Why some words persuade better than others

What’s actually going on in the brain when it processes language? If different words affect the mind in different ways, which are more persuasive than others?

One thing I fuss about, especially for Buffer copy, is word choice—simple words, in fact.

Should it say “Hi” or “Hey”? Should it be “cheers” or “thanks”? How about “but” or “and”? I’m guessing you have a similar obsession.

There are many occasions when my Buffer partner Joel and I sit over one line and change it multiple times until we feel it sits right. This is partly to improve our metrics for click rates and other elements, but it’s also to stir an emotion. The key question we ask ourselves is: “How does this make you feel?”

That might sound obvious, and yet it’s a very different question from, “Which message do you want to send?” or, “What is the content of this announcement?” By focusing on “How will this make someone feel?” in writing even a single line, we immediately improved the amount of responses we got from our users.

Let’s dig in to how our brain works and expose some of the most persuasive words in English.

How our brains hear words

A lot of the longstanding paradigms in how our brain processes language have been overthrown. New and cutting-edge studies have produced startling results. The one study I found most interesting is UCL’s findings on how we separate words from intonation.

Whenever we listen to song lyrics, for example, this is what happens: “Words are then shunted over to the left temporal lobe [of our brain] for processing, while the melody is channeled to the right side of the brain, a region more stimulated by music.”

So our brain uses two different areas to identify the mood and then the actual meaning of the words. What doesn’t quite make sense is why we distinguish language so distinctly from other sounds.

The UCL team tried to find out about exactly this. They played speech sounds and then non-speech sounds that sounded similar to speech. In measuring the subjects’ brain activity, they found something fascinating: “Speech was singled out for special treatment near the primary auditory cortex.” In short, our brains magically single out language from other sounds and port it to the right compartment of our brain to give it meaning.

So intonation and actual wording matter, but what is the split?

A myth busted

That is, the “55 percent body language, 38 percent tone of voice, 7 percent actual words” rule. You’ve probably heard this breakdown many times. Only in recent years have people explored anew what the 1967 study’s objective was. It wasn’t at all about defining how we process language: “The fact is that Professor Mehrabian’s research had nothing to do with giving speeches, because it was based on the information that could be conveyed in a single word.”

Here is what actually happened that triggered the above findings:

“Subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a woman’s voice saying the word ‘maybe’ three different ways to convey liking, neutrality, and disliking. They were also shown photos of the woman’s face conveying the same three emotions. They were then asked to guess the emotions heard in the recorded voice, seen in the photos, and both together. The result? The subjects correctly identified the emotions 50 percent more often from the photos than from the voice.”

The truth, so famous author Philip Yaffe argues, is that the actual words “must dominate by a wide margin.”

Here are three ideas to keep in mind when you use language:

The skill of asking questions: ‘What would you do?’

Journalist-turned-entrepreneur Evan Ratliff put it this way: “All that’s really saved me (so far) from madness is being able to formulate questions that deliver useful answers.” He points out that any questions that start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” are likely to generate great responses. To be avoided are “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think,” as they can limit how people respond. To give an example:

Good: “What would you do?”
Bad: “Would you do X?”
Terrible: “Would you do X or Y or Z or Q or M or W or…?”

His advice is to pose questions that begin with the five W’s in order to have more meaningful conversations.

Removing ‘being’ verbs from your language

Alfred Korzybski, the creator of General Semantics, was firmly convinced that “to be” conjugations such as, “I am, he is, they are, we are,” promote insanity. Why? Quite simply because things can’t be exactly equal to something else.

Douglas Cartwright explains further: “This X = Y creates all kinds of mental anguish, and it doesn’t need to, because we never can reduce ourselves to single concepts. You believe yourself to have more complexity than that, don’t you? Yet unconsciously accepting this language constrains us to believe we operate as nothing more or less than the idea we identified ourselves with.”

Read the following examples, and you’ll see how different the statements are:

He is an idiot versus He acted like an idiot in my eyes
She is depressed
versus She looks depressed to me
I am a failure
versus I think I’ve failed at this task
I am convinced that
versus It appears to me that

The 5 most persuasive words: you, because, free, instantly, new

In a terrific article, Gregory Ciotti researched the top five words in English. His list is not surprising, yet the research behind it is extremely powerful.

You: The second-person pronoun (or the listener’s name) is something that’s easily forgotten, yet so important for great communication.

Free: Gregory explains Ariely’s principle of loss aversion. All of us naturally go for the lowest-hanging fruit, and “free” triggers exactly that.

Because: “Because” is probably as dangerous as it is useful. Creating a causal relationship is incredibly persuasive: “Even giving weak reasons [has] been shown to be more persuasive than giving no reason at all.”

Instantly: If we can trigger something immediately, our brain jumps on it like a shark, says Greg: “Words like ‘instant,’ ‘immediately,’ or even ‘fast’ are triggers for flipping the switch on that mid-brain activity.”

Check out the full post from Greg here.

One last point

Make three positive comments for every negative statement. Research by Andrew Newberg suggests that negative arguments have a detrimental effect on our brain. We need to pay particular attention so we don’t let them take over.

He suggests: “When you get into a dialogue with somebody to discuss any particular issue, a 3-to-1 ratio is a relatively good benchmark to think about; you wind up creating the opportunity for a more constructive dialogue and, hopefully, a better resolution.”

Leo Widrich is the co-founder of Buffer, a smarter way to share on Twitter and Facebook. Leo writes more posts on efficiency and customer happiness over on the Buffer blog. Hit him up on Twitter @LeoWid. A version of this article first appeared on the Buffer blog.

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