What to Say to Get Your Way


Clint Murphy Jonah Berger


Clint Murphy, Jonah Berger

Clint Murphy  00:00

Jonah, welcome to the growth guide, we’re going to dive right into your book, Magic Words. And where I’d like to start is by illustrating a couple examples through stories, which are the magic of words and two that jumped out at me, you talked about the Xerox example with an audience and how I can move ahead of the line and getting my copies done, as well as the power of using I recommend versus I like, can you bring our listeners up to speed on those?


Jonah Berger  00:31

Sure. So just to kind of give us an overview of the general space, you know, we all use language all the time. We use it to write emails to put together presentations, to make phone calls, to pitch clients and colleagues, to talk to spouses and children, even our private thoughts rely on language. But while we spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to talk about, the main ideas we may want to get across in that presentation or that email, we spend a lot less time thinking about the specific words we use when communicating those ideas. But unfortunately, that’s a mistake. Because it turns out that subtle shifts in the language you use can have a big effect on our own impact. Let me dive into the two examples you gave. So a number of years ago, some researchers at Harvard University we’re interested in and kind of what drives persuasion, right. So what makes people more likely to help others out even when they don’t necessarily want to. And so they went to a place where people don’t always help each other out. And that is New York City. And they went to a local library. And basically, they interrupted people that were making copies, and asked them essentially, if they could, butt in line, now, most of us don’t make copies anymore. But remember, used to stick those kind of papers on a big device, usually would take you a few minutes to do it. Maybe you were copying pages out of a book. And imagine you’re kind of halfway through that process. And someone comes up to you and says, Hey, you know, can I make copies? And not surprisingly, most people weren’t very interested in helping others, they weren’t very interested sort of giving up their slot for somebody else. But the researcher is interested in the power of language, to potentially shape those requests to shape people’s likelihood of saying yes. And so rather than just saying, Hey, can I make some copies? Can I get ahead of you, essentially, for some of the people, they had them use language differently. For about half of the people, they approached the individuals and said, hey, you know, can I cut in front of you in line because and then gave them a reason. And that particular word? Because led people to be about 50% more likely to say yes, just from the simple word, because, and you could wonder, Well, hey, maybe it wasn’t the simple word, because that led them to be more likely to say, yes, maybe it was the reason, right? If somebody asks you to butt in line, but they give you a really good reason, they say, because here’s a really good reason, then maybe it’s the reason that leads people to say yes, and not the specific language. So researchers tried a third approach. They approached people, they said the word because and then they essentially gave a pretty terrible reason. They said, Hey, can I butt in front of you in line because I need to make copies. That information is already obvious, you wouldn’t be wanting to use the copy machine if you didn’t need to make copies. And so the reason didn’t add any additional information. But even though the reason was, in some sense, vacuous, empty, didn’t add a lot of additional value. People were still about 50%, more likely to say yes, when that appeared. And so it wasn’t the reason per se, it was the power of one single magic word. And that is the word “because” and so the book Magic Words is filled with a variety of examples like this a variety of examples where we talk about how you can use language to increase your impact whether it’s persuading others deepening social connection or doing a variety of other things in both our personal and our professional lives.


Clint Murphy  03:36

And when we talk about that, I love that even with the vacuous reason people were still 50% more likely to let you through. And so we want to learn well, how do we use words to achieve this? And what you’ve done is you’ve put together six different types or categories of words that we can think about. And you have an acronym that we can use for them, which is SPEACC although because there’s six, we finished the spelling with two C’s instead of a K. Can you take the listeners through at a high level what is the Speak acronym? What are what are the categories, and then we’ll dive deeper into two or three of them?


Jonah Berger  04:16

Sure. Yeah. And so you know, I’ve spent the last few decades studying the science of language, and most importantly, how it works. Right, we’ve looked at 10s of 1000s of pieces of online content, look at what holds attention. We’ve looked at millions of social media posts to look at what gets attention in the first place. We’ve looked at sales pitches and resumes. We’ve looked at conversations in a variety of different contexts, all with a goal of understanding how we can use language more effectively. We’ve even looked at the language of movie scripts and song lyrics, you know, 10s of 1000s of movie scripts and similar numbers of song lyrics to understand what makes a hit what drives a blockbuster in a variety of different domains. And so across these disparate research areas and across work that I’ve done with an amazing set of Colleagues as, as well as others have done in this space, there are six key types of language, six key buckets of magic words that we need to understand to increase our impact. As you nicely said, I put them together in an acronym called SPEAC, the S stands for the language of similarity and difference. The P stands for the language of posing questions. The E stands for the language of emotion, the A stands for the language of agency and identity. The first C is the language of confidence. And the second C is the language of concreteness. And as you pointed out, folks are paying attention, they will realize that speacc doesn’t have to cease, it should end with a K. But as someone nicely pointed out, K is the most difficult letter in Scrabble, to find a spot for and so I feel a little bit better about it ending with two C’s. But hopefully, that difference will help make it more memorable. And so the key here is to understand at least a few of these, if not all of these types of magic words, and then understand how we can leverage them.


Clint Murphy  05:57

Well, let’s start by talking about emotion. Before we jumped on the on the call, you talked about storytelling and said that you like to share stories as you illustrate examples. And when we think about a good story, we want to have emotion in it. Where I see a lot of people go wrong, though Jonah is they’re always wanting to focus on the wins. They’re always wanting to focus on the success in you highlight a concept called I believe the pratfall effect, where people actually want to hear our losses. They want to hear our failures. And then there’s that ability to identify with us. But there’s something in there where you want to be a competent person who’s displaying incompetence versus an incompetent person displaying incompetence. So there’s a little intricacy to that. Can you share a little bit about that aspect of storytelling and how the emotion or the pratfall effect helps us tell a better story?


Jonah Berger  07:06

Yeah, so there’s been a lot of attention to storytelling in the past few years, leaders are told to tell stories, brands are told to tell stories, even as individuals, as employees, and managers were told to tell, you know, the story of our career trajectory, or our personal narrative, thinking about, you know, the idea of a hero’s journey, for example, but if you look, there’s a lot of questions about how to tell a good story, right? If I’m supposed to tell the story of my brand, or the story of my own, you know, career trajectory, the story of me as a leader, you know, what does that mean and how should I tell that story? And, and   you look online, you know, you look at most posts on social media, most of the ways that people are telling their story is essentially the highlights. Look at me win this award. Look at me, I got a promotion. Look at me, I graduated from this great school, look at me in this wonderful thing that I did. And so it’s an ongoing highlight reel. It’s essentially a varnished perspec tive of our lives, a greatest hits album, and it’s going to why we think that’s useful, right? We think, hey, if I just tell people about all the great things that happened to me, they’ll think I’m great. And as a result, they’ll be more likely to want to work with me, get to know me, want to work with my company, and so on. But it turns out that intuition is a little bit misguided, right? First, because when people all they do is brag all the time, you don’t really want to become friends with them, you don’t really want to listen to what they’re saying, you’re not gonna read yet another post where they’re talking about how great their lives are, because it’s a little hard to relate, right. And for most of us, our lives aren’t an endless stream of greatest hits. They’re positive moments, and there are negative moments. And, and it actually turns out that talking about those negative moments, that revealing those pratfalls, those problems, those failures can have a variety of different benefits. So first, there was a great study that was done a number of years ago, where they essentially had people interact with different people in an experiment. Some of those people were amazingly competent, and others less so. And in addition to being either competent or less, so they had people make a mistake, right? So some people spilled coffee on themselves, for example, and others didn’t. And what they found is quite interesting. You might think that it’s best to be the competent person who doesn’t spill coffee on themselves. But it turns out that intuition is wrong. Because if people are already seen as mostly competent, if they seem too perfect, again, it’s hard to connect with them. It’s hard to want to be friends with them, it’s hard to want to work with them, because it doesn’t seem like they’re a real person. Right? Whereas if that perfect person makes at least a little bit of mistake, you know, a terrible, you know, catastrophy of mistake, but spilling little coffee on oneself. For example, It humanizes them, it makes them more real, it makes them more relatable, and it makes us want to interact with them a bit more. Now, as you said, we want to be careful, right? If we’re already making mistakes all of the time, then making an additional mistake isn’t necessarily a good thing. But as long as we’re seen as competent already, revealing those failures revealing those moments. of difficulty can actually make us more interesting to get to know and can make our stories more impactful. And the same is true more generally, we actually did a big analysis, as I mentioned, of 10s of 1000s of movie scripts, looking at essentially what drives engagement, what makes some of these narratives better, make us want to pay attention and dig in. And if you think about it, you know, if a movie was just consistent highlights, right, the hero won out over the villain. And then, you know, they got married and had a wonderful and happy life and everything was perfect. You change the channel pretty soon, because it wouldn’t be that engaging of a story. But if you know if they start in a difficult spot, and then things look like they’re going well, but then they get bad again, and then they get oh, they’re gonna and then they go bad again. Suddenly, it’s a much more engaging story, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next, you want to stay tuned, and figure it out. As such, it’s more stimulating. Indeed, that’s what we find stories that are a bit more like roller coasters, they have these ups and downs, are more powerful and more engaging. There’s a podcast I like listening to called How I Built This, where Guy Raz talks to all sorts of founders and leaders of organizations and talks about kind of how they got where they are. And again, some people have this intuition of they only want to talk about the hype, they only talk I want to talk about one thing they do well, but if you look at that, those episodes, and the ones that are really good to listen to, the ones where they talk about their failures are even more powerful. Because if someone got to this great success point, but you see how they started from a failure. When you’re sitting there you go, wow, I could do this too. Right? I have failures. So in my own life, my business doesn’t always work. Everything I try isn’t always successful. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to fail. In fact, that might just mean that this is the failure before the success. And if I keep working at it, I can get there. And so these ups and downs stories, whether you know describing our own lives is a hero’s journey we found in our research makes our own lives more meaningful. Whether revealing our pratfalls makes us more relatable, makes others want to connect with us. And when building narratives, they’re more engaging when they have this roller coaster dynamic. By mixing these positive and negative moments. It helps others want to connect with us and learn more about us and helps make our stories that much more impactful.


Clint Murphy  12:06

And so you’ve covered off, you list four different ways other than the pratfall effect, that we can use emotion you say, build up a roller coaster. So we talked about this, mixing up emotion, so the positive and the negative moments, then you talk about considering the content and activating uncertainty. What does that activating uncertainty look like, in the use of emotions? Yeah.


Jonah Berger  12:30

So, you know, across this book, there are tools for different things, right? There are tools for persuading others, there are tools for conveying confidence, there are tools for building social connection. But there are also tools for gaining and holding attention, right? I think we don’t only care how we’re perceived, but we care whether people pay attention to our content. What do I mean by content? Well, I don’t just mean sort of, you know, as companies producing content, but when we write an email, people going to read it, when we write a report, are people going to pay attention, we make a presentation, are they going to stay tuned, or tune out and start reading their, their email. And so there are a bunch of tips related to that. And one is based on a bit of research we did on what holds attention. So obviously, we care about getting attention in the first place. But in a presentation, for example, people are sitting there, they’re gonna at least start listening, what’s going to hold their attention, what’s going to keep them listening. Or, similarly, if we write a long email or a long proposal, what’s going to keep the client turning those pages rather than just opting out after the first couple paragraphs. And so we did a big analysis about 30,000 pieces of online content. So think about news articles, and blog posts and a variety of different things. And we analyze the language with which those posts were written, with which that content was written. And we looked at the way they use language and how far down the people read. So while you’re reading articles, you may not realize it, but you’re using the scroll button on your mouse. And they actually keep track often how far down you scroll. And so using that data, we can see for each user, how they read through the article, and then figure out using statistics, how the content they were reading shaped whether or not they kept reading, or opted out. And we found something quite interesting. So you might imagine, okay, emotion is good at holding attention. And indeed, it was right, so that more emotional content was better at keeping people reading through the content. But it wasn’t just about positive emotion or negative emotion. Emotions also differ on some other dimensions. Right? Take for example, the difference between anxiety and anger. Right? So anger is what’s called a pretty certain emotion. When you’re angry, usually pretty certain about something right? You’re, you’re angry that your team lost, you’re angry that your flight got canceled, you’re angry that you know something didn’t go as planned, you have a very certain reason why you’re angry. Anxiety is often a little bit more uncertain. Right? You’re anxious about whether or not you’ll get that promotion, you’re anxious about whether or not your team will win, you’re anxious about whether or not the flight will be delayed. And because it’s uncertain, right because it’s uncertain. It can encourage us to keep paying attention. If we don’t know whether our team’s gonna win or not, we might keep watching the game to figure it out. If we don’t know whether or not we’re gonna get that promotion, we might pay attention to certain things to increase the chance it happens. And indeed, that’s what we find not just about anger and anxiety, but about all emotions, looking across both positive and negative emotions, emotions that evoke more uncertainty. And it turns out more arousal, these emotions are more likely to hold our attention, they’re more likely to keep us reading, right? Think about, you know, contentment versus hope, right? Something is positive, it’s good. But celebrating the good things don’t make you keep wanting to pay attention. If you’re hopeful that something’s going to happen, you’re not sure about it, well, then you’re more likely to stay tuned to figure it out. And so whether writing content or speaking, thinking about how to incorporate this uncertainty, so it’s not clear exactly how things are going to end can make people more likely to stay tuned and do a better job of captivating an audience.


Clint Murphy  15:54

So when you speak of it that way, is it similar to this concept we talk about when writing, let’s say Twitter threads, in that we want to create open loops that have people saying, oh, like, I really want to close that loop. So I’m going to keep reading. And then you throw in through the piece, you throw in more and more open loops, to get them going deeper and deeper into the story. And you may close some of them as you go. But you don’t necessarily close all of them, you might even leave some of them open at the end.


Jonah Berger  16:30

Yeah. So you know,   would call this a curiosity gap, right, opening up a gap in people’s knowledge where, where they know something, but they don’t know everything. And, you know, think about watching a great mystery or reading great mystery novel, right? If in chapter one, there’s like, this is who did it, you know, this is what happened. Here’s everything, you know, here, the main details, but keep reading and say, well, I don’t need to keep reading. I know the main ideas. And so same thing I think about when we’re when writing online content, right? Yes, we want that first post to get people’s attention, right, we want it to stop them from scrolling and go huh, I want to learn about a little bit more about this. But if we give everything away, in that first post as you nicely said sort of opening these loops. If we close all the loops in the first one, what’s going to keep people reading the rest. And so thinking about designing content, based on our goal, if our goal is just to get them to read the first one and nothing else, well, then we can close all the loops right away. But if the goal is to get them to keep reading through the rest of the content, then opening up rather than just closing loops can make that more likely.


Clint Murphy  17:28

And that’s why I will often and I love that you said stop the scroll in helping people learn how to grow on Twitter, that’s when writing threads, it’s the number one piece of advice we give for their hook is your sole goal. Stop the scroll. Yeah, you have to use words that are magic enough that you stop the scroll, and then you have to keep that attention. And you know, some people will just do it by saying, here’s 13 reasons. And number seven will blow your mind. But that, you know, that’s a little bit of a cheap hack. I loved how you talked about the curiosity gap. And one of the things that that jumped out at me as I was reading was the idea that curiosity seems to be something that we lose as we age. And one of the things that we stopped doing because we’re less curious is we stop asking questions. When people think of their own children or other people’s children, they ask questions non stop, and we horribly somehow cause them to lose that, probably sometimes by getting a little upset at the amount of questions they ask. But when you think of those questions, how can we use questions to increase our impact and likeability? And why is it so important that we target questions that demonstrate caring and interest when we’re asking them Jonah?


Jonah Berger  19:02

Yeah, so lots of great things in that question. So let me try to break it into a couple pieces and do my best to answer at least a few of them before we wrap up. So I think the first thing I completely agree that we tend to lose curiosity over time, and someone very nicely, provided a solution to this, I thought was quite interesting. And they talk about how basically, they try to, whether it’s paintings or whatever wall hangings posters they have in their house, they talk about how they try to remove them around every six months to a year or so. And I was like, Oh, interesting. Why do you do that? And they said, what basically when something’s in the same place all the time you stopped seeing, right? You’re so used to seeing it in the same place that you stopped really looking at it anymore, because it becomes so familiar. But when you move it to a different place in the house, suddenly now you start to see it differently again, you start to pay attention to different details. It evokes that curiosity in a different way. And I think that’s a really nice analogy, right? In some sense, for Kids, everything is new. Right and so you have lots of questions, you’re curious. For adults, it’s easy to feel like you’ve seen something before. It’s easy to feel like it’s the same thing you’ve seen on your wall for six months, even if it isn’t. And so moving things around or treating things like new can be a great way to reignite that curiosity. But to spend just a couple minutes on questions before we wrap up, you know, questions are so powerful. I talked about questions a bit in my last book, the Catalyst and the more I learn about questions, the more I see how powerful they can be, you know, I’ll give you just one example here. So some researchers looked at asking for advice. And I think often, you know, when we’re faced with a tough problem, when we don’t know what to do, we think about asking someone for advice, we might have someone in mind who we think knows a lot about the space. But we’re usually wary of asking why well, we might worry that she’s busy. Or we might worry that she won’t know the answer. Or even worse, we’re worried that that person will think less of us, right, that they’re think well, we’re less competent or less smart, because we ask them for advice. It’ll signal that we don’t know what we’re doing. And so we don’t want to do it. Right. Think about the office asking your boss for advice on something, they might be really helpful for you. But you might not want to do it because you’re worried they’ll think less of you or not give you that promotion. And so some research looked into this, they had people have a variety of different types of interactions with different types of people. In some cases, people asked for advice and others they didn’t. And they looked at how those people were perceived. And they found something really interesting. So first, it wasn’t that asking for advice made you be perceived more negative. If people who ask for advice weren’t seen as less smart or less competent, or anything like that, in fact, just the opposite. People who ask for advice were seen as smarter and more competent. So why does asking for advice make you seem smarter and more competent rather than less? And it comes down to something really interesting, which is basically people are egocentric. Everybody likes feeling like they give great advice, right? We all think that our advice is pretty good. And so when someone comes along and asks us for our advice, we go, Wow, you must be really sharp because of all the people, you could have asked for advice you asked me. And since I think my advice is pretty good, I’m gonna think you’re pretty smart for asking me rather than someone else. And so not only does asking advice allow us to collect information and gain insight into a variety of other valuable things. But it can even lead people to perceive us more positively. And so sure, we need to know the right questions to ask and the right time to ask the questions and all those sorts of things. But in general questions can be really powerful way to shape how we will proceed to shape the course of a conversation or to shape what people pay attention.


Clint Murphy  22:36

when you said right there, we need to know the right questions at the right time. What are one or two things you want people thinking about that tie into that?


Jonah Berger  22:45

Yeah, I mean, first of all, there are a number of types of questions you can ask, right? So if I’m in the classroom, and I want to encourage students to ask questions, I can say, does anyone have any questions? Or I can say, what questions do you have? Right, the first kind of assumes that most people aren’t going to have questions. The second one assumes that everyone’s going to have questions, and I’m just trying to ferret them out. And so being aware of the assumptions within our questions, right, if I’m looking at a used car, and I say there aren’t any problems are there, that assumes there aren’t any problems. If I say, tell me what the problems are, right? Or if I’m a doctor, rather than saying you don’t smoke, do you?  Saying instead, do you smoke? Getting rid of those assumptions or making the assumptions the right way rather than wrong ways can make sure we get the right information. Similarly, when we’re trying to connect with others, right? Think about laddering the type of questions that we ask. If we want to get to deeper, more important things, we can’t start the conversation with them. The same time if we always stay with sort of more surface level questions, how is your day you know, those sort of things, which are good conversation starters. But if we end there, we never get to the deep stuff that builds social connection. So by starting safe, and then building laddering, more complex, sort of revelatory questions on top, we can get to those more, more deeper and connecting topics.


Clint Murphy  24:01

I love it. And Jonah, we’ve covered two of them in depth. If there’s anything that you want a listener who’s going to pick up your book to think about what’s something we haven’t covered in our chat that you want to make sure they take away and say, I need to pick up Magic Words.


Jonah Berger  24:22

You know, it’s great if you want to go pick up Magic Words, but I think even more importantly, whether you pick up the book or not recognizing the power of language, right, you know, we use it all the time. And it’s a big opportunity.   know, we’re not all speakers, right? We may not get up on a stage in front of millions of people, but we do speak often. We speak at meetings, we speak on phone calls. We’re also all writers, right? Sure. We don’t write books or newspaper articles, but we do write emails, we write pitches, we write PowerPoint decks, we are writing and speaking all the time and we all know people, they go oh, so and so’s a great writer so and so is a great speaker and we kind of assume they’re born with it, but it turns out these things aren’t things that are people are born with. These are things that are made. If we understand the science of magic words, if we understand the power of language of understand how to use it more effectively, we can increase our impact in every area of our lives.


Clint Murphy  25:13

Excellent. On that note, thank you. I know you have a busy schedule. So we’ll wrap up there, and it’s a great way to end it. Appreciate your time. Joanna,


Jonah Berger  25:22

thanks so much for having me.

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