How and why words matter

In Magic Words, Jonah Berger reveals how words can help you shape messages, engage audiences, and be remembered. The book discusses six broad themes: the activation of identity and agency, the importance of confidence, the ability to ask the right questions, making language concrete, using emotion, and drawing attention to similarities and differences.

His introduction starts with the ‘because effect’ and the magical impact of ‘because’ in persuading people to comply with a request. He goes on to explain the importance of identity and what being a ‘helper’ is more motivating than ‘helping’ and being a ‘voter’ is more motivating than ‘voting’: that is, often nouns have more influence than verbs. In the same spirit, saying you ‘don’t’ do something is more motivating than saying you ‘can’t’ do something, ‘could’ is more motivating than ‘should’, talking to yourself is sometimes a good thing and personal identifiers help persuasion.

In the next chapter, Berger discusses how to convey confidence, comparing hedges and definites (what I sometimes called downgrading and upgrading of language) and in the following one he discusses the positive impact of asking for advice. Later chapters discuss the role of concrete language (including my favourite topic of invoking the senses), how to use emotion (and narrative), and the use of relative comparisons to identify similarities and differences.

This book is a great read for anyone interested in language and persuasion, covering a wide range of material including much of the author’s research. A must read for any kind of writer (and especially copywriters!).

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