Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Magnifying the Appeal: Word Swaps That Work Wonders

When we need to create persuasive messaging, we wish we had a window into our readers' brains so we could see exactly what words would trigger their trust and buy their buy-in.  We long to uncover which magic words will result in a "Yes!" response.

We may not be able to discern the exact arguments that will seal the deal, but we can choose words that will position our points more attractively in the reader's eyes. (Or in the hearer's ears, if the text is destined for an audio track -- more about writing specifically for audio in future posts -- stay tuned!).

Magnifying lenses make small objects seem bigger than they really are.  Similarly, well-chosen words can bring your selling points closer toward your audience's acceptance threshold, and magnify their appeal.

Here's an example. Take a moment to read the two sentences below.  See if you can spot the difference in perspective.

a. You have to register in person to receive the discount.

b. You need to register in person to receive the discount. 

Which version is more likely to get a positive response?

Most people I've tried this on will agree that version b is stronger and more compelling.  Not convinced?  Go back and read it again, this time out loud.  Hear how your own voice inflects each sentence differently.  Doesn't have to just sound heavier? Doesn't need to sound more energetic?

Word Swap Principle # 1:  Pick the Word With a Nicer Sound  

Some words hit with a big blah.  The have in you have to is one of them.  The short a sound is one of the least attractive sounds in the English language.  Think how these words sound: Fat. Flat.  Splat. By contrast, the long e in need to is a sharper, more alert sound.  Think: Me! See! Whee!  Phonetically, that long e syllable makes a distinctly different impact.

>>> In general, words with long vowel sounds are more appealing than words with short vowel sounds.

Word Swap Principle # 2:  Pick the Word That Feels More Active 

Some verbs are passive. Run from them.  (I could have said avoid them just now, but avoid is a passive verb that pales next to run.)  Passive verbs are static; on a basic level they don't prompt the reader to envision motion; therefore they do not contribute any force to your point.

In our examples above, the word have is about as passive as you can get.  It means, basically, just standing still and holding something.  Need signals tension -- a gap between what is and what should be.  It moves the reader's emotional needle.  It creates an inner image, a dynamic feeling -- so it's much more compelling on a gut level.

Speaking of guts, sometimes we're afraid to use bold, active words.  Don't be.  Risk it.

In his book, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Peter Robinson tells the story behind the famous 1978 Berlin Wall speech he wrote for Ronald Reagan.  Do you recall its culminating phrase? "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  There's a great example of active phrasing.  In the days leading up to that speech, the State Department, the National Security Council, and even then-security adviser Colin Powell, all tried to squelch that phrase.  One diplomat suggested an alternative:  "One day, this ugly wall will disappear."  How passive was that? Reagan stuck with the bold, active version, and its explosive impact toppled Soviet power in Eastern Europe.  (By the way, Reagan's controversial term for the Soviet Union, evil empire, starts with a long e.  I'm just saying.)

>>> Words with kinetic overtones win out over words with static overtones.

Word Swap Principle # 3:  Pick the Word That Inspires Happier Thoughts  

This principle for achieving positive effect is more obvious, but sometimes executing it right is subtle.  Back to our examples above:  in version a, the phrase you have to turns the emphasis back on you, stressing your burden of responsibility.  It also focuses on your powerlessness, by emphasizing your lack of choice. It's a drag, really. Who wants that?

On the other hand, in version b, the phrase "need to" focuses forward on the desirable outcome.  It makes the whole sentence sound more like a cheerful, helpful tip to get your discount!  Far from powerless, now you are empowered to get what you want.

People don't like work.  But they love getting presents.  Phrasing toward the latter, and away from the former, will always yield better buy-in.  It's totally psychological -- an illusion, really -- but totally effective.

Peter Pan was right when he maintained that it takes more than fairy dust to get people to fly.  They also need happy thoughts.  Replacing a Captain Hook expression (like the downer have to) with a Tinkerbell phrase (like the much peppier need to) will always give a lift to a piece of writing -- and waft your reader closer to a positive response.

>>> Words with positive connotations beat words with neutral or negative connotations.

So always use need to instead of have to.  It's a small swap with a remarkable effect.  Try it next time you have to -- I mean need to -- generate a message to influence others' actions, feelings or attitudes.  (Oh wait, isn't that all communication?)

Do you have other word swaps that work for you?  Do you know other principles that increase a writer's power to persuade?  Feel free to leave a comment and tell us about them.


  1. Hello Beth-
    Its been almost a year and reading this I feel like I am in one of your trainings!!! Thanks for grounding us to our language and that the power of change does come from how we say it not necessarily what we say!! We NEED more of this~With love and respect- a former colleague- Marie D'Onofrio

  2. Hi Marie, Welcome to Remarkable Messaging! Yes, the "how" is often much more important that the "what" when it comes to good communication. I know you have tremendous fun with language, and lots of expertise using it both live and in written form, so please visit often and chime in with your insights. We are the new community of good communicators! We NEED TO have more folks like you on board! -- Beth PS>>> I may be a former colleague but I am an always friend. :)