March 2023 | 

Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way

Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way

What if:

  • Rather than asking for “help,” you asked someone to be a “helper”
  • The next time you were trying to persuade someone, you asked for advice
  • The next time you were stuck on a tough problem, you thought about what you “could” do, rather than what you “should” do

It turns out simple changes like these increase our influence, lead us to be perceived more favorably, and help us reach better solutions, according to a new book by Wharton professor Jonah Berger.

Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way (HarperBusiness) explains how using the right words at the right time can deepen your influence, improve how others comprehend what you have to say, and make it more likely that they will do what you want. “Everything we do involves language,” says Berger. “But while we spend a lot of time thinking about the general idea of what we want to say, we think a lot less about the individual words that we use. That's a mistake, because those words are really powerful.”

Berger’s research and insights are based on advances in the latest science of language, including natural language processing and automated textual analysis. “We now have emails, resumes, transcriptions of customer service calls, and tens of thousands of other pieces of online content that colleagues and I have analyzed,” he says. “We can mine all this rich language data for insight. We can figure out what language increases customer satisfaction, what language captivates audiences, and what language we should use on a sales call or in a sales pitch. We've learned a lot about how we can use language to increase our impact. That is what the book is all about.”

In his previous best-selling books Contagious and Invisible Influence, Berger explored strategies for communicating with others and how we respond to what others are doing. Magic Words delves into “the micro level transmission by which this occurs,” he explains. “What someone says may influence others, but how they say it has a big effect.” Specifically, the book covers six types of magic words, or how to S.P.E.A.C.C. for impact: words that convey (1) Similarity, (2) Pose questions, evoke (3) Emotion, activate (4) Agency and identity, convey (5) Confidence, and leverage (6) Concreteness.

The first chapter offers actionable advice for increasing our impact in a range of domains. When trying to solve a tough problem, for example, exploring what they “could” do, instead of what they “should” do, allowed researchers’ subjects to come up with higher quality ideas that were three times more creative than the ideas produced by subjects asked what they “should” come up with. Berger says using the word “could,” even when you are talking to yourself, encourages you “to bring a different mindset to the problem. To take a step back, get some distance from the situation, and think more broadly. To consider multiple objectives, alternatives, and outcomes. To recognize that there might be other possibilities.”

What if a solution to that tough problem still eludes you? Berger says we tend to avoid another effective approach for fear it will make us seem less capable: asking for advice. That’s a mistake. A study he recounts found that asking for advice actually made people think the asker was more competent, not less. “The reason why has everything to do with how asking someone for advice makes them feel. People like feeling that other people think they’re intelligent or have valuable things to say. So, asking for advice can make us look smart because it strokes the advice giver’s ego. Rather than thinking we’re not capable or are stupid for asking, advice givers draw a very different conclusion: ‘Of course my opinions are valuable, so this person is smart for asking for them.’” Berger adds that although the strategy works because it flatters, it’s less overt and more effective than simply telling someone how smart they are. “Not only does asking for advice gather valuable insights, it also makes the asker seem more competent. It makes advice givers feel smarter and more self-confident, which makes them see askers more positively as well.”

While the effects Berger describes may seem magical and even counter-intuitive, they work by leveraging the science of language, and anyone can harness their power. Whether you are a manager leading a change initiative, a parent trying to get your child to put her toys away, or a partner seeking a deeper connection with your significant other, Magic Words offers specific findings you can put to use immediately to become a more effective, persuasive communicator.