In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Jonah Berger. Jonah is a Wharton School professor and internationally bestselling author of Contagious, Invisible Influence, and The Catalyst. He has a new book we’re going to talk about — Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way.
Words are crucial to almost everything we do, including communicating, persuading, and connecting. In this episode, Jonah Berger joins me to discuss the science of language and how certain words have a more significant impact than others. You’ll learn practical tips on how to use those magic words to make a real difference.
Questions I ask Jonah Berger:
- [01:23] Would you say there’s kind of a theme or a thread that’s run through your work?
- [02:17] Would you go as far as saying that you are advising people to be scientifically intentional about the words they choose when they’re influencing?
- [04:06] What was the research that you did like to compile the six types of words that can increase impact in every area of your life?
- [07:30] At what point does the concept you’re talking about become a negative influence?
- [09:59] What have you noticed in what the example you use in the book, Donald Trump, has done that has actually influenced people, you know, regardless of how you feel about it?
- [16:55] What role does listening play in this universe?
- [19:18] Can you unpack the language of beer?
- [21:18] Where can people connect with you and learn more about your work?
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John Jantsch (00:00): This episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by Outbound Squad, hosted by Jason Bay and brought to you by the HubSpot Podcast Network. The audio destination for business professionals host Jason Bay, dives in with leading sales experts and top performing reps to share actionable tips and strategies to help you land more meetings with your ideal clients. In a recent episode called Quick Hacks to Personalize Your Outreach, he speaks with Ethan Parker about how to personalize your outreach in a more repeatable way. Something every single one of us has to do it. Listen to Outbound Squad, wherever you get your podcasts. Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Jonah Berger. He is a Wharton school professor and internationally known, best-selling author of books like Contagious, invisible Influence, and The Catalyst. And we're gonna talk about his latest book today, magic Words, what to Say To Get Your Way. So welcome back to the show Jonah.
Jonah Berger (01:13): Thanks so much for having me back.
John Jantsch (01:15): So before we get into your current book, w just looking at the, your titles there as I read them off, would you say there's kind of a theme or a thread that's run through your work
Jonah Berger (01:23): There? There is. I would certainly say it relates a lot to influence and think about how influence works, whether it's seeing others through word of mouth, which is what Contagious was all about, influencing others through traditional social influence. We're doing the same thing. We're doing something different and how others motivate us or demotivate us using influence to drive change, which is very much behind the catalyst. But along the way I realized that a lot of what was behind influence was the language we're using, right? When we're sharing word of mouth, we're not only trying to get people to talk about us, we're trying to get them to say certain things. When we're trying to change others, we're not just trying to get them to change. Using broad strategies, certain particular words are quite impactful. And so for the last decade or so, a lot of the work I've been doing is involving natural language processing or insight from textual language data. And so it finally was to the point where I thought it was ready for a book on the topic.
John Jantsch (02:12): So, so would you go as far as saying that you are advising people to be, uh, let's see, scientifically intentional about the words they choose when they're influencing?
Jonah Berger (02:21): You know, I think about language a lot like math, right? You can break down interpersonal interactions into a series of things that are more and less likely to work and to drive action, right? And what's so neat is, you know, the amazing amount of data now that we have out there on language, you know, you and I are having a conversation right now. It may end up being transcribed when we call customer service. It's recorded when we post our opinions online, we leave them in our language, in digital form, we can mine all this data for insight and we can use a rich set of new computational tools to extract that insight. And so we're really living in a time where we can learn a lot about what type of language increases
John Jantsch (02:58): Our impact. Yeah. You know, one thing, we do a lot of work with companies to help develop strategy and I find that a lot of comes out of what their customers are saying about them. Yes. Like here's the value you really provide. So we've just been taking all their reviews, chucking it into ai and it's saying, here's the stuff that people really value about what you do. And I, I think that's, you know, it's pretty scary how fast we could process that amount of data now.
Jonah Berger (03:21): Yeah. But you can almost think about, we're talking about a sort of social listening. You can almost think about people leaving breadcrumbs right behind about their opinions and attitudes. And sure, one person's opinion or attitude may just be one person's opinion, right? But if tan a hundred, a thousand, 10,000 people are saying the same things, you can learn a lot both about where your brand should be, what problems your customers are having, who your competitors are, and what strategies might be useful in, in the future. And so it's amazing to see both how we can use language to influence others, but also how we can learn from the language people leave behind and be better marketers as a
John Jantsch (03:55): Result. So coming from your world of academia, I'm, I'd love if you share a little bit about the research that you actually did to compile. Think you, you have six types of words that can increase impact in every area of your life as you claim. So what, describe the research that went into Sure. Boiling that down.
Jonah Berger (04:14): Yeah, so let's just take a step back. You talk about six key types of words and I often talk about them in a framework called the speak framework. And that's S P E A with two C's at the end rather than a K. I'm not clever enough to figure out how to make it have a K, but the S is for
John Jantsch (04:27): The language is the toughest letter in Scrabble. It really is
Jonah Berger (04:31):
(05:16): So rather than asking some students to help, for example, clean up a classroom, they asked some to help and they asked some to be a helper. Now helper is the word help with two letters on the end. Er, very small difference. Only two letters yet led to a 30% increase in the percentage of people who helped it. And you might say, well that's students and a classroom. Does that really work in the real world? Well, some similar scientists wondering, could we use this to actually change the number of people that turn out to vote? So they sent out tens of thousands of mailers to voters. Some people they said, Hey, could you go vote? And others they say, well hey, would you be willing to be a voter and go vote. Now voter and vote are only one letter difference, but there it led to a 15% increase in turnout.
(05:59): The reason why is quite simple, right? People like actions, but they really wanna hold desirable identities. We all wanna see ourselves as smart and helpful and interesting in all those various things. But turning actions, verbs, helping voting into identities, being a helper is a way to encourage people to claim those desired identities. Right? Voting is fine, but if voting is a way to show I'm a voter, well now I'm more likely to do it. Similarly, losing is bad, but being a loser would be even worse, right? Cheating is bad, but being a cheater would be even worse. And so research shows that framing undesired actions as undesired identities is more likely to get people to avoid them. Cuz no one wants to be a loser. Right? And so a, a great way to encourage people to do something is not by using actions, but by turning those actions into a,
John Jantsch (06:45): It's actually like you're almost getting them to join the team.
Jonah Berger (06:48): Yeah. You're a team. It's a question of which team it is. Yes. But Right, right, right. It can be different teams. And the same thing is true even with talking about yourself or colleagues, right? You wanna make someone look good, don't say they're hardworking, say they're a hard worker,
John Jantsch (07:21): I won't be the first or the last person to go here on this, but you know, at what point does that become negative influence? Like somebody responds to being called a runner, but they don't really like to run that much, but they just kind of like the association. So you can actually trick them
Jonah Berger (07:41): Yeah. You know what's challenging about influence and tools in general is the tools themselves are neither good nor bad. Yeah. Yeah. So take a hammer, right? A hammer's not a good thing or a bad thing. It can be used for some great things. It can help us build buildings. It can also be used to hurt someone. A hammer itself is neutral. The way we use it is positive or negative. And so if you said, Hey, you know Jonah, can we use these tools to get people to turn out to vote and help them exercise more and encourage 'em to be better to the world around them? We'd say, this is fantastic, right? If you said, well it's gonna encourage people to buy junk and hurt people and do bad things, we'd say, well let's not use these tools. And so it's not about the tools themselves, it's really about how we use them.
John Jantsch (08:18): Hey, marketing agency owners, you know, I can teach you the keys to doubling your business in just 90 days or your money back Sound interesting. All you have to do is license our three step process. It, it's gonna allow you to make your competitors irrelevant, charge a premium for your services and scale perhaps without adding overhead. And here's the best part. You could license this entire system for your agency by simply participating in an upcoming agency certification intensive. Look, why create the wheel? Use a set of tools that took us over 20 years to create and can have 'em today. Check it out at dtm.world/certification. That's DTM world slash certification. This is a perfect segue to your name checking of Donald Trump in the book. But you use that example I think to illustrate that, you know, influence for good or bad depending upon, you know, where you stand on that. So, so talk a little bit about what you've noticed in what he has done that has actually influenced people, you know, regardless of how you feel about
Jonah Berger (09:25): It. Yeah. And so I don't want to get into politics cuz some of your listeners may hate Donald Trump and some of them may love Donald Trump. Regardless of whether you like him or not. What you can agree with is he's done an amazing job of motivating some set of people to action. Right? Even if you hate his policies and hate his ideas and hate him as a person, you can't sit there and go, well he hasn't had an effect. He's clearly had an impact. And so even if you hate him, I think it would be a good idea to figure out why he has such an impact. And if you look at what he does, the same thing that startup founders and gurus and individuals we think are quite really good speakers often do, which is they exude confidence. They speak with a great deal of certainty, right?
(10:02): He doesn't say something might happen, he doesn't say this could work. He says, this will definitely happen, it will be amazing and everyone will love it. Right? He speaks with a great degree of certainty and compare that with most academics. And I'll throw myself in the bucket here, right? We often say things like, well I, I think this is a good strategy, this might work. Or you know, as a consultant I often do this, right? I say, oh yeah, you know, I think this will be a good idea, this should work. Or you know, this is probably the best course of action. And what we're doing there is two things. One, we're sharing our opinions, but we're also subtly undermining their impact. Because using hedges, the language I, you know, I think might, could possibly, all those are examples of hedges. Hedges undermine our impact cuz they make us seem less certain, right?
(10:45): They make observers think we're less certain about what we're saying and because of that they're less likely to follow our advice. And so does that mean we should never hedge? No, they're certainly cases where we should, but one don't just hedge cuz it's convenient and two, certain hedges are more impactful than others. So saying for example, it seems to me rather than it seems, suggests you're willing to stand behind that opinion. Mm-hmm.
John Jantsch (11:23): Sense. Yeah. You know, one of the things to I think that comes from a book like this is that, you know, even if you don't take all of this and run with it yourself, I think maybe it makes you a little more aware of how you're being influenced. You know, if that makes sense. I know I had Robert Shield on the show author of, you know, one of the original books on Influence. Yeah. Called Influence. And he said he originally wrote that book because he saw a lot of really negative bad things happening to people because they were being influenced. He wanted them to understand yes. Why it was happening.
Jonah Berger (11:51):
John Jantsch (12:46): You went over it very briefly. I wanna come back to that idea of asking questions because I find that one sort of intriguing when we think about magic words, we think about us telling people declaring things, right? Yeah. And this idea of being more impactful by asking the right questions I think is really interesting. I wonder if you'd go into that.
Jonah Berger (13:05): Yeah. You know, the more I've learned and studied questions, the more rich and and powerful they are. They do so many different things. We think about questions as ways to collect information, but they shape how others perceive us. They shape the type of information we collect, they shape a variety of outcomes. So take something as simple as asking for advice, right? Most of us think it's a bad idea. Why? Well one, we don't wanna bother someone, but two, we don't wanna seem like we don't know what we're doing, right? Mm-hmm.
(13:48): And the reason why is very simple. People are egocentric. Everybody thinks they give great advice, right? They have useful things to say. And so they assume if people are asking them for their advice, well that person must be smart cuz they're smart enough to ask me for what I think. And so advice giving makes us seem asking seems better rather than worse or something like follow up questions is also fascinating. Mm-hmm.
John Jantsch (14:44): And it's funny, I have had numerous prospective clients over the years that I would just, they would say something and say, tell me more about that. Yeah, tell me more about that. Tell me more about that. In about 30 minutes of me doing that, they're like, you're brilliant
Jonah Berger (14:58): I was like, yes. Oh yeah,
John Jantsch (14:59):
Jonah Berger (15:00): Also good. And what I love about that point though right? Is it's easy to say just ask questions. And that's actually, I don't think what you were saying or what I'm saying. Yeah. It's asking the right questions, right? Almost like a psychiatrist would. Right. Helping pull out. And that's what great consultants and great leaders do. They pull out things by asking the right questions, by knowing when to ask questions, how to ask them the right one to ask. They really encourage people to, to figure out their own answers. It's also powerful strategy with kids. Right? Too often I think when it reads kids' book, we're like, where you say here are the words in the books, rather than saying, what do you see? What do you think? Why does that cat character feel that way? Yeah. By asking them questions, we really help them be more involved in the journey and and learn more as
John Jantsch (15:41): Yeah. Plus you get some really interesting look into
Jonah Berger (15:49): Yes. Yeah. What do they see? They might see quite different things than
John Jantsch (15:52): You do. Quite different. Yes. I go guarantee you they haven't been in that programmed yet. So, so this may seem counterintuitive to a book about word. What role does listening play in this universe?
Jonah Berger (16:03): That's also a really interesting question. And uh, talk about that. Uh, based on an experience I had. So a few years ago I was, uh, coming back from a consulting assignment. I was on my way to the airport, I get a text that, you know, every traveler dreads saying my, my, my flight has been delayed and they've re-booked me. So I call customer service and you know, they very nicely re-booked me on a connecting flight the next day rather than a direct flight I've had. And obviously I'm quite frustrated just hoping to get home to the family and, you know, I get off this interaction with a barely better outcome, but quite frustrated the very nice Uber driver's like, oh, you know, I heard you talking to customer service. I'm musing about how difficult it must be to have that job because people just are frustrated all day.
(16:42): He goes, oh, not really. You know, my daughter's in customer service, she loves it and she's so good at it that they now ask her to train other people. And so I'm sitting there going, what does she do that makes her so good at this and training others? And so we actually worked with a, a couple different companies, got hundreds of customer service calls and analyzed them to look at the language that makes 'em go better. Now obviously in a flight situation, we all want a, you know, a direct flight leaving right away. We all want them to find our bags. We, you know, we all want the good stuff, the problems to be solved, but could the language we use in those interactions matter? And what we found quite interestingly is that concrete language was really powerful. What do I mean by that? Rather than saying, oh, I can help you with that saying I can go find you a placement flight rather than saying, we'll refund you soon, your money will be there tomorrow.
(17:26): Right. Using more specific concrete language increases customer satisfaction and it makes people more likely to buy from the brand in the future. Why? Because it makes people feel like that representative listened, right? Yeah. It's so easy in these situations just to use kind of Swiss army language, right? I can help you with that. I can solve your problem cuz it works for any problem. Right? And as, as leaders, we often do the same thing. We say, oh, I I care about that, I'll take care of that. But using concrete language shows that we listened, right? It shows that we paid attention, it shows that we heard them and as a result has a variety of positive downstream effects.
John Jantsch (18:00): Yeah. The one I hate is how is your Monday going? Yeah, right.
Jonah Berger (18:04): Well you sit on hold and they say, oh, they sit on hold and they're like, your call is valuable to us. And you're like, yeah, that's why I've been on hold for 50 minutes because your call must, my call must be really valuable. And so, you know, the intentions are good. Yeah. They want a signal that they care, but actually doing the work requires understanding the language to, to get there. Yeah.
John Jantsch (18:21): Let's wrap up today on, um, one of my favorite topics, the language of beer. So, so, so unpack that one for
Jonah Berger (18:27): Us. Yeah. So someone did a really interesting study looking at how language changes over time and they did the study in the language of beer groups online. So imagine you write a review of a beer and then you come back next week and you write another review of a beer and they look at what happens over time and they find that sort of the new members that come into this community end up adopting the language for the most part of other members of that community. But how well they do in an enculturating sort of join the community predicts whether they're gonna stick around or leave. And I think this is neat in, in beer, I don't know a lot about beer, but you see people adopting the language of beer. Yeah. But subsequent work is found the same thing is true in an organizational setting.
(19:07): Yeah. So I can predict, they can predict whether you're going to get promoted, whether you're going to get fired or whether you're even gonna choose to leave the company based on the language you use in your email. Right. When you join a company, your language is different from your peers, but eventually it sort of comes to meet your peers, right? It becomes more similar to other folks in the organization. If it never does, you end up being fired more likely to be fired. It suggests he didn't really enculturate to the firm. Mm-hmm.
John Jantsch (19:58): It's really interesting, I read a book, recent book called, and that was really one of the conclusions that probably the biggest conclusion of that, that language was one of the biggest tools that were used for good or for evil, or certainly made somebody feel like they were more a part of a community. There were certain words and phrases Yeah. That were unique to them. So pretty fascinating. It's
Jonah Berger (20:19): A great marker of identity. Yeah,
John Jantsch (20:20): No question. Well, so John, I appreciate you stopping by the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. You wanna tell people where they can connect with you? I know they can find, uh, magic words pretty much anywhere you buy books. Yeah.
Jonah Berger (20:29): So first of all, thank you again for having me. Great to be back on. There's a bunch of information about me, the book, but also a whole bunch of free resources. Uh, one pager with the framework, some guides to apply the ideas on my website, which is just jonah burger uh.com. And you can find me on social media at J one Burger on Twitter or on LinkedIn as
John Jantsch (20:46): Well. Awesome. Well, again, thanks for supp by and uh, hopefully we'll run into you one of these days out there on the road. Thanks so much for having me. Hey, and one final thing before you go. You know how I talk about marketing strategy, strategy before tactics? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that, what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It's called the Marketing Strategy Assessment. You can find it@ marketingassessment.co not.com
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