Word power – What we say really does matter

Horsepower drives our engines; word power drives our minds.

More evidence from social psychologist Robert Cialdini’s invaluable book Pre-Suasion that the words we use have power to shape other people’s thoughts and actions. We can use that power, as the saying goes, for good or for evil and I hope my readers always choose the former.

Early in the book, Cialdini describes research that discovered a woman will more likely give her phone number to a stranger on the street if a different person approaches her first to ask directions. When the direction-seeker asked to find “Valentine Street,” it seeded the idea of romance in the woman’s mind. The “Valentine Street” women proved much more likely to give out their phone numbers than women asked directions to another street.

I’m used to writing persuasively; that’s my job. But Cialidini shows us that persuasion doesn’t require an entire paragraph. Not even a whole sentence. We can begin the process of persuasion—subliminal persuasion—with just one word.

Word power & electricity

Skeptical? Cialdini was too. So much so that when he encountered a client who asked him not to talk about “bullet points” or “attacking” problems in a speech he was preparing, he thought the client supremely silly.

But the client explained:

“As a health care organization, we’re devoted to acts of healing, so we never use language associated with violence. We don’t have bullet points; we have information points. We don’t attack a problem, we approach it.”

Cialdini complied with the request to modify his language. And then he took a deeper dive into the research.

One study he found asked participants to unscramble words to make simple sentences. One group’s sentences were geared toward helping: “Fix the door.” Another group’s revolved around aggression: “He hit them.” Later, each participant was asked to deliver electric shocks—whose intensity they controlled—to a fellow study subject. Cialdini reports:

“The results are alarming: prior exposure to the violence-linked words led to a 48 percent jump in selected shock intensity.”

How powerful are words? Ask the guy on the receiving end of those shocks.

Speak responsibly

We can’t stop using words, but we can stop using words that inflame the audience—consciously or subconsciously. The words we use can unite or divide. They can foster respect or destroy it. Be aware of what you say, what you write. Use your power for good.

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