Certain words are as powerful as incantations. I’m not talking about the pseudo-mystical exhortations stage illusionists use – abracadabra, alazakam, expelarmus or presto-change-o. I’m talking about simple, everyday English-language words that almost have the power to enchant people. You know every one of these words and, chances are, you use most if not all of them in your daily communications with others. What you may not know is that when combined and used wisely, their persuasive power magnifies. When used well, these everyday words can influence opinions, can compel others to buy your product, believe your argument or otherwise go along with your wishes. I call them Magic Words. And, even after centuries of constant daily use, their power is still something to conjure with. Almost since mankind grunted its first syllable, other men have searched for the most effective words to motivate and convince. Whether they were shamans or kings, priests or poets, these were the early “motivators” – the first to give serious thought to weaving a web of words to snare the minds of others.
Modern-day spin-doctors have certainly given the subject a lot of thought. The fields of psychology, advertising and marketing, semantics and hypnosis have all contributed to the search for the most persuasive words. In the twentieth century, the study became a mini-science. Especially in the field of marketing, experts began to codify the words they had found to increase the effectiveness of advertising messages. Legendary ad-guru David Ogilvy was one such writer, offering his Most Effective Trilogy: You, New and How. As he said: “If you try hard enough, you can almost always use new in your copy. Then there is the word how, which is in third place on the list. People want to know how to solve problems, how to get ahead, how to be attractive, how to win friends and how to end money worries.” You, it goes without saying, are always interested in messages aimed specifically at You. By the 1960s, the list had been expanded and refined to: You, Easy, Money, Save, Love, New, Discovery, Results, Proven, and Guarantee. Source: Sun, Nov. 4, 1963, p. 5; Northwest Arkansas Times, Nov. 7, 1963, p. 4; etc. In 1970, the list of the 12 most persuasive words in the English language was reported as coming from researchers at Yale University’s psychology department: You, Money, Save, New, Results, Health, Easy, Safety, Love, Discovery, Proven and Guarantee. Here, Safety and Health are added. Source: Jan. 20, 1970, p. B6; Burlington (N.C.) Daily Times-News, Jan. 20, 1970, p. 6A; etc. Interestingly, neither list includes the word FREE! (often used in all caps and with the added exclamation point) which many copywriters and books on selling rank as one of the strongest action-inducing words ever. 3
As a marketing strategist and copywriter for over 30 years, I have studied and tested everything I could find about words that persuade. Over the years, I have honed my own list of Magic Words – ones that I know from experience really work. It’s a little different from any of the classic lists – not much, but in some important ways I believe. For the first time, I am sharing the benefit of my decades of experience with you. But don’t take my word for it. I urge you try out these Magic Words in your marketing messages, in your arguments – anytime you want to convince and motivate others. You will discover that these proven words will bring great new results – I guarantee it!
An early ad referring to one version of the persuasive words list.
Magic Word #1: Because
Here is one place I differ from the experts. For me, the MOST powerful word you can use to convince is not You, not New, not Free. It is Because. Why?
Because the word has almost irresistable power to create belief in the minds of others. That one word imparts unmatched credibility to everything said before and after. Its magic power comes from the fact that none of us, whether we want to admit it or not, make decisions logically. In almost every instance, people make decisions emotionally – and then justify them logically. When you use the word Because, you give the other person a justification for believing you. They can relax and accept what you say because you have given them a “logical” basis for belief. What is truly amazing is that the reason, the explanation that follows the word Because, doesn’t even have to be totally logical, provable or otherwise sound. In most cases – even when there is no logic to back it up – just the fact that the explanation follows Because imbues it will magic believability! Ellen Langer of Harvard is famous for a “Xerox Mindfulness Experiment” that is quoted extensively by Cialdini and other persuasion experts. There’s a nice summary of the findings and videos of Dr. Langer 6
speaking here at http://www.sociallypsyched.org/item/xerox-mindfulnessexperiment. The upshot is that “As long as the request is small, giving a nonsense reason for a request is a much more effective strategy than giving no reason, due to our mindless activation of ‘scripts.’” We can’t help it. On an immediate level, which one of these requests is more persuasive? “Will you buy these cookies?” “Will you buy these cookies because I have to sell them for school?” Unless you are particularly mindful, you automatically respond more positively to the second version – because of Because.
Magic Word #2: You Here I line up with the traditional experts; You is one of the most powerful words around. Early on in my copywriting career, I learned the magnetic power of using You. Nobody wants to receive more sales messages – we’re all overwhelmed with them. So, we always view any message first with the instantaneous subconscious question: “Is this of any importance to me?” If the message seems to be addressed to a vast, undefined group of someones, the answer is usually “no”. So, every message should be addressed to the most specific person there is: you. Though you see it all the time in advertising, never direct a message or request to “our customers,” or say “people want…” Hammer home you, you, you. Of course, when possible, substituting the person’s name is the most powerful attention-getter there is. Even puppies respond to the use of their names. I won’t go into a long explanation here. You know how crucial you are to you. If you need convincing, stand on a busy street corner and yell: “Can anyone help me?” Then try looking directly at one person and asking: “Can YOU help me?” You’ll quickly learn which is more effective. 8
Magic Word #3: New How important is news to most people? So important that CNN, Fox, MSNBC and other television news outlets are on the air around the clock, 365 days every year. And so important that many people check the Internet on an almost obsessive basis throughout the day just to catch the latest breaking stories. It’s no wonder that the earliest form of advertising was posted on kiosks created to carry the latest news bulletins in ancient Greece and Rome. Or that the advertising agency business grew out of the newspaper business. People are so hungry to be in on the latest developments that the word New has an immense lure. Advertising icon David Ogilvy stated flatly that there was never any reason NOT to use the word New in a marketing message – there is always something new about even the most established product, a new reason to use it, a new way to use it and so on. It works so well that manufacturers continually fiddle with even the most successful products just to add something so they can put a New and Improved label on them. Find some way of adding “news” to your communications, especially if you can suggest it’s an inside secret most folks don’t know yet. We all like to feel we’re on the leading edge.
Magic Word #4: Imagine This word doesn’t usually appear on lists of most persuasive words but it should. It has the power of hypnosis behind it. Though I’m not a hypnotherapist, I have long been fascinated by hypnotic suggestion. It’s not at all what most people believe from movies and other popular fictions. No slick Svengali will ever be able to steal your willpower away with hypnosis; in fact, the only person who can put you into a hypnotic trance is yourself. All a hypnotist can do is to help you relax and turn your mind over to your own subconscious. One of the simplest ways to help you do that is to ask you to imagine something. When we engage our imagination, we slip into a light trance state. We put our rationale minds on hold for a moment and allow our more creative subconscious to take charge. And our subconscious is the province of wishes, memories, desires and dreams. Once the rationale mind is mute, we are much more open to visualizing the benefits of whatever is being presented. So, asking someone to imagine himself or herself enjoying the benefits of whatever you are promoting can work wonders – it causes them to actually enter the state of being a buyer or believer in your idea, to preexperience the sensations and emotions of ownership or acceptance. You move from trying to persuade someone to helping them actually persuade themselves. That’s strong magic! Note: Asking people to remember something is another way to help them access their subconscious. “Remember what it felt like on Christmas
morning when you saw your first shiny (whatever) there under the tree?â€? Now just connect that remembered feeling to whatever youâ€™re selling. An effective example:
Magic Word #5: Money Itâ€™s innate human nature â€“ our most primal needs have always been for crucial resources: food, water and shelter. Today, all those needs are usually satisfied by paying for them. Thus, most people are continually concerned about money. We always want to make more money, have more money and save more money (which is why Save is on virtually every list of persuasive words). You do the math. Bottom line: Any message that aims to influence should make it clear how the prospect can make, have or save money by acting. (Now!)
Magic Word #6: Health/Healthy If you studied any psychology, you probably learned about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. To simplify it greatly, he ranked the needs of well-adjusted people on a five-tiered pyramid of importance, starting from the most basic – food, water, breathing, reproduction, etc. – to the most refined, which he called “self-actualization”, things like morality and creativity (in short, being the best YOU possible.) We’ve already talked about the word Money, which straddles the most basic needs (food, shelter) and his second most basic category “Safety.” Health is the most important issue under that second category. How many times have you heard the expression: “At least you’ve got your health”? Without health, nothing else matters much. Health affects your ability to get and keep crucial resources like money, to protect your family – to continue to exist. So, we are constantly open to messages that promise to improve our health or the health of those we love. At the very least, we need to be assured that whatever we are considering will not detract from our health. Safety is another very powerful word, closely allied to Health. Safety is the protection of health – and can also mean the continued security of resources such as family and property. To my mind, it is not quite as powerful as Health because it is not as specific. Not every sales message, speech or argument has a connection to health (or safety) of course but anytime increasing or protecting physical wellbeing can be incorporated into your persuasion tactics, it could have healthy results. 13
Magic Word #7: Easy When released in 1943, Maslow’s hierarchy didn’t foresee something that has become an overwhelming need today: Time. The pace and complexity of life has expanded exponentially over the succeeding decades since the 1940s as the proliferation of supposed timesaving aids, from microwave ovens to computers, has instead contributed to making us all busier. Time-stress has become the epidemic of the age. Thus, anything that promises to help us live our lives with less hassle, simpler or more conveniently – in short, with more ease – is as important to us as vaccine is to a smallpox sufferer. Who wants more difficulty in their lives? Who wants to expend more effort? If you want to find one powerful word that speaks to almost everyone in every walk of life – it’s Easy.
Magic Word #8: Love Working our way up the hierarchy of needs, we move from Safety to the tier of Love/Belonging. This tier contains our needs for friendship, family and sexual intimacy. And the powerful word that sums all that up is Love. Love is so potent in its lure that barely a novel, movie or song can be written without including it. If you want to convince people of almost anything, just assure them that they’ll love it. If you really want to sway them, tell them – or better yet, show them – how accepting your proposition will bring them love. Whether it’s romantic love (eros as the ancient Greeks categorized it,) love from family, friends and community (philia,) or spiritual love (agape,) we all crave it. It is the vital fuel that propels us up to the second-highest category of needs: respect and esteem. To be loved is to be esteemed, and to be esteemed by others is often a major component of our own self-esteem. There’s an old marketing axiom that says if you give people what the truly need, they’ll love you for it. Give people Love and they’ll love you right back.
Magic Word #9: Yes What’s the most positive word in the English language? I vote Yes. “Will you marry me?” “May I have a raise?” “Is the offer accepted?” What better answer could there be than Yes? A classic negotiation technique is to get someone to say yes to small questions, then once they’re conditioned to respond positively, ask for the affirmative you really want. Testing has shown that, quite often, they’ll answer yes to that as well. It’s because our minds love operating patterns, “scripts”. There is simply too much sensory input in everyone’s lives to consider and weight every option. To save us from mental chaos, our brains operate as much as 80% by rote pattern. You can turn those odds in your favor by following a pattern like this: Do you like to create a good first impression? (Yes.) Do you believe that people often judge others by their clothing? (Yes.) Wouldn’t you look and feel better in one of our fine suits? Can you imagine how often the answer to that will be positive?
Magic Word #10: Guarantee/Guaranteed Few of us are brave enough to gamble with our most precious resources. Even the boldest extreme sports enthusiasts are not risk-takers in many areas of their lives. That’s why we seek assurances before we commit to the unknown, whether it is hang-gliding or a new flavor of yogurt. Perhaps the strongest assurance of all is a believable guarantee. I don’t see Guarantee or Guaranteed as primary persuasive words – that’s why they appear at the end of this list. A guarantee is more often the final convincer, the deal-clincher, the thing that finally pushes the prospect to act. It frees them from worry, it allays hesitation and allows them to commit knowing that they cannot get hurt. The stronger the guarantee – and the more believable – the stronger the power it has. A triple-your-money-back guarantee is more persuasive than a return-for-a-replacement guarantee. This concept is so important to me, and other persuaders, that I try to ALWAYS include an unconditional guarantee with my offerings. Here it is: First, I guarantee that these words have been instrumental in my career as a persuader for over 30 years for one simple reason: They work. Try them and see. Second, If you don’t find that the ideas included in this book add real power to your communications with others, too, just send it back to me and I’ll refund the cost. No questions asked. Third, that guarantee is not just good for a limited time – it’s a life-time guarantee (good for MY lifetime.)
Bonus Chapter: Magic Word Substitutes Obviously, you can’t keep using the same handful of words over and over, no matter how effective they may be. That would make your communications boring. And, as it has been wisely said, “No one has ever been bored into buying anything.” Here are some substitutes and additions you can call upon when you need a fresh way to make your point. 1. Alternates for Because: Thus, Hence, So that, On account of, Owing to, The reason is 2. Alternatives to You: Yourself, Personally, (best yet: the person’s name) 3. Alternatives to New: Advanced, Announcing, Au courant, Brand-new, Contemporary, Current, Cutting-edge, Different, Fresh, Introducing, Just out, Late, Latest, Modern, Modernistic, Novel, Now, Original, Presenting, Recent, Revolutionary, State-of-the-art, Today, Ultramodern, Unaccustomed, Unusual, Up-to-date 4. Alternatives to Imagine: Conceive, Conceptualize, Dream, Envision, Fantasize, Picture, Remember, Think back to, Think of, Visualize
5. Alternates to Money: Budget, Cash, Finances, Funds, Property, Resources, Riches, Wages, Wealth 6. Alternates to Health/Healthy: Constitution, Energy, Energetic, Fitness, Hardiness, Power, Powerful, Robust, Shape, Soundness, Stamina, Strength, Vigor, Vigorous, Vital, Vitality, Well-being, Wellness 7. Alternates to Easy: Accessible, Apparent, Basic, Cinch, Clear, Concise, Easily accomplished, Easily done, Effortless, Elementary, Evident, Light, Little, Manageable, Mere, No bother, No problem, No sweat, No trouble, Obvious, Painless, Simple, Snap, Straightforward, Uncomplicated, Undemanding 8. Alternates to Love: Adore, Affection, Allegiance, Appreciation, Attachment, Crave, Delight, Devotion, Enchantment, Enjoyment, Esteem, Passion, Regard, Respect 9. Alternates to Yes: Agree, Agreed, Affirmative, All right, Beyond doubt, For sure, Granted, Of course, Okay, Positively, Sure, Undoubtedly 10. Alternates to Guarantee/Guaranteed: Agreement, Assurance, Assured, Bond, Certainty, Contract, Insurance, Insured, Pledge, Promise, Vow, Warranty, Word, Word of honor
Bonus Chapter B: Eight More Magic Words So, what about the other words that often appear on the classic lists of persuasive words but weren’t included in my list? Obviously, they’re powerful words as well. Here are four classics and two more that don’t usually get included though they’re used in persuasive communication again and again. Magic Word #11: Free Who doesn’t like to get something free? The reason it’s so powerful is that it combines the benefits of Money – as in saving it – and Guaranteed. When something is free, you have nothing to lose. That is an unspoken guarantee that suggests: You will chance nothing in this offer, it is without any obligation. And yet, classic persuasion technique has shown that something given always carries with it a strong sense of mental obligation. Psychology professor Robert Cialdini calls it the Rule of Reciprocation and puts it first among the “weapons” in his landmark work Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion. Further, he quotes extensive research by sociologist Alvin Gouldner that shows there is NO human society that does not abide by this rule. You’ve no doubt heard the old expression “you’ve got to give a little to get a little.” When you help someone get something for free, chances are you’ll get back its value several times over. Free is a powerful word – with even more potent returns. 20
Magic Word #12: Proven Proven is really another form of Guaranteed. It reassures the prospect that his or her acceptance of your offer, proposal or request will not entail risk. It states that others have tried it out before and have had satisfactory results. And therein lies its power. It is what in debate is called an appeal to the masses. In essence, Proven says that others have done the testing for you. It is left for you to assume that they approve of it. The response to this is likely to be: “Well, if everyone else has had a positive outcome, I should too.” The word Proven also has a vague but heady air of science to it. Mathematicians offer proofs, researchers refine medicines in clinical trials, physicists strive to prove theories. The word carries with it the ideas of testing, refinement and finally perfection. Besides all that, it has been Proven to work time and again.
Magic Word #13: How If you can solve your prospect’s problems, they’ll love you for it. That’s why most marketing messages set up a problem situation and then offer a solution (the product or service.) How or most often How To is the simplest, most direct way to set up that solution scenario. How To Win Friends and Influence People is one of the best-selling self-help books of all time. In fact, self-help guides are often popularly referred to as “How to” books. As any publisher can tell you, “How to” books are perennial sellers. 21
Boost your persuasive messages by showing your prospect How to achieve their desires, needs or wants and perhaps you can be a bestseller too.
Magic Word #14: Save/Savings Getting money and other precious resources is one of mankind’s strongest urges; protecting the resources we already have is a closely related obsession. Allied to the Magic Words of Money, Easy and Guaranteed, Save announces that your prospect can protect his or her budget, time, energy, effort and also reduce risk. That’s a lot for one four-letter word to achieve. Using Save can save you using a lot of other words to get a strong message across.
Magic Word #15: Safe/Safety Safety is, of course, a cousin of the word Save. Not only does it suggest everything that Save does, it brings in the compelling concept of Health as well. As we’ve discussed previously, the Safety of our physical, emotional and even spiritual wellbeing is a primal concern of mankind. Safe or Safety are tacit guarantees that, if we act, we will not suffer loss or harm. If you’re looking for one word to reassure your prospect that he or she can commit without fear, it’s Safety first.
Magic Word #16: Discovery/Discover Discovery blends the power of New and Proven. Like Proven, it has a nice scientific ring to it, painting a picture as it does of research, testing and finally a marvelous breakthrough. When used as a verb, as in Discover the Benefits, it is a potent call to action.
Magic Word #17: Act This word doesn’t appear on most lists of powerful words of influence yet it appears repeatedly in the most powerful persuasive messages. In fact, the phrases or sentences that are designed to energize the prospect into accepting an offer are usually labeled the “call to action.” Implicit in the term persuasion is the idea that the object of the persuasion must take some action – buy a product or service, accept some idea, or at the very least consider something. The most concise way to achieve those results is to ask the prospect to Act.
Magic Word #18: Now As we’ve stated before, people most often act from emotion and then, later, justify the action with logic. The problem with emotions is that they fade over time. Once a persuader has elicited the emotion necessary to induce the prospect to act, it is important to further convince the prospect to act while the emotion is at its peak – now.
Undoubtedly, you’ve seen that in marketing messages time and again. Act is rarely used without its partner Now – or a Now substitute such as Today, Instantly, This Minute and so on. Setting a time limit on an offer is almost always a smart strategy. Doubt, over-analysis, hesitation and indecision are the enemies of persuasion. And they will creep in if action is allowed to be postponed – even when contemplating the most beneficial commitment. To fight this very human tendency to inertia, a persuader must require speedy response. In short, in persuasion – as often in life – there is no better time than Now.
Bonus Chapter C: The Startling, Amazing, Incredible Facts About Adjectives If you’ve read many novels or comic books or seen many movies or television shows, you know about characters called sidekicks. They’re the hero’s associates, whose often-bumbling antics serve to make the star shine even brighter. I started to use the words “helper” or “assistant” in that last sentence but in truth, the helper is more often a hindrance – falling down during the chase, misinterpreting vital clues and otherwise distracting the hero from accomplishing the necessary heroic deeds. In persuasive communication, adjectives are just like sidekicks. They have no particular grammatical benefit in themselves, their only reason to exist is to add something to the communication’s hero – the noun. So, if a sentence’s hero is, say, “day,” the sidekick adjective jumps in to make it a beautiful day, a long day, a rainy day and so on. The problem with adjectives is that, like sidekicks, they often detract from the hero’s power instead of adding to it. First off, they bring a bad smell of hype to the communication when they try to help too much. As long as an adjective stays calm and clinically descriptive, it can be useful: A blue car, a 20-foot tree, a broken clock. Just as in fictional stories, it’s when the sidekick gets excited and starts overreaching that the trouble usually starts: An incredible offer, a magnificent home, a sumptuous meal.
People are generally quick to spot hype, especially in a message that they perceive as aiming to persuade them. The more superlatives that pile up in a message, the faster they come to the conclusion that they’re being manipulated. In our look at Magic Words, we’ve discussed the opinions of advertising giant David Ogilvy; now let’s hear from another advertising superstar, Leo Burnett. Burnett’s Chicago firm created Tony the Tiger, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Marlboro Man, the Jolly Green Giant, Charlie the Tuna and more other icons of marketing than probably anyone around. Moreover, Burnett’s agency is famous for keeping clients many times the industry average, as long as fifty years in some cases. One reason for that longevity is that Burnett obsessively insisted on results for his clients. He and his staff never quit trying to find a better way to improve their clients’ sales. One specific way he did that was to launch a never-ending attack on adjectives. Most of Leo Burnett’s ads were remarkably successful. Refer back to that partial list of marketing icons the company created, almost all still working hard today after many decades. But some of the company’s ads failed and that drove Burnett crazy. So, he instituted a study to discover what the unsuccessful messages had in common. The answer was adjectives. The ads that didn’t work contained an average of almost 25% adjectives. The company’s most successful ads contained just about half that many.
You can check Leo Burnett’s conclusion yourself, just by examining some of the most persuasive messages of all time. The 10 Commandments: A little over 10% adjectives. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Shakespeare: 4% adjectives. The Declaration of Independence: Less than 12% adjectives. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: 13% adjectives. And famous memorable lines: JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask rather what you can do for your country”: 0 adjectives. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”: 0 adjectives. Churchill’s “We have nothing to give but blood, sweat, toil and tears,” 0 adjectives. Would any of those have been improved by adding “wonderful,” or “fantastic,” or “horrible”? It’s true that 25% of the Magic Words we’ve talked about are adjectives – New, Easy, Proven – and that Free is often used as an adjective, as in Free Sample. Further, both Health and Guarantee have adjective versions, Healthy and Guaranteed. But even so, these by far fall into the category of simply descriptive adjectives. Notice how free the list is of empty superlatives like Great, Fabulous, Amazing, Super, Stupendous and so on? From their overuse in marketing messages, it’s obvious that some people believe they’re persuasive. My view is that they rarely bring anything to the party. They’re simply bumbling sidekicks; you’d be wise to kick them out of your communications.