. Saying, “You’re a creator,” rather than, “You’re creative,” makes it seem like an identity and a bigger part of who you are.
3. The language of questions.
How can we ask better questions and pose better questions? How can we better ask for advice? Often, whether at home or at the office, we get stuck on a tough problem, but we struggle to ask for advice. We could ask a peer or a colleague who might know more than we do, but we’re often reticent to do that. Why? Because first, we don’t know if they’ll be able to help us. Second, they might be busy. And third, we’re worried they might think less of us, that we don’t know what we’re doing, that we’re less competent and less knowledgeable.
“Asking for advice makes us look smarter and more competent because people are egocentric.”
It turns out that our intuition is incorrect. Researchers at Harvard and Wharton placed people in a variety of different situations to see if they would ask for advice or not. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. However, they did find that asking for advice doesn’t actually make us look worse, it actually makes us look better. Asking for advice makes us look smarter and more competent because people are egocentric. We inherently love giving advice, we think we give good advice, we think we’re smart and have good thoughts. So when someone else comes up to us and asks us for our advice, we think, “Wow, they must be pretty smart because of all the people they could have asked, they asked me.” So, when you have a tough problem, ask for advice. Not only will you get the information you need, but it’ll also make you look better as a result.
4. The language of certainty.
We all know people in our lives that are particularly charismatic. When they open their mouths, everyone stops to listen. But why? Why are certain individuals so charismatic? You’ll often see that they have one characteristic in common: confidence.
If you listen to Donald Trump’s speeches, you realize that he has mobilized millions of people to believe and support the things he wanted, and still does. When he first ran for office, he said in one of his early speeches, “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.” When this speech came out, some people noted that it was overly simplistic or said it was full of bluster or empty, and yet a year later, he was elected president.
If you look at Trump, he does the same thing that a lot of charismatic leaders do. Look at great salespeople, startup founders like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, look at gurus, they all do the same thing: they speak with a great deal of certainty. They say things are definitely true, that they will certainly work, that everyone agrees, and that the answer is obvious or abundantly clear. They speak with a great deal of certainty, and not surprisingly, certainty is often quite persuasive. Research on financial advisors, for example, shows that people are more likely to pick advisors that seem more certain, even though those advisors aren’t right more often and in some cases, may be overconfident. If they seem so certain about what they’re saying, it’s hard not to believe what they’re saying could be correct.
“People are more likely to pick advisors that seem more certain, even though those advisors aren’t right more often and in some cases, may be overconfident.”
But look at what most of us do. We often think that if our goal is to persuade others, let’s not hedge our bets too soon. We should only use hedges when we mean to, or how about we ditch the hedges, and own our uncertainty. Notice the difference between saying, “I’m not sure if that’s going to work,” versus, “I think this is a great strategy, but to make it work, three things need to happen.” In that second version, it’s clear that you’re still not sure the strategy’s going to work, but if you can make these three things happen, the strategy will be a great idea. Own the uncertainty. Make it clear what you’re certain about and what you’re uncertain about, and people will be more likely to listen.
5. The language of creativity.
Often when we’re stuck on something and we don’t know what to do, we try to figure out the answer, but being creative is really hard; it’s hard to think outside the box and come up with new ideas.
Research has found that switching one word out can actually make us much more creative and help us come up with better solutions. When we try to solve a problem or we’re stuck in a bind, we often think about what we should do. While shoulds are useful in some ways, they can be quite restricting. They focus us on only thinking about maybe one or two right answers, and they narrow us to other possibilities. Research shows that rather than thinking about what we should do, we should think about what we could do instead. This way, we’re much more likely to come up with creative solutions. By asking people to think about what they could do, you allow them to think outside the box, think a little bit more broadly. Even if you don’t end up implementing a “could” solution, it often helps you to reach a better solution in the end. Thinking about “coulds” rather than “shoulds” will help you be a better and more creative problem solver.
Language is so exciting and we use it all the time. We are all writers. We may not write books or essays or newspaper articles, but we write emails and PowerPoint presentations and Word documents. We are all speakers. We may not get up on stage and do keynotes for millions of people, but we speak all the time. We speak in meetings, we speak to our spouses, we speak to our children. All of these things involve language. If we understand the power of words and how to use them, we can improve our impact.
To listen to the audio version read by author Jonah Berger, download the Next Big Idea App today: