Jonah Berger understands the power of words in a way that makes them almost magical. We see the power of words everywhere these days, and behind them, behavioral science. Even more so as creatives and entrepreneurs. We see it in the constant marketing messages that we’re exposed to. It’s also common to consider the behavior of our customer base and our markets.
Jonah Berger has been on CJLIVE before. His work continues to stand out. Jonah is a marketing professor at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He does a lot of research on behavioral science to study why we do what we do, why certain products, ideas, and behaviors catch on, and how we can use this knowledge to influence others. He’s the author of multiple best-selling books on these subjects and most recently has published Magic Words: what to say to get your way. Jonah explains he likes to think of helping all of us to use behavioral science to support living happier and healthier lives.
When it comes to creative endeavors, understanding what drives another human being is critically important. Language can be used to be effective in the world.
Everything Involves Language
Everything we do in one shape or form involves language. Language is involved in the emails we send, the phone calls we make, and the face-to-face conversations we have every day. It’s how we talk to our spouses, colleagues, friends, and children, it’s all language.
When we’re communicating, we often get it wrong by thinking about the overall point we want to make instead of the specific choice of words we’ll use to make it.
And that’s where we get it wrong. Using one word versus another can have a big impact on our success. Jonah explains, “For example, using the words’ I recommend instead of I like can have a 50% increase in a person saying yes.”
It’s a simple shift of changing one word. When we use the words I recommend, people are a third more likely to take our suggestion.
Framework for Magic Words
Jonah’s got this down to a science, and has a way of explaining that makes sense. Jonah’s book “Magic Words: what to say to get your way” acts as a toolkit in this area. It shows us how we can use language to improve our specific outcomes.
There are types of magic words that Jonah talks about. His framework helps us remember the types of magic words. In this episode, Jonah discusses the framework he calls SPEACC:
- S = language of similarity: Linguistic similarity shapes everything from who gets promoted to whether songs and movies become hits.
- P = language of posing questions: People often think that asking questions will make them less knowledgeable, but it turns out the opposite is true (questions make people seem more competent). Learn the right types of questions to ask and when to ask them.
- E = language of emotion: Want to build better presentations, have better conversations, or be a better storyteller? Employ emotion. Highlight the hurdles, mix up moments, and connect first before trying to solve them.
- A = language of agency and identity: Words signal who’s in charge, who’s to blame, and what it means to do something. So to encourage desired actions, we need to harness the language of identity. Turn actions into identities, for example, and can’ts into don’ts.
- C = language of confidence: Want to be perceived more positively? Increase your impact? Ditch the hedges, use definites, and turn past into presents. That said, when you want to encourage the other side to listen, expressing doubt can be the best course of action.
- C = language of concreteness: Want to show you’re listening? Be concrete. Give specific details to show attention and understanding.
Turning Actions into Identities
When I dove into this book, a topic that stood out to me was the idea that language helps us to cultivate our own identity and agency.
We often think about language as information. Language is also suggestive. Sometimes it means asking someone to do something. As an example of the power of the language of agency and identity, we can look at asking for help.
In a scenario where we might be asking for someone for help, sometimes they say yes and sometimes no. What could we do to increase the likelihood that people say yes?
A study was done decades ago at Stanford University where they went to a local preschool and they asked four and five-year-olds to help clean up a classroom. There were books everywhere, crayons, and different things all around. To a portion of the children, they said “Hey can you help clean up”? For the other children, they said “Can you be a helper, and clean the classroom?” The difference in words was only a couple of letters added to the end of the word help, “er”. Adding those two letters led to a 30% increase in the portion of students that helped.
This approach is not just about kids in a classroom.
The same ideas apply to adults with much bigger more important behaviors. Jonah explains that some researchers tried to use this idea to see if they could get people to vote. Often the language used is “Hey will you vote?”. The researchers used the word “voter” instead. “Hey, will you be a voter?”. Very similar but with the addition of two letters. Voter vs Vote.
The results led to a 15% increase. Turns out people care more about identities than actions. The change in the language shifted the task from an action to an identity that the individual could wear with pride.
I’m always immersed in these topics when I get to talk with Jonah. His books are full of wisdom on the subject, and I recommend them, especially his latest because it directly has a link to what we’re doing on the creative and entrepreneurial scene. Enjoy the show! Make sure to check out more about Jonah Berger and his latest book, Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way.