844: The Six Words that Dramatically Increase Your Impact with Jonah Berger

By March 2, 2023Podcasts



Jonah Berger says: "By understanding magic words and their power, we can increase our impact in every aspect of life."

Jonah Berger reveals how to massively increase your persuasiveness through simple shifts in your language.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The simple two letter shift that makes you more persuasive.
  2. The easiest way to look–and become–smarter.
  3. A tiny speech habit that’s undermining your impact.

About Jonah

Jonah Berger is a Wharton Professor, internationally bestselling author, and world‐renowned expert on change, word of mouth, influence, natural language processing, and how products, services, and ideas catch on. He has published over 70 articles in top-tier academic journals, teaches one of the world’s most popular online courses, and accounts of his work often appear in places like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Harvard Business Review. Millions of his books, Contagious, The Catalyst, Invisible Influence, and most recently Magic Words, are in print in over 35 countries around the world.

Berger has keynoted hundreds of major conferences and events like SXSW and Cannes Lions, advises various early‐stage companies, and consults for organizations like Apple, Google, Nike, Amazon, GE, Moderna, and The Gates Foundation.

Resources Mentioned

Jonah Berger Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jonah, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Jonah Berger
Thanks so much for having me back. I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I had so much fun chatting with you last time, and I know you’re going to have a boatload of wisdom reading through your latest book Magic Words. I’m just going to dig right in because I think you have too much great stuff in the time we have. So, could you start us off with perhaps one of the most particularly striking, surprising, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made while putting together this work?

Jonah Berger
I think the most surprising thing to me is the bigger question, which is that everything we do involves language. And I put in almost in there because there are things we do, like breathing, that don’t involve language but almost everything we do involves language. We write emails, we build PowerPoint presentations, we make phone calls, we make presentations, we talk to either through face to face or through digital means, everyone in our lives, words are how we convince others, they’re how we connect with loved ones, they’re how we hold audiences’ attention.

We spend almost every waking moment of the day using language in one way or another. Even our own private thoughts rely on language. And yet while we spend a lot of time using language, and sometimes we think about what we want to communicate, “So, I’m making a presentation today. Okay, my goal is to get people to support this initiative, and so I’m going to talk about it in a way that will get them to support it.”

We think a lot less about the way we use those words, and that’s a mistake because subtle shifts in the language we use can have a huge effect on our impact. Certain words can increase persuasion by 50%, certain language patterns are much better at holding an audience’s attention, and the words we use can even impact social connection with the ones we love.

And so, the big idea behind Magic Words is kind of we can use language better, whether at home, or at work, whether convincing clients, holding attention. By understanding how language works and how we can use it, and understanding the power of magic words, we can increase our impact in every aspect of our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jonah, that’s so much good stuff. Could you give us an example of a subtle-shift or two in language that has a huge impact?

Jonah Berger
Yeah, let me give you a really simple one. So, often, when we’re trying to get people to do something, whether at home or at work, we often use verbs. And what do I mean by that? Well, we say, “Hey, can you help me out?” We use the verb ‘to help’ to ask for help. Similarly, if we’re a nonprofit and we’re having a get-out-the-vote campaign, we might send mail to people’s houses, saying, “Please go vote.” Vote is an action that we’re hoping that people will take.

But it turns out that a subtle shift, even a couple of letters in those type of appeals can greatly increase the likelihood that people do what we want them to do. So, let’s take something as simple as helping. A number of years ago, some scientists at Stanford University did a study at a local elementary school where they made a mess in a classroom and they asked students for help cleaning up that mess.

And for some students, they used the typical approach, they said, “Hey, can you help clean up?” as we often do. But for another set of students, they changed their question very slightly, they said, “Hey, can you be a helper and clean up?” Now, helper, I don’t have to tell you, it’s very similar to help. It’s just adding the word E-R at the end, but that subtle shift led to a 38% increase in the portion of children that helped.

And it’s not just kids in classrooms, it happens with adults in a variety of different domains. So, in another study, when individuals are trying to get folks to vote, they changed the pitch they used in the mailers to people’s houses. Some people got the traditional pitch, “Hey, please go vote,” others were asked, “Would you be a voter and go vote?”

Now, again, voter and vote are even closer, they’re just adding an R to the end of it, but there, asking people to voter, to be a voter, increased the percentage of people that turned out to vote by over 15%. And you might be sitting there going, “Well, okay, help, helper, vote, voter, what’s the difference?” And the key insight here is that by turning actions – voting, helping – into identities, being a voter, being a helper, can make people more likely to take those actions. And the reason why is the difference between things like identities versus action.

So, imagine I told you about two people, I say, “Hey, I have two friends. One of them runs and the other one is a runner.” If I told you about those two people, which one would you guess runs more often, the person who runs or the person who is a runner?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, the identity is a runner, it sounds like they run more. And even when I did, you reminded me, when I did my first triathletes, I didn’t even think – triathlons – I didn’t consider myself a triathlete yet, I was like, “Well, I mean, I walked the last half of the run portion, so am I really a triathlete?”

Jonah Berger
“I did a triathlon but am I triathlete?” Notice the difference. And so, what you’re pointing out is that these identities, they seem bigger and more long-lasting, “Someone who runs, yeah, once in a while they go for a run. Someone who’s a runner, well, that’s a part of who they are. That’s an identity.” And so, we all want to hold desirable identities, we all want to see ourselves as smart, and athletic, and knowledgeable, and helpful in a variety of different things.

And so, actions, like voting or helping, yeah, those are good things, I want to do those things, but if those actions are an opportunity to claim a desired identity to be a voter, to see myself as a voter, to see myself as a helper, well, now I’m much more likely to do those things because the identity is more desirable than the action.

So, if we want to motivate people to do something, frame actions as identities. If we want to get people to do one of these things, frame them in that way. The same thing goes with the negative side. Losing is bad, being a loser is even worse. Cheating is bad, being a cheater is even worse. And so, research shows in a classroom context, for example, you want to get students not to cheat, don’t ask them not to cheat, say, “Don’t be a cheater.” It greatly decreased the percentage of people that cheated.

And so, I think this has implications not only for kind of motivating others or getting them to do what we want, but also even how we describe ourselves or others. So, on a resume, for example, we could say we’re hardworking or a hard worker. We could describe a colleague as being innovative or being an innovator. Just like with running and runner, it’s going to seem more like a stable trait, like it’s who you are if it’s described as an identity rather than an action.

So, again, a subtle shift in language, just a couple of letters, can increase our impact in a variety of ways.

Pete Mockaitis
That is so good, so good. And, well, one, it sounds a lot easier than when I try to do with my kids to tell them I have a mission for the super cleanup team, which kind of works. I’m going to try…

Jonah Berger
Yeah, but that’s a desirable identity, cleaning up. Cleaning up is not that fun, but being a member of the super cleanup team, well, hold on. If being a member requires that I clean up, maybe I’ll clean up because I want to be a member.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, now I’m thinking about identities, so I guess there’s don’t litter, don’t be a litterbug. They just invented that word. And, likewise, is it Home Goods who had that ad campaign about, like, you’re a thrifter or be a thrifter. And it’s funny, it’s like, “I don’t know if being a thrifter is a desirable thing.” And I guess it depends who your segment is.

Jonah Berger
Exactly right. So, LL Beans has this campaign “Be an outsider.” And “Be an” looks like Bean, but not everybody wants to be an outsider, not everybody wants to be a thrifter. But the type of people that interested, your target segment, probably does. Most people want to be a listener. Being a listener is not a bad thing. And so, being a leader is not a bad thing. So, rather than ask people to listen or lead, ask them to be a leader, ask them to be a listener.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, within the book, we’ve got six such principles, and here we’ve talked a good bit about activating identity. Can you share with us what are the other key principles?

Jonah Berger
Yes. So, let’s step back for a second. So, as you noted, there are six key principles or types of language. I actually gave one example of one type. There are other examples of that type, but just to talk about the types for a second. They actually can be organized in a framework called ‘the SPEACC framework.’ That’s S-P-E-A-C-C. I’m not clever enough to come up with a word that starts with K so I’m stuck with two Cs at the end.

But that stands for the language of similarity, posing questions is our P, E is emotion, A is agency and identity, and the two Cs are confidence and concreteness. And each of these are a type of language that we can use to increase our impact. So, we just talked, for example, some about the language of agency and identity. They are the identity-activating identities but the same is true, more generally, with other types of examples there.

There are some nice work, for instance, that shows that when we’re stuck on a tough problem, rather than thinking about what we should do, think about what we could do makes us more creative, it makes us a better problem-solver. Even if we don’t end up doing one of those things that we came up with that we could do, because sometimes things that we could do aren’t actually good solutions, but by thinking about what we could do rather than what we should do, we think about a broader range of possibilities, and that helps us reach a better outcome overall.

And so, a subtle shift in language there can help make us more creative and a better problem-solver. Or, think about something as simple as the word ‘you.’ Again, only three letters here, ‘you’ it seems like a very small word, but lots of research that I and others have conducted shows that ‘you’ is extremely powerful.

Work I’ve done on social media content, for example, shows that the word ‘you’ increases engagement. If we want people to click on, like our content, engage with it, or open an email, words like ‘you’ in a subject line holds people’s attention, acts like a stop sign, suggests something as relevant for them, and encourages them to pay attention.

At the same time, ‘you’ can also be damaging if it’s used in the wrong ways and the wrong context. Often, if you look at customer support pages, for example, pages that use the word ‘you’ more often, people find them less helpful. If someone says, “To fix your computer, you need to reboot and do this,” someone might be sitting there, going, “Well, I need to do all this work, why is it my fault?” ‘You’ can suggest blame in a negative way.

And so, ‘you’ isn’t just a word. It’s a word that can do a lot of work and we can use it to increase our impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, that’s powerful stuff. And I’m thinking, when I see social media posts or news items in the headline which says something like, I don’t know, “The War in Ukraine: What You Need to Know,” I resent it because, I’m like, “You don’t know who I am, publication. Thank you very much. Like, you have not researched me. You have not segmented me. Everybody has different sets of needs, values, preferences, wishes with regard to this news article, so that’s pretty freaking presumptuous of you to say this is what I need to know. Thank you very much.”

Jonah Berger
Well, yeah, good. So, what you’re talking about is how ‘you’ can evoke reactance. So, we find in online reviews or in word-of-mouth, if someone says, “I like this,” we’re like, “Okay, you like it.” If someone says, “You’ll like this,” we say, “Well, how do you know I’ll like it?”

And so, yes, if someone knows you, or if the content is relevant to you, then you can sort of act as an intensifier, might make it even better. If I like playing basketball, “Six tips you can use to be a better basketball player,” well, suddenly, I’m even more interested. Whereas, if it’s like, “Six tips you can use to be a better water polo player,” which is not relevant to me, I might have that reactance.

And so, again, I’m not suggesting that ‘you’ is great in all situations, but it’s a powerful word that we can use with great impact if we understand it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’d love to dig into a few of the additional principles here. How about asking the right questions?

Jonah Berger
Yeah. I love the area of questions. I think it’s fascinating. And I’ve talked about questions a little bit, I talked about questions a little bit in my last book The Catalyst, and the more I’ve learned about the power of asking questions, and the more research has come out about questions, you really realize they’re useful in so many different ways.

I think many of us think that questions are a tool to collect information, and they are. Questions do help us collect information, but they really do a lot more than just help us collect information. So, one area that I think we’re mistaken about the use of questions is asking for advice. And so, often when we’re dealing with a tough problem that we can’t solve, or a difficult situation, we try many things. We often don’t ask people for advice.

And why? Well, we assume they’re busy, they won’t know the answer, or, even worse, they’ll think less of us. So, in a work context, “Am I really going to ask my boss for their advice on something? Maybe they’ll think ‘Why don’t you figure it out yourself? Why don’t you know that already?’ It makes it seem like I don’t know something.”

And so, some research looked into whether asking for advice was a bad idea, and so they ran a number of experiments in which people asked for advice versus didn’t, and they looked at the outcomes. And they found something really interesting, which is we all think that asking for advice is going to hurt us, it’s going to make people think we’re less intelligent and less competent, and all those things. That’s not what happens. In fact, the exact opposite happens.

Asking for advice makes us look smarter and more competent, and has a variety of benefits for how we’re perceived. And the reason why is really simple. People are self-centered. People think that they give great advice. We all think our advice is good. And so, when someone comes along and asks us for advice, we go, “Wow, they’re a pretty smart person, they knew to ask me for advice, they must be smart themselves.”

And so, asking for advice makes us seem better not worse, more competent not less competent. And that’s just one example, but it’s not just about asking questions, about the type of questions we ask. Certain questions are better than others, and there are certain situations where types of questions can be more effective than others as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, lay it on us.

Jonah Berger
Sure, yeah. So, let’s talk about what types of questions to ask. And often, when we ask questions, we ask questions to be polite. So, I can’t remember back to the beginning of this call but you probably said something, like, “Hey, how are you?” And I probably said something like, “How are you?” And we both asked a question. “How are you?” is a question, but that isn’t actually a question that has a big impact. It is a question but it’s more being polite. It shows that we’re a polite person but it doesn’t have as big of an impact.

Researchers looked at hundreds of social interactions, everything from speed dating and workplace interactions, and they found a particular type of question was very useful. It made people like the others they interact with more, and, in a dating context, even made them want to go on a second date. And that type of questions was what are called follow-up questions.

And so, a follow-up question goes something along the lines of this, if someone says, “Oh, yeah, I really enjoyed that presentation,” we could say, “Yeah, I did too.” Or we could say something like, “Oh, neat. What did you like about it?” If someone says they’ve had a tough day, we could say, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Or, we could say, “Oh, what made it so difficult? Tell me more. I want to understand more about what happened.”

Questions that follow up on what someone said show a few things. First of all, it shows that we paid attention. You can’t ask a follow-up question if you didn’t pay attention to what someone said. But, second of all, it shows that you care. You care not only enough to pay attention, but you care enough to ask for more. It shows that we’re responsive, and because we’re responsive, it makes people like us more.

And so, it’s not just about asking any question, sure, we can ask questions to be polite, and that’s fine, but the more we’re asking questions to be responsive, to show that we care, the more they’re going to lead people to like us more.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I dig it. Well, now could we hear a little bit about conveying confidence? And you say – I love your table of contents – “Why Donald Trump is so persuasive no matter what you think of him?” Lay it on us, Jonah.

Jonah Berger
I’ve enjoyed writing popular press books because it’s a little bit like that old Michael Jordan quote, like everybody buys sneakers. Like, you’re entitled to your own viewpoint, but unless you want half the world to hate you, you probably shouldn’t get too deep into politics.

And so, I want to frame this discussion by saying whoever you support, whatever you believe in is great, but, yeah, whether you like someone or not, Donald Trump, in particular, you can’t deny that he is amazingly good at selling ideas. Whether you like him or you hate him, he’s done a fantastic job of making a large set of people believe what he has to say.

And so, if you like Donald Trump, you’re probably saying, “Great. It’s wonderful.” If you hate Donald Trump, you’re saying, “Oh, God, why is he like that?” But I think a smarter strategy is to step back and say, “Well, what makes him so effective?” It’s easy to complain about him. What makes him so effective? Why is he so persuasive or convincing? What does he do that makes him so impactful?

One of the speeches he made when he first announced his candidacy, he said something like, “I’m going to build a great wall. Nobody builds walls better than me. I’ll build them very inexpensively. Our country is in trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have them. We don’t have them anymore. When was the last time anybody saw us beating China in a trade deal? I beat China all the time. All the time.”

Now, critics listened to that speech, and said, “Oh, God, this is ridiculous. It’s overly simplistic. It’s empty. It’s filled with bluster.” And, yet, less than a year later, he was elected president. So, what did he do? What does he do in his speeches that make him so impactful? And it’s not just him. So, if you look at folks like Steve Jobs, if you look at startup founders, they get a lot of attention.

If you look at leaders that everybody listens to. If you listen to so-called gurus, they often do one particular thing, which is they speak with a great deal of certainty. When they talk, other people listen because they seem like what they’re saying is obviously true.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “We’re going to win so much, we’re going to get tired of winning.”

Jonah Berger
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s as certain as you can get.

Jonah Berger
“I don’t know what that means, but I like it, right?” Who doesn’t like winning? Who wouldn’t like winning more? And if you dig a little deeper, you might say, “Well, what does ‘winning’ mean? How are we going to get there?” But, forgetting that for a second, because that’s what most of us are doing when we’re listening to something, if someone says something we like is going to happen a lot, we go, “Great.” That’s what we’re paying attention to.

And so, Trump is just one example of someone who speaks with a great deal of certainty. And you alluded to this a little bit yourself. Something isn’t just true, it’s certainly true. It’s definitely going to occur. It’s obvious. It’s unquestionable. Every time, this is clearly what’s going to happen. It’s guaranteed. It’s unambiguous. He uses a lot of language that is really certain.

And in a variety of contexts, research shows that certainty is good. Work on financial advisors, for example, shows that people prefer more certain financial advisors, even though those financial advisors that are certain aren’t any more accurate. Even in some cases where they’re making more extreme judgments, people like them more and want to choose them more because they seem so certain. If someone seems really certain, it’s hard to not want to go along because they seem so confident about what they’re saying.

Contrast that, though, with the way most of us communicate. So, I’m an academic and I’m terrible with this. I do this all the time. I often say, “Well, I think this…” or, “It seems like this will happen,” or, “Maybe this is true,” or, “This might work,” or, “Probably this will happen.” As a consultant, as a speaker, we default to those tics all the time. Those are called hedges.

What hedges do is they make it clear that we’re not so sure, like they hedge. They don’t say, “This is definitely true.” They say, “This might be true.” “Is it going to rain tomorrow?” “It’s definitely going to rain tomorrow.” “It might rain tomorrow.” “Is this a good strategy?” “It’s certainly a great strategy.” “It might be,” or, “It’s probably a good strategy.”

The problem, though, and I’m not saying that hedging is never good because sometimes things are uncertain, but the problem is that hedges reduce our impact. They undermine our impact because, while not only do they share our opinion, they simultaneously say we are not sure about our own opinion. And if we’re not sure, it makes people think we’re less certain or less confident, which makes them less likely to listen to us.

And so, if our goal is to communicate uncertainty, great. Maybe there are times for hedging. I’m not saying we all need to be like Donald Trump. There are certainly times for hedging, but if we want people to listen to us, or we want people to be persuaded, we need to ditch the hedges. Unless we’re using them strategically, unless we’re using them on purpose, don’t just say it because it’s convenient. Don’t just say it because it’s a verbal tic when we’re filling in space. And, second, when we do need to hedge, there are some types of hedges that are more persuasive than others.

So, contrast, for example, if I said, “This seems like a good strategy,” versus I said, “This seems, to me, like this is a good strategy.” If I said, “This might work” versus “I think that this might work.” In some cases, I’m saying something is generally uncertain, “It seems” or “It might work.” In another, I’m adding my personal perspective. And we can call these general and personal hedges.

Personal hedges are saying, “I’m adding a personal pronoun, I, me, my, to whatever I’m saying.” And it turns out that adding these personal pronouns in actually makes us more persuasive because it makes us seem more confident. If I want to show there are some uncertainties, and rather than saying, “It seems like this will work,” “It seems, to me, like this will work,” the listener goes, “Okay, well, you’re a little bit uncertain, but you’re willing to say that it seems, to you, to attach it to yourself, and so because of that, you seem more confident and I’m more likely to do what you suggested.”

And so, if we have to hedge, let’s hedge in a way that doesn’t undermine our impact or what we’re trying to get across.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, Jonah, you got me thinking, like you could totally say, “That is definitely a major risk,” and you haven’t said it’s certainly going to happen. You said it’s a risk. Risks, by definition, have a probability. Or, “That absolutely could be a huge opportunity for us. It could be an opportunity. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” but you can throw those adverbs and that intonation of certainty on something even when there’s uncertainty.

Jonah Berger
It’s definitely one of the paths we should pursue.

Pete Mockaitis

Jonah Berger
Rather than saying, “It’s not clear what path we should pursue,” saying, “It’s definitely one of the paths,” or, “I’m very certain about a narrow…” And so, what you did right there, and this is probably what you’re trying to do, but you did it very nicely, is you shrank the world but you added certainty. We’re always certain about something, there’s always something there we’re certain, but we may not be certain about the big picture, we may not be sure that a particular strategy is going to work, but we may be very certain about a part of that strategy. We may be certain that this strategy is worth considering.

And so, there are ways to add certainty in a way that doesn’t make it seem like the entire world is obviously clear. And so, I think, again, in times where we want to be clear that there is uncertainty, and there are two sides, and we need to be careful and all those things, and, yes, use hedges. I’m not saying not to. But in times where we want to be persuasive, let’s be careful about hedging just because it’s convenient.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. Now, can we hear a bit about leveraging concreteness?

Jonah Berger
Yes. So, to talk about this, I’ll share a story of mine, which there are a couple personal stories in this book, and this one is one that really helped interest me in a range of the topics in this book. So, a few years ago, I was coming back from a consulting project, I think it was in Dallas or something in the area, and I was in an Uber on the way to an airport to fly back home. I was very excited to go see my family, and I got the text message that every traveler dreads, which is “Your flight has been delayed.”

And as often the case, they had rebooked me on something, and it was the next day, it was a connecting flight, it was, like, 36 hours later, it was a terrible, terrible option. So, I call customer service and tried to improve the situation. And after sort of talking back and forth with them for 10 or even 12 minutes, the situation was not much better, and I was frustrated.

So, I get off the phone, and the very nice Uber driver had been forced to listen to what I had to say, said, “Oh, it sounds like you’re really frustrated,” and I was like, “Yeah, but it’s got to be tough being a customer service representative, like you do is hear from people like me all day who are frustrated and want to get home and are stuck and are sort of annoyed, and it must be a difficult job.” And he goes, “Yeah, but my daughter is actually a customer service representative, and she loves it.” And I go, “What do you mean?”

And he was like, “Well, she loves the job and she’s so good at it that, actually, they’ve now gotten her to train other people to talk to customers.” And I sat there, going, one, “That’s really interesting,” and, two, “What is she doing that makes her so effective?” Just like Donald Trump, like we can sit there, going, “I like him,” or, “I hate him,” or we can sit there, going, “Something he’s doing is working. What is it?”

And so, with a great colleague, Grant Packard, of mine, great, great friend and colleague, we went and got hundreds of customer service calls and analyzed the language of those calls to look at what increases customer satisfaction. And we also have data on whether people purchase again from the firm. So, are they happy once they get off that call? And does that call lead people to come back and buy things from the firm in the future?

And, obviously, problem-solving matters. So, yes, it matters whether they get me on a better flight, whether they find my bags, whether they solved the problem, but we looked at controlling for that. Does the language, can the language you use shape customer satisfaction? And I think there’s a key challenge that comes up in customer satisfaction. It comes up in a variety of areas of life. It’s not just customer satisfaction. It’s also when we’re talking to a group or even chatting with a spouse or a friend.

We want to signal that we’re listening. We’ve talked about this a little bit already, but when someone calls customer service, we don’t just want to solve their problem. We want to show them that we care. When somebody at the office talks to us about something, we want to show them that we’re interested in what they have to say. And so, how can we use language to show listening? We can shake our heads, yes, but how can we use language to show listening? How can we use language to show caring?

And it’s good that companies care about us, because when you’re on hold, they often say things like, “Oh, your call is so valuable to us. Thanks for staying on hold.” Twenty-five minutes into you sitting on hold, and you’re sitting there, going, “F you. If my call is valuable to you, you would answer the phone in less than 25 minutes.” So, they want to show they care but they don’t know how to.

We found, though, that a certain type of language shows listening. And that type of language is what we can describe as concrete language. And so, what does concrete mean? Well, if you can touch something, if you can feel it, if you can smell it, if you can see it, it’s concrete. A table is concrete. Trees are concrete. A cup is concrete. A strategy? Not so concrete. Soon, the word soon, not so concrete. The word tomorrow, well, that’s more concrete. I have a sense of when tomorrow is. I don’t know exactly when soon is. Beautiful? That’s a nice word but not very concrete. Striking red color, very concrete. I can see that color in my mind.

And so, we found that using concrete language increases customer satisfaction, makes them more satisfied at the end of the call, makes them more likely to buy more from the firm. Rather than saying something like, “Oh, we’ll get you a refund soon,” “Your money will be there tomorrow” is a much more concrete way of saying the same thing because the challenge often, as a customer service representative, and anyone trying to help someone else out, is we tend to use sort of language that works in all situations, “I can help you with that.” “I’m happy to solve your problem,” whether that problem is a delayed flight, a lost bag, anything at all.

And while that kind of Swiss Army language works in a variety of situations, really good for us, it doesn’t show someone listened. It’s so general that it doesn’t show someone we heard what they said. But concrete language, similar to what we talked about already, shows that you paid attention, that you understood what was said, and that you care enough to do something about it, it shows listening. And so, as a result, it has a variety of benefits, both in customer satisfaction but in other domains as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, Jonah, that’s so good. And I’m thinking about my own customer service experiences as the customer. I really like that concreteness when they say, “You’re the third person in line on the end. Your wait time is approximately nine minutes.” It’s like, “Okay.” Like, I really understand these expectations. And, contrarily, I get really irritated with these chatbots who act like they can solve any problem but, when push comes to shove, they really can’t, which is why I’m there in the first place.

It’s, like, if this were an easy problem, it would be loaded into the interactive voice response, the IVR systems of the push button or whatever, and I would’ve already solved it via automated portals. So, when I’m talking to a human, it’s thorning, like, we got some nuances about a changed billing/shipping address, and that’s why I need to go down the route of talking to someone. So, it is quite irritating when I get the general language, which isn’t even true, “I could help you with that.” I was like, “Well, we’ll see. We’ll see, chatbot, if you got the right stuff, but I have my doubts.”

Jonah Berger
I certainly agree, and I think everyone would like, when they call customer service, to be heard and to be listened to, to feel like someone cares. And as a customer service agent, you only have so many degrees of freedom. You can’t create a flight that doesn’t exist. But just as someone listens to a colleague at work, or a spouse at home, by using the right language, you can make it clear that you listened, that you heard, and that you care, which can, on the margin, make things better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, Jonah, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about your favorite things?

Jonah Berger
No, I think the only thing I would say, which we sort of started out talking about in the beginning, is we all use language all the time. Language is how we convince clients and customers, language is how we change the minds of bosses and colleagues, language is how we connect with our loved ones at home. By understanding the power of magic words, we can use language in these situations more effectively and in all areas of our life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jonah Berger
I think one quote that I like a lot is from Albert Einstein. I’m going to get it probably a little bit wrong here, but he says something along the lines of, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” And I think it’s really easy to think things are complicated. Many things are complicated but part of the job of a good communicator is figuring out how to meet their audience more than halfway and simplify it. And so, I always found that quote quite motivating even though if I don’t always achieve what it sets out to do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Jonah Berger
One of my favorite books is a book called Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a great book on communicating, and I find myself going back to it again and again over time.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be more awesome at your job?

Jonah Berger
I have started using voice to text more in a variety of areas of my life, whether writing emails, whether writing articles, not just texting on the phone. It’s not always perfect but it does an amazing job of allowing us to sort of dump more thoughts out quickly, which I think is really great. One thing to be careful of, the modality we communicate through, the medium we communicate to, speaking rather than writing does change what we say, and so we need to be a little bit careful. But I think it’s a great productivity tool and a good way to express ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jonah, I got to follow up here. I’ve been disappointed with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. How are you rocking and rolling? Is there a particular piece of software or is it built-in into the MacOS?

Jonah Berger
I’m just using whatever comes with Microsoft. So, whatever comes with Microsoft Word, whatever comes with Outlook, I’m using that. And I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m not expecting perfect. I am amazed that it captures, generally, what I’m saying, and it gives me a place to start and sharpen some thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with you, where would you point them?

Jonah Berger
Oh, yeah. Well, Magic Words is available wherever books are sold, so Amazon, Barnes & Noble, wherever you like to go for books. You can find me at my first name-last name-dot com, so just JonahBerger.com. There’s a bunch about the book there, a bunch of free resources. One page, there’s guides and the like. And you can also find me at @j1berger on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jonah Berger
Yeah, think about how you can use language more effectively. We all have things we want to communicate but we often think less about the specific words we use, and there’s a lot of opportunity there. So, by understanding magic words and their power, we can increase our impact in every aspect of life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jonah, this has been a treat. I wish you much fun and many magical words.

Jonah Berger
Thank you so much.

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