The Psychology Of Language: Why Are Some Words More Persuasive?


What’s actually going on in the brain when it processes language? And if words affect the mind in different ways, are some more persuasive than others? 

Here’s a secret right off the bat and I hope it isn’t too odd: one of the things I fuss about a lot, are words — very simple words, in fact. Should it say “Hi” or “Hey”? Should it be “cheers” or “thanks”? How about “but” or “and”? I’m guessing you might have a similar obsession with this. There are many occasions when [my Buffer partner] Joel and I sit over one line and change it multiple times, until we feel it really sits right. This is partly to improve our metrics for click rate and others. It’s also to simply create an emotion. The one key question we ask ourselves is: “How does this make you feel?”

That question might sound very obvious. And yet, it’s a very different question than, “Which message do you want to send?” or “What is the content of this announcement?” By always focusing on “How will this make someone feel?” when you write even a single line, we immediately improved the amount of responses we got from our users. Let’s dig in to how our brain works and expose some of the most persuasive words in English.

Our Brain While Listening to Words
Recently, a lot of the long standing paradigms in how our brain processes language were overthrown. New and cutting edge studies that produced quite startling and different results. The one study I found most interesting is UCL’s findings on how we can separate words from intonation. Whenever we listen to words, this is what happens: “Words are then shunted over to the left temporal lobe [of our brain] for processing, while the melody is channeled to the right side of the brain, a region more stimulated by music.”

So our brain uses two different areas to identify the mood and then the actual meaning of the words. On second thought, what still doesn’t quite make sense is why we can even distinguish “language” so distinctly from any other sounds.

The UCL team tried to find out about exactly this. They played speech sounds and then non-speech sounds, that still sounded similar to speech to people. Whilst measuring their brain activity, they found something fascinating: “Speech was singled out for special treatment near the primary auditory cortex.” In short, our brains can magically single out language from any other sounds and port it to the right “department” in our brain to give it meaning.

This graphic also gives a great overview about how our brain process language:


So intonation and actual wording matters, but what is the split?

The Myth of the “55% Body Language, 38% Tone of Voice, 7% Actual Words” Rule
You’ve probably heard this statistic many times before. Only in recent years have people explored again what the contents of that study were. The study dates back to 1967 had a very different purpose. It wasn’t at all about defining how we process language: “The fact is Professor Mehrabian’s research had nothing to do with giving speeches, because it was based on the information that could be conveyed in a single word.”

Here is what actually happened that triggered the above result:

“Subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a woman’s voice saying the word “maybe” three different ways to convey liking, neutrality, and disliking. They were also shown photos of the woman’s face conveying the same three emotions. They were then asked to guess the emotions heard in the recorded voice, seen in the photos, and both together. The result? The subjects correctly identified the emotions 50 per cent more often from the photos than from the voice.”

The truth, so famous author Philip Yaffe argues, is that the actual words “must dominate by a wide margin”.

Facial Expression, Brevity, and Avoiding Adjectives in Speech
Smiling: the highest positive emotional gesture
There are, of course, a number of other most powerful elements to consider when thinking about speech. One of the most important ones that researcher Andrew Newberg uncovers in his book Words Can Change Your Brain is facial expressions that we carry. Newberg explains his reasoning for why the Mona Lisa’s content smile turned into one of the most well known paintings around the world: “We know that smiling is a very powerful gesture; we were doing a research study looking at different symbols, and the symbol that was rated with the highest positive emotional content was the smiley face. The painting of the Mona Lisa is one particular example of that feeling of calmness.”

Talk no longer than 30 seconds in a given conversation
Another element for how we can process language is the number of words there are for us to process. Of course we know this as somewhat obvious and yet it’s always a great reminder: “The human brain can really only hold on to four things at a time, so if you go on and on for five or 10 minutes trying to argue a point, the person will only remember a very small part of that.”

Instead, 30 seconds is the optimal amount for us to speak at any given time says Newberg: “Speak briefly, meaning that you speak one or two sentences, maybe 30 seconds worth or so, because that’s really what the human brain can take in.”

Avoid adjectives in speech and writing
Something I struggle with is to stop using adjectives. They are, in fact, one of the worst elements of speech and even make a listener or reader lose trust. Writer Kim Peres explains: “Using single words to describe actions and objects quickly brings them to mind. When someone “stabs” a straw into their drink we see it, but “pokes swiftly” is not so clear. When a person “meanders” it is more accurate than “walking slowly”. A man whose foot is described as a “hoof” is much more vivid that having “gnarled toes and sole.”

Reading this, hit me like a rock and couldn’t make it any more clear I think. Peres goes on to explain that “too much unnecessary text induces skipping”, which shows how detrimental adjectives can be. What we easily forget on a very high level is that using less words builds trust. So any words that don’t convey meaning can erode our readers and listeners interest. I think this is one of the most important elements I want to keep reminding myself of.

Three Ideas to Keep in Mind When Using Language
The skill of asking questions: “What would you do?”
When I read this, I realised, I totally suck at it. One of the best journalists and now turned entrepreneur Evan Ratliff put it like this: “All that’s really saved me (so far) from madness is being able to formulate questions that deliver useful answers.” He points out that any questions that start with “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “how” or “why” are likely to get great responses. To be avoided are “would”, “should”, “is”, “are” and “do you think”, as they can limit how people respond to you a lot. To give an example:

Good: “What would you do?”
Bad: “Would you do X?”
Terrible: “Would you do X or Y or Z or Q or M or W or … ?”

His advice is to practice questions that begin with the 5Ws in order to have more meaningful conversations.

Removing “is” from your language

This next one is super interesting. Alfred Korzybski, the creator of General Semantics, was firmly convinced that the ‘to be’ verbs like “I am, he is, they are, we are” promoted insanity. Why? Quite simply because things can’t be exactly equal to something else. Douglas Cartwright explains further: “This X = Y creates all kinds of mental anguish and it doesn’t need to because we never can reduce ourselves to single concepts. You believe yourself to have more complexity than that, don’t you? Yet unconsciously accepting this languaging constrains us to believe we operate as nothing more or less than the idea we identified ourselves with.”

Read the following list of examples and you’ll see immediately how different the outcome of the statements is:

He is an idiot vs. He acted like an idiot in my eyes
She is depressed vs. She looks depressed to me
I am a failure vs. I think I’ve failed at this task
I am convinced that vs. It appears to me that

You, Because, Free, Instantly, New: The 5 Most Persuasive Words in English
In a terrific article, Gregory Ciotti researched the top five words in English. His list is not suprising and yet the research behind it, is extremely powerful.

You: or your name is something that’s so easy to be forgotten and yet so important for great communication.

Because: Because is probably as dangerous as it is useful. Creating a causal relationship is incredibly persuasive: “even giving weak reasons have been shown to be more persuasive than giving no reason at all.”

Instantly: If we can trigger something immediately, our brain jumps on it like a shark, says Greg: “Words like “instant”, “immediately”, or even “fast” are triggers for flipping the switch on that mid-brain activity.”


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