Jonah Berger
Big Brains podcst

Magic words: Can what you say help you get your way? with Jonah Berger (Ep. 115)

Scholar examines the power of language—and how you use it—can change your life

Jonah Berger
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

Everyone wishes they had a superpower. Well, it turns out you’ve had a secret power since you were a child, you just don’t know how to use it yet. That’s the power of language. In a fascinating new book, “Magic Words: What To Say To Get Your Way," Prof. Jonah Berger of the Wharton School uses massive data sets and machine learning to tease out the “magic words” that can transform our lives.

Could changing just a single word in your mind help you stick to that diet? Could mastering when to say “you” and when to say “I” save your marriage? Does the word “could” make you more creative than “should”? We find answers to these questions and more as we delve into the science-backed power of words.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcher and Spotify.

(Episode published June 15, 2023)

Subscribe to the Big Brains newsletter.

Please rate and review the Big Brains podcast.

Related:

Transcript:

Paul Rand: Everyone wishes they had a superpower, something magical that could help them get exactly what they want out of life. But what if I told you that you’ve actually had a superpower since you were a little kid and you just didn’t know it yet?

Jonah Berger: Soon after, I started working in this space, our first child was born and his name is Jasper. And he, like many kids at a certain age, started using language.

Paul Rand: That’s Jonah Berger.

Jonah Berger: He would use the word yo to refer to yogurt. He would use the word brow bear, refer to his favorite stuffed animal, which is a brown bear. But one word he used in particular I found quite interesting, and that was the word peace.

Paul Rand: Berger is a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and an international bestselling author.

Jonah Berger: And he actually meant the word please. He said the word peace because he didn’t have his Ls yet.

Paul Rand: His most recent book is called Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way.

Jonah Berger: But what he would do is he would ask for something. So he’d say yo if he wanted yogurt, but if you didn’t sort of hop to it and do what he want, he’d look you dead in the eye. He’d say yo again and then he’d say the word peace. I found this so fascinating because this was him realizing that words had power.

Paul Rand: We live in the era of the life hack, a quick way to lose weight, be more productive, find the love of your life. Of course, they almost never have the signs to back them up, but Berger’s research into the inner workings of language has uncovered some extraordinary scientifically backed magic words we never knew that we had.

Jonah Berger: Our words do have power. We might think that certain people are naturally better writers or speakers and think that we can’t compete. But if you look under the surface, you realize that writing and speaking aren’t talents you’re born with. They’re skills you develop and if you understand the power of magic words and how to use them, we can all increase our impact.

Paul Rand: Could changing just a single word in your mind help you stick to that diet? Could thinking in terms of identity help you reach that goal you’ve never been able to meet? Could simply mastering when to say you and when to say I, save your marriage? It turns out that language is a life-changing superpower we’ve had all along, if we could just learn how to use it.

Jonah Berger: There are times to use a hammer and there are times to use a screwdriver. If you have a nail, a hammer’s going to be effective. You got a screw, well, a screwdriver’s going to be better. And so part of this book is not just saying, “Hey, use this type of language all the time.” It’s really saying, well, the more we understand how magic words work, the more we can take advantage of their power.

Paul Rand: And not only use that power to get what we want, but to better understand when that power is being used against us by corrupt politicians or cult leaders or con men.

Jonah Berger: The more we can understand the persuasion tactics that may be used on us, and the more we can take advantage of their power, right? Influence is often helpful.

Paul Rand: Welcome to Big Brains where we translate the biggest ideas and complex discoveries into digestible brain food. Big brains, little bites from the University of Chicago Podcast Network. I’m your host Paul Rand. On today’s episode, the Magic Power of Words. Scholars estimate that there are anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million words in the English language, meaning there are trillions upon trillions of different combinations of words, sentences, and paragraphs, trying to scientifically understand which words and which phrases have superpowers and which don’t has well been near impossible. That is until very recently.

Jonah Berger: It’s interesting there, I think, have been a couple of trends over the past few decades that have really changed the way we understand language. So the first is just the availability of data. So if you look, I don’t know, 30, 40, 50 years ago, if you wanted to study language, you had to manually put together a corpus of whether it is books or transcribed phone calls or letters that people had written and then manually go through that content to figure out what was going on. Now, every day, billions of people share their opinions online, they’re repository of news articles and book content and movie scripts. Call customer service, there’s often recorded that companies analyze the transcripts. You have a Zoom call, you can press a button at the end and get out every word that was said during it. And so there’s much more language that’s out there than ever before.

But I think the second thing I would say is there’s tools to parse that data, right? Advances in natural language processing and machine learning, automated textual analysis. We can now extract so many features from the data that’s out there and use them to understand human behavior. And so it’s really opened up a wide range of topics for further study.

Paul Rand: One of those topics Berger has focused on is whether certain words are more powerful and more impactful than others. With a trillion different ways to say the same thing, could there be a best way?

Jonah Berger: I don’t have to tell you we use language all the time. We use language to make presentations at the office and send emails and make phone calls and pitch decks, and even our private thoughts rely on language. But while we spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to communicate, the ideas we want to express, we spend a lot less time thinking about the specific words or language we use to express those ideas. And that’s a mistake.

Paul Rand: And that mistake can be as small as just one word. Berger’s research has uncovered how using a single word versus another can radically change whether we get the outcome that we want. This power of a single word first became clear in an experiment done by Harvard researchers in 1977.

Jonah Berger: They walked up to people that were essentially making copies at a copier in New York of all places. And they asked them, “Hey, can I cut in front of you and make some copies?” Now, not surprisingly, no one wants to say yes to something like that. You’re already in process, you’re making copies. This other person you don’t know comes and asks you if they can make copies. And so not surprisingly, not that many people said yes to the request. But the researchers are wondering, “Hey, could the language people use when making a request like this shape persuasion? Could certain words shape someone’s impact?” And in particular, they examined the word because. And so for some people, they just came up to them and said, “Hey, can I cut in front of you to make some copies?” For other people, they said, “Hey, can I cut in front of you because...?”

And then they gave a reason and they found that when people said because people were much more likely to let them go ahead of them in line and make their copies. But you might say, “Well, hold on, it’s not the word because, it’s the reason they gave.” Maybe they gave a good reason after the word because. And so it was the reason that they gave not the word because itself, but for another group of participants, they gave a terrible reason. So they basically said, “Because I need to do this, because I need to make copies.” And the reason didn’t give any more information. It’s obvious if you need to cut in front of someone to make copies, that you need to make copies. Yet even with this sort of vacuous reason, people were more likely to say yes, they were more likely to let this person go ahead of them.

And so this is just one example, but the word because led about a 50% increase in compliance. And so again, one example of many studies in this space, but the question is kind of what are these magic words and how by understanding them, can we take advantage of their power?

Paul Rand: And it’s not just adding a single word that can have this power, simply substituting one word for another can be life-changing. For instance, using don’ts instead of can’ts.

Jonah Berger: So often we’re trying to achieve a certain goal. We want to lose weight, we want to exercise more, we want to spend more time at work, we want to spend less time on social media, whatever it might be. But we’re often tempted, it might be Friday night or Thursday night, and someone says, “Hey, you know, want to, rather than doing that work you thought you wanted to do, do you want to go grab a beer?” Or whatever it might be. Or someone might say, “Hey, do you want to go have some pizza rather than eat healthy?” And you might say, “Oh man, I do want to have pizza, but I want to eat healthy. How can I balance this?” And so some researchers looked if language could help. For some people, they encourage them to say, “I can’t.” So something like, “I can’t have chocolate cake, I can’t eat pizza, I can’t go out on Thursday night.” And for other people when faced with those same temptations, they encourage them to use the word don’t instead.

And again, the difference between can’t and don’t is quite small. Many of the letters are the same, they’re just a couple of letters different. And they found that don’ts were better at getting people to stick with their goals to avoid temptation compared to the people that said can’t. If you think about it, if you ask me to say, “I can’t do something, because...” You’d often think about an external reason. “Well, I can’t go out and have pizza because I’m stuck. This diet is constraining me, or I can’t spend more time on social media even though I want to because X, Y, Z.” Whereas if you say, “I don’t.” Often, “I don’t do this,” the reason is more personal. “I don’t do this because I want to take care of myself.”

Paul Rand: And then if we go into the shoulds and coulds, it’s kind of along the same lines, isn’t it?

Jonah Berger: Often we’re stuck in a tough situation. We’re trying to solve a difficult problem and we don’t know how to do it. Maybe it’s at work and we’re trying to figure out a solution or it’s in our personal lives and we’re trying to figure out something to do and we’re kind of stuck. And so in situations like these, what do we do? We often say, “Well, what should I do? What should I do to solve this problem?” But some researchers wondered again whether a subtle shift in the language we use could be helpful. And so they gave people difficult problems to solve. For some of them, they encourage them to use that traditional language of think about what you should do. But for other people, they encourage them again to think about something slightly different, what they could do. Again, similar language, but slightly different. And they found that people who thought in terms of coulds came up with much more creative and effective solutions.

And the reason why is that shoulds are often rather constraining. When we think in terms of shoulds, we say, “Okay, there’s one right answer. What should I do? Let me figure out that right answer.” Coulds encourage us to widen our viewpoint a little bit, consider multiple options, see what’s possible. Not all of them may be a good idea. Not all of them may be the right strategy to pursue, but by encouraging us to think in coulds, we think more widely and we end up coming up with better solutions. And so like many things in the book, I think this has a clear take home when we’re stuck on tough problems. Don’t think about shoulds, think about coulds, turn those shoulds into coulds and it’ll help us come up with better solutions.

Paul Rand: But not every magic word works in every situation. Understanding when to use certain words has been a crucial part of Berger’s research. For instance, when to use the word you and when not to.

Jonah Berger: A few years ago, a large consumer electronics company reached out and they asked me to analyze all their social media content. So hundreds if not thousands of posts that they had made over a couple year period and how many likes and shares and different things those posts got. And so analyzed that content and found that a particular word was quite helpful in increasing engagement. And that was the word you, and not just the word you itself, but you, your, your, things that use that second person pronoun you as a base. And the reason why is that you can flag things as self relevant. They can act almost like a stop sign that grabs our attention/ if a post says on social media, five tips to save money. And I’d say if it says five tips to save you money, I’d say, “Oh, this seems relevant to me.”

I’m more likely to pay attention. And so they said, “Great, thank you. Super useful. Based on that, can you actually help us analyze a different type of content, which is our help pages?” So imagine you’re having an issue with your phone or your computer’s not doing something you need to sync with your printer or whatever it might be. You go to their help pages and they have a variety of different content. At the end, rated on how helpful it is. And so if you was just a good word, period, it should have helped on those help pages, but it didn’t. In fact, just the opposite. On those help pages, you actually hurt helpfulness rather than improved it. And the reason why is the following on those help pages, we don’t need to grab people’s attention. They’ve already gone to the page based on their problem.

And so the sort of stop sign self relevant function of you is less relevant. Instead, part of the issue with you in those situations is it can make people feel like they’re being blamed or it’s their fault. When the page says something like, “Hey, if your phone is broken, you need to reboot it, and then you need to go through these six steps.” People sit there go, “Wow, I need to do all this work. Why do I need to do all this work though? Why is it my fault that the phone broke? It’s your phone in the first place.” And so what this points to, and this gets back to your original question, is that you can feel a little bit accusatory.

Paul Rand: Your example of a clear take home fed in when I read one section. In our home, we have a German Shepherd named Tilly. And I find a market difference in my wife’s reaction when I say, can you feed the dog? Or if I said, has the dog had dinner? And tell me why we both experienced that very differently being asked that same question of output, but in a very different way.

Jonah Berger: Similarly, with the case of can you feed the dog versus the dog has dinner. And that’s a popular question in my household as well. And if somebody used the word you, you might say, “Well, what do you mean? Why is it my responsibility? Why is it my fault at the office if someone said, did you finish that report? And I’d say, “Why is it? How is it my job to finish this report? I thought you were going to help.” Whereas if someone said, has the dog had dinner? Is the report finished? Getting rid of that word you can avoid the accusation. Which may not have been intentional in the first place. And so this again, is a case where the word you is quite powerful.

Paul Rand: Well, along with using the word you, the word I you also really dug into quite a bit. And that word I can really make quite a difference of knowing when to use that too, isn’t it?

Jonah Berger: I mean here we analyzed actually tens of thousands of academic articles. So think about research papers that academics have written and the number of citations they receive, which is basically a measure of academic impact. And we found that using words like I or we do some interesting work, right? So compare, if I say we found that versus the results show that, right? Well, if you say, we found it, seems like we’re responsible for it, we did the work, but it also could seem a little bit subjective. We found this, but who knows if other people would find it? Whereas the results shows, says, “Well, we’re less to blame in some sense for finding this, but we’re also less responsible. Just out there, the results are showing it. Not us.” And so words like I and we again, take that agency. Say, somebody’s in charge, we found this, I found this.

They can do the work and customer service, for example, customers really are more satisfied when agents use words like I. I can solve your problem rather than we can solve your problem because they feel like that agent’s actually taking agency and is going to do the work. And so again, pronouns like I or we can shape who seems in control and who’s the driver of a particular action.

Paul Rand: These are only a few examples of the scientifically backed magic words that Berger has uncovered. We’ll go beyond single words and also how the power of words can be used against you after the break. Have you ever wondered who you are but didn’t know who to ask? Well, then join professor Eric Oliver as he poses the nine most essential questions for knowing yourself to some of humanity’s wisest and most interesting people. Nine questions with Eric Oliver, part of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. When we go and edit this piece, normally we’re taking a lot of us and ums out of this, not only from me, but from our guests. You don’t speak with a lot of us and ums, an I’m assuming that’s somewhat intentional, isn’t it?

Jonah Berger: I use another right there. I certainly try not to.

Paul Rand: Most of us probably remember being told in a public speaking class that we shouldn’t say um, but you may have wondered in the back of your mind, “Come on, how much difference does it really make?” Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the research shows it makes a huge difference.

Jonah Berger: The challenge is that we use words um, uh, er, like all the time, and we use them for particular reason. We’re trying to buy ourselves conversational time. Somebody asks us a tough question, we’re just going to go, “Oh, I don’t know. What am I going to say?” And so we say um or uh to sort of fill space, fill that conversational space before we can get in there with what we want to say. But unfortunately, while it’s a common conversational crutch, in some sense, it has some negative impacts on how we’re perceived. Not surprisingly, the more we say um, uh or er, the less positively we’re perceived because we seem less confident about what we’re talking about. If someone says um, uh and er all the time, other people are going to go, “Does this person know what they’re talking about? They don’t seem very confident.” And so they’re going to be less likely to listen to our advice.

Paul Rand: It’s not only avoiding ums and uhs that can make us seem more confident. In fact, there’s another surprising and counterintuitive strategy that can make people more likely to listen to you, asking questions.

Jonah Berger: The more I learn about questions, the more fascinating I find them. We think that the time to ask questions is when we need information and questions certainly do that work, but they also shape how we’re perceived. They draw attention to certain things versus other things. They shape the sort of flow of conversation. Good questions can do a really amazing amount of conversational work. And so often when we’re in a difficult situation, we don’t know the right answer. We often know someone we think could help, might be a colleague, might be a coworker, might be a friend. We think they might know more than we do, so we want to ask them for advice, but we don’t. And why don’t we? Well, we’re kind of worried. We’re worried that we’ll interrupt them, that they’re busy, that they won’t know the answer. Even worse, that they’ll think less of us. So a few years ago, some researchers from Harvard and Wharton did a study to look into this. They had people of variety of different social interactions.

For some people, they asked for advice. And at the end of the interactions, they had people say, “Well, what do you think about your partner? How smart are they? Competent?” And so on. And what they found was pretty neat. They didn’t find that asking for advice made people be perceived more negatively, less competent, less knowledgeable, and so on. In fact, just the opposite. Asking for advice made people seem more competent and more knowledgeable. And you might go, “Well, why? Why does asking for advice showing that you don’t know something make you seem more knowledgeable?” Interestingly, what it comes down to very simply is that people are egocentric. Everybody loves to think then they give great advice. And so when someone comes along and asks us for our advice, we go, “Wow, out of all the people this person asks, they are smart enough to know that I give great advice. And so they must be really bright.” And so asking for advice is great, not only because it allows us to collect that useful information, but because it makes us be perceived more positively. And so we should definitely ask for advice.

Paul Rand: Along the same lines, I guess is talking about speaking in the present tense versus the past tense and what it says about you as a speaker. Expand on that a little bit for me, if you would.

Jonah Berger: In many situations, we can refer to something in past tense, talk about it as it already happened or in present tense, like it’s currently happening. And what’s some research that my colleague Grant Packard and I find looking at online reviews, looking at a variety of different contexts. When people speak with the present tense, it ends up being more persuasive. So let’s compare two situations. Somebody comes back from vacation and they say, “That beach was beautiful.” Well, they come back from vacation and say, “That beach is beautiful.” Someone comes back from a restaurant and says the food was delicious versus the food is delicious. I liked that movie versus I like that movie. Or the candidate is great, the candidate was great. So the bucket we’re talking about now is the language of confidence, but one type of language that signals confidence is present tense. Why? Well, someone says the beach was great, so that’s okay when you went there, whenever you went there, you had a good time.

When someone says, if the beach is great, it’s saying not just they had a good time when they went, but they’re generalizing, right? They’re willing to make an assertion that goes beyond their own personal experience to other people potentially in the future. And that makes those individuals who speak in present tense seem more confident, which makes other people more persuaded by what they have to say.

Paul Rand: As you talk about these, for lack of a better word, magic words or magic ways of talking, a voice that pops into my head is Donald Trump. The guy speaking in uncomplicated terms.

Trump: Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people, but we have people that are stupid.

Paul Rand: Speaking in the present term.

Trump: Now we’re winning, winning, winning. People are saying, many, many people are saying Trump is right. A lot of people are saying that. There are a lot of people are saying they’ll have the highest ratings.

Paul Rand: Not using a lot of ums.

Trump: Believe it or not, I watch my words very carefully. There are those that think I’m a very stable genius. I watch my words very, very closely.

Paul Rand: How do you look at him as being a speaker? Whether you agree or disagree with what he is talking about, his distinctive way of speaking certainly has an impact.

Jonah Berger: Whether you like him or you hate him, you can’t deny that he’s done an amazing job selling his ideas. This person whose speech many people sort of made fun of is elected president. And so even if you hate him, he’s doing something right. And often when we see great speakers, people that are particularly charismatic, we think they’re sort of born with it. We sort of go, “Oh, they just have this thing. It’s this unmeasurable quality. I don’t know what it is.” But if you look at Trump, he actually does the same thing that some famous entrepreneurs like a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk do that often top-selling salespeople do, transformational leaders, even gurus, he speaks in absolutes.

Trump: I beat China all the time.

Jonah Berger: He uses a lot of what we might think of as definites, right?

Trump: I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.

Jonah Berger: Everybody agrees. And it’s certainly the case and it’s obvious, and this is how it is.

Trump: Nobody builds walls better than me, believe me.

Jonah Berger: Contrast that with the way most of us speak most of the time. I’m often, I’ll have a consulting client, he’ll say, “Hey, what do you think about this strategy?” And I’ll say, “I think it could work. That might be a good idea. It’ll probably be effective.” I’m using hedges. And hedges are something we all use all the time, just like ums and uhs, those linguistic fillers. And we hedge because we’re not completely sure and we want to be careful. But again, while hedging can be good in some situations, it often undermines our impact. Research on financial advisors, for example, finds that the more that advisors hedge, or the more I should say, that they speak with less certainty, the more uncertainty they speak with, the less likely people are to pick them. Give them two advisors, one that speaks with a great deal of certainty.

One that doesn’t speak with much certainty. People prefer the more certain advisor, because when someone speaks with certainty, it’s hard to believe they’re not, right? We’re sitting there going, “Well, if they’re not even sure, this is going to be a great strategy. Why should we pursue it?” And by the way, if they’re not sure, maybe we’ll find someone who is more certain. And so I don’t mean to suggest we should never hedge because there are situations where we should hedge and are situations where we should speak with uncertainty. But at a high level, we should ditch the hedges. Unless we’re trying to communicate uncertainty, unless that’s our goal. Don’t just hedge because it’s convenient, because hedging often undermines our impact.

Paul Rand: If it’s not obvious by now, the language we use shapes the world around us. And when you scale that up, the language we use as a community shapes our society. One of the most powerful examples in the last decade has been a focus on the language of identity.

Jonah Berger: Language doesn’t only communicate information. It expresses what it means to engage in a particular action, who is to blame or responsible for something. It expresses identity and signals agency.

Paul Rand: And it turns out there are scientific reasons why identity may be one of languages most potent superpowers.

Jonah Berger: A number of years ago, some researchers were interested in persuasion. What leads people to say yes? And so these are researchers out of Stanford University. They went to a local preschool and they asked four and five year olds to help clean up a classroom. Now, if you’ve ever interacted with four and five year olds, they know that they’re nice generally, but they don’t always want to clean up. And so for some of the students, they use the traditional approach, “Hey, can you please help clean the classroom?” And for others, they use a slightly different approach. They say, “Can you be a helper?” Now, the difference between help and helper is quite small. It’s only two extra letters. Yet when students were asked to be a helper, they’re about a third more likely to clean up. And it’s not just kids in classrooms. More recently, there was a study on voting that looked at whether people actually went out to cast a ballot, adults doing something much more difficult and time-consuming.

And so researchers came to some adults, they sent them a note saying, “Hey, would you please vote in one condition?” Or for some other people, they said, “Would you please be a voter?” Now again, the difference between vote and voter is even smaller. It’s just one letter. Yet that one letter led to about a 15% increase in people’s likelihood of turning out to the polls. And so one question you could ask is why? Why is helper more effective than help? Why is voter more effective than vote? And it has to do with the difference between actions and identities. We all know that we should take certain actions, vote, help, do a variety of different things, but we’re usually pretty busy. We don’t always have the time. But what we care more about than taking particular actions is holding desired identities. We all want to see ourselves as competent and efficacious and smart and a variety of different things.

And so when actions become opportunities to claim desired identities, well now we’re much more likely to take that action, right? Voting’s fine, but if voting’s opportunity to be a voter. Now, I’m much more likely to go out and vote. Similarly, helping, sure, I know I should help, but if help is an opportunity to be a helper, I’m much more likely to do it. And so by turning actions into identities, we can make people more likely to take those actions. You can think about the same thing on the opposite side, right? Losing is bad. Being a loser would be even worse, right? Cheating on a test is bad. Being branded a cheater would be even worse. And so research finds that when cheating would make you a cheater, you’re less likely to cheat on a test. It’s almost like that old, what was it? An anti littering campaign said, “Don’t be a litter bug.”

I shouldn’t litter, littering is a bad thing. Don’t be a litter bug. Well, hold on. If littering would make me claim this desired identity of being a litter bug, now I’m less likely to engage in that action because I don’t want to claim that undesired identity.

Paul Rand: But we need to be incredibly careful with the power of identity language. It can easily be misused and even accidentally lead to outcomes that we’re trying to avoid.

Jonah Berger: And so as with any tool and any situation, there are boundaries to its effectiveness. If an identity is desirable and it’s one we want to hold, then people are more likely to do something. But if an identity doesn’t seem necessarily attainable or doesn’t seem to fit with who I think I am, people may be less likely to engage in it. So some researchers looked at telling girls that doing something in particular was an example of being a scientist or doing science. So again, a scientist is an identity, whereas doing science is an action. And they actually found that doing science for young girls was actually more motivating than being a scientist, in part because young girls might have seen being a scientist is an identity they didn’t seem consistent with who they are. There’s some very nice work, and I should say unfortunately, don’t see as consistent with who they are.

There’s some very nice work showing particularly in computer science, for example. One reason young women may not get into computer science as much as men is they don’t see it as an identity that fits with them. But when you make the identity associated with computer scientists, one that women are more interested in holding, they’re more interested in engaging in computer science. And so again, it’s not just about what a job is, it’s what it means, what it says about you, what is it associated with for both men and women. And so the study I mentioned though was just one example of a case where we need to think carefully about the identities associated with certain language.

Paul Rand: If you’ve been paying close attention, you may have noticed something dangerous about everything we’ve discussed. In the same way these strategies can be used to change your life, they’re also a how-to guide for con men, corrupt politicians, cult leaders, or even criminals.

Jonah Berger: Sometimes people hear some of the ideas I talk about in this book or some of my other books that relate to persuasion and influence, and they say, “Isn’t this just manipulating people? Isn’t this bad?” And I think the problem is if I said, “Hey, we’re going to use the language to reduce political polarization and help people eat healthier and save the environment and adopt puppies.” We’d all say, “That sounds fantastic. That’s great. I’m glad we did that.” If we use the same tools to hurt people or to increase polarization or to damage the environment, or to make people buy things they don’t need, well then we’d say those tools are terrible. And so the challenge is persuasion influence language is just a tool. A hammer can be used to build a house. It can also be used to hurt someone. And so it’s not that the hammer itself is positive or negative, it’s how we use it.

Paul Rand: As the title of Berger’s book says, these magic words tell us what to say to get our way, but they can also help us understand when people are trying to have their way with us.

Jonah Berger: I think the more we understand about how influence works, the more we can choose our influence. The more we can choose when we want to be influenced and when we don’t want to be. I spent a lot of time thinking about what the subtitle of this book should be, and when we thought about it, the subtitle really should be, is what to say to persuade and connect and motivate and be more creative and build bonds and all these different things. Not surprising, that was way too long for a subtitle.

Paul Rand: Doesn’t jump off the bookshelf that way.

Jonah Berger: And so we stuck with what to say to get your way, because it addresses a clear problem that many people want to solve. But the book’s really about how we can increase our impact. Persuasion is certainly one way, but we can also connect with others better by using language more effectively. We can deepen social relationships. We can motivate employees and teams. We can be more creative. We can do a lot of stuff if we use language more effectively. And so the book’s really about how we can use language to increase our impact in personal and professional lives.

Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please leave us a rating and a review. The show is hosted by Paul M Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp And Lea Ceasrine. Thanks for listening.

Episode List

What dogs are teaching us about aging, with Daniel Promislow (Ep. 133)

World’s largest study of dogs finds clues in exercise, diet and loneliness

Where has Alzheimer’s research gone wrong? with Karl Herrup (Ep. 132)

Neurobiologist claims the leading definition of the disease may be flawed—and why we need to fix it to find a cure

Why breeding millions of mosquitoes could help save lives, with Scott O’Neill (Ep. 131)

Nonprofit's innovative approach uses the bacteria Wolbachia to combat mosquito-borne diseases

Why shaming other countries often backfires, with Rochelle Terman (Ep. 130)

Scholar examines the geopolitical impacts of confronting human rights violations

Can Trump legally be president?, with William Baude (Ep. 129)

Scholar who ignited debate over 14th Amendment argument for disqualification examines upcoming Supreme Court case

What our hands reveal about our thoughts, with Susan Goldin-Meadow (Ep. 128)

Psychologist examines the secret conversations we have through gestures

Psychedelics without the hallucinations: A new mental health treatment? with David E. Olson (Ep. 127)

Scientist examines how non-hallucinogenic drugs could be used to treat depression, addiction and anxiety

Do we really have free will? with Robert Sapolsky (Ep. 126)

Renowned scholar argues that biology doesn’t shape our actions; it completely controls them

A radical solution to address climate change, with David Keith (Ep. 125)

Solar geoengineering technology holds possibilities and pitfalls, renowned scientist argues

How PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ are harming our health, with Linda Birnbaum (Ep. 124)

From kitchen pans to drinking water, dangers hidden in everyday materials, scientist warns

Master of Liberal Arts