Written by our Founder and CEO, our Celebrations Pulse letters aim to engage with our community. By welcoming your ideas and sharing your stories, we want to help you strengthen your relationships with the most important people in your life.
Words play a critical role in nearly every aspect of our lives. Whether we’re writing an email, talking on the phone, attending a work meeting, or chatting with family or friends, words are the building blocks of how we influence, convey messages, and – most importantly – build relationships.
The way we construct words and phrases can make the difference between empty and meaningful conversations. But most of our choices are made in the flash of a second and usually with very little thought.
I recently chatted with someone who thinks a lot about words. Dr. Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Magic Words, studies the impact of certain words and their ability to boost or detract from our ability to persuade others, think creatively, and build stronger relationships.
I’ve written many times about how we all have the power to spread happiness and joy by connecting with people in ways big and small. In the conversation with Jonah, I learned how a few small adjustments to language can make a huge difference, effectively turning our power into a superpower.
The secret to more effective communication often doesn’t require learning a new set of words. Sometimes, switching a few letters will do the trick. Jonah pointed to a study from Stanford University to illustrate this point.
Researchers split a class of preschoolers into two groups: One was asked to help clean up their playroom; the other was asked to be a helper. The group who were asked to be helpers were far more likely to pick up their crayons than those who were just asked to help.
The effect also applies to adults. Jonah called out other research that showed people who were asked to be a voter were 15% more likely to participate in an election than those who were just asked “to vote.”
What’s going on here? The subtle shift in letters turns a desired action into a desirable identity. People aspire to be helpers, voters, leaders, listeners, and more, and that aspiration overpowers any reluctance to help, to vote, to lead, to listen, etc.
Small changes make a difference
The conversation around subtle language changes reminded me of something we did years ago at 1-800-Flowers.com. Customers used to call our service center to check on a flower delivery, and our representatives would say, “I’ll check on that and call you right back.”
We realized that we weren’t managing our customer’s expectations properly. The customer would hang up the phone, and more than likely, sit there and wait because they were told we’d get right back to them. We knew this wasn’t right.
So, we changed a few words and started telling customers we’d get back to them within an hour. With that updated response, customers knew they had 60 minutes and could go on about their day. Not only did we free customers from waiting by their phone, but if we got back to them in less than an hour, we exceeded their expectations. Customer satisfaction soared.
Questions are another powerful tool in our language arsenal. Often, we’re reluctant to ask questions out of fear of sounding unprepared or stupid. Jonah says the opposite is true. Questions not only can make us look smart but also help people feel valued. He says:
Asking questions allows us to collect information. Too often as leaders or simple communicators, we don’t know enough about the audience, or person, whose mind we’re trying to influence. Questions allow us to collect information that increases our knowledge, and asking questions gives the other party an opportunity to participate in conversations by sharing their knowledge.
The questions we ask others can also be ones we ask ourselves, particularly when we are stymied by a tough problem. We often ask ourselves, “What should I do in this situation?” Instead, by making a very subtle shift we should ask, “What could I do in this situation?” That shift encourages us to think more broadly, and more creatively, and allows us to explore more possibilities and come up with a better solution.
In addition to asking questions, Jonah suggests inserting emotion into conversations to better connect. We should not treat personal conversations like social media feeds, where we highlight snippets about our lives and provide a checklist of our successes.
Interacting with others who share both positive and negative information, makes us like and relate to them more intimately, since it’s more inline with our own lives that are not all about success.
Being more emotive also means showing a bit of vulnerability, such as a recent setback or challenge. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, Jonah says:
Asking for advice makes us seem more competent and more skilled because everyone likes to think they give good advice. When we ask someone for their advice, the person can regard us as being a smart person, because of all the people we could have asked for advice, we asked them. They come away impressed that we sought their advice.
By exposing yourself and your emotions in a conversation, you’re making an investment in a relationship, which will pay off when the other person opens up to you.
Most people do not think of themselves as public speakers and storytellers, but, if you think about it, all of us are exactly that. It starts when we utter our first words and continues throughout our lives. The challenge for everyone is figuring out a way to improve.
When I was in college studying to be a policeman, I had a reputation for being shy and introverted. I knew I had to do something to break out of my shell so I took a job as a bartender, which put me at the center of conversations, oftentimes initiating them.
Every night was a lesson in how to become a better listener and communicator. Yes, I was uncomfortable at first, but eventually I got better at carrying conversations and making connections. Those little investments not only helped me break out of my shell but also helped set the stage for new career ambitions – and a life of never-ending education.
All the best,