Feb 22, 2016 / by Jim Dougherty

The intention of this piece was to share with you the three most important words that you can use in your communications. Or the ten most important. Or the 135 most important words to use.

The fact is, there is little evidence that one piece of advice is anymore valid or useful than another. Which certainly doesn’t mean that advice isn’t circulating, but it is often conjecture and sometimes contradictory.

When I looked into what actual research has been done into words that work well to convert customers, what I found was that linguistic research isn’t focused as much on what you say or write as much as the context and framing of your words. In other words, choosing a lexicon of “powerful” words isn’t as worthwhile as using them in the most effective way.

What I want to do in this post is to look at what researchers show are the most effective ways to engage people with content. I think you’ll find some of it surprising.

1. Anchor your descriptions.


“Listeners start processing the directions before they’re finished, so it’s good to give them a head start by pointing them towards something they can find quickly, such as a landmark.” – Micha Elsner, Assistant Professor at the Department of Linguistics, Ohio State University.

In advertising and communication, oftentimes you need to introduce a new concept or product to your publics. One study in Frontiers in Psychology describes the power of anchoring descriptions to prominent items first when describing new concepts.

For example, visually you might reference the Eiffel Tower in an image before pointing out yourself. This study was literally done with “Where’s Waldo” pictures and demonstrates people’s preference for recall before introduction.

Anchoring isn’t hard to project onto more abstract concepts either as it is a well-studied concept in education as well.

2. Give them a reason (even if it’s not even THAT good).


In Robert Cialdini’s seminal book Influence: Science and Practice, he describes a simple experiment by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer. She tested whether people will let a stranger skip the line to make copies at a copy library machine, and what strategies were most effective to gain agreement to skip the line.

Those without a reason weren’t especially successful, and those with a valid reason (such as being time-constrained) were 94 percent of the time.

But Langer introduced an interesting twist: another group said that they would like to skip the line because they had to make copies (which presumably everyone was there to do). This strategy was successful 93 percent of the time.

Cialdini attributes this to the power of the word “because” which he posits gives an “automatic compliance response.” While the world would be a different place if this were universally true, a “because” may be a powerful way to perpetuate a conversion event.

3. “You” versus “we” is a segmentation issue

Dale Carnegie wrote that the sweetest sound to any human being’s ears in their own name. While this may be true to an extent, when it comes to pronouns one study determined that reaction depends upon the relationship between brand and consumer.

In the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers examined people’s reaction to the pronouns “you” and “we” in brand communication. It turns out that people have a nuanced view of either:

  • People with a close affiliation to the brand preferred the pronoun “we”
  • People with a weak affiliation to the brand preferred the pronoun “you” (i.e. “you and brand X”)

The delineation for marketing may be past customers versus prospects, and the implication is clear: we aren’t a “we” until the consumer has bought in.

4. Tell me you love me (or tell me I love you).


Consumer sentiment over time decreases for familiar brands, which is to say that we generally get more excited about new things than we do about old things. This is known as “satiation.” One study in the Journal of Consumer Research offers a strategy to mitigate this: consistency.

In a cascade of studies, researchers studied the overall affinity for a product when identity to the product (i.e. the “we” in #3) is activated consistently. By consistently reminding subjects of a positive relationship between them and the product, people consistently resisted satiation compared those who weren’t reminded of the affinity between consumer and product.

In other words, it’s not enough for people to like you – you need to remind them that they like you. There’s probably some pretty decent relationship advice in there as well.

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5. This offer will expire in….

I like to take advantage of retargeting online by abandoning my shopping carts and seeing if prices go down. There are a few services that years after a cart abandonment still write a few times a week. They all tend to have one thing in common: an expiry (their price hasn’t changed a whole lot in a year… much to my chagrin).

Creating an artificial sense of urgency is a pretty well-established tactic. In his book The Art of Writing Copy, Herschell Gordon Lewis points out that there is a specific lexicon to artificial urgency (“act now,” “limited time only,” et cetera). If consumers have a relationship to you (the “we” in #3), then expiry can be a means to speed up the conversion.

6. “Free” is sometimes very expensive.


In his book Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely describes an experiment with Lindt chocolate truffles and Hershey Kisses. When there is a nominal cost associated with each, Lindt chocolates are purchased nearly three times as often as Hershey Kisses.

But when the Kisses are offered for free, Hershey becomes far more popular. The implication is that free is rather expensive and can skew perception of a market (Thanks to Copyblogger’s Brian Clark for this example).

Spotify and Pandora are examples of businesses whose free offerings aren’t completely subsidized by their premium accounts. Spotify’s revenue gap alienated Taylor Swift, and if you get nothing else from this article you should avoid upsetting Taylor Swift whenever possible .

7. Short is better than long; Active is better than passive

“Cut out any waffle, or needless or redundant words. Be as brief as you can.” – John Foster

In his book, Writing Skills for Public Relations, John Foster says that in our social media driven society it is more important than ever to practice good editing for our content. Among the things that people appreciate is brevity and active voice.


8. Don’t Write Like a (Corporate) Robot

In his book, Public Relations and the Social Web, Rob Brown describes one of the biggest fallacies of communication on the social web: corporate speak.

It’s sometimes hard to distance your writing from this very common tone, but it’s oftentimes very easy to understand why you wouldn’t want to communicate in that style…because you don’t (willingly) read a lot of content with that tone.

Here’s how Brown describes a typical reader’s reaction to this type of writing:

“It is very easy for organizations to fall in the trap of using the language of the corporate brochure…the result of this is typically antipathy, apathy or disinterest.”

9. Hit the hot buttons.


In his book, Contagious, Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger describes what makes online videos go viral. He uses the term “arousal” to describe the degree of interest necessary for people to share a particular piece of content. Berger shares an acronym STEPPS which describes the ways that people are aroused to share viral content:

  • Social Currency
  • Triggers
  • Emotion
  • Public
  • Practical Value
  • Stories

He also says that there are positive emotions that you can invoke in readers that don’t arouse their interest to share at all. More important than word choice may be the emotions around the content that you present to your publics.

10. Test the unintuitive.


“An effective use of words that is rather unethical but often used in advertising is using logical fallacies…these “tricks of the trade” are misleading… (they are) based on word choice and syntax rather than evidence. They sound like evidence, but are really lacking evidence.” – Communications Professor Richard F. Taflinger

“People who speak more abstractly are thought to be more powerful.” – Psychology Today, August 2015

If you’ve watched any political debates recently, you might have been reminded of the messaging, obfuscation and pivots necessary to run a political campaign (especially a national campaign with so many conflicting interests). The Psychology Today article cited above describes two studies that are sort of interesting:

  • People attribute a greater level of power to leaders who speak abstractly (I have to cop to hating that idea, however valid it may be.)
  • People recall speeches better when they use rhetorical schemes (For example, “we’ve done a lot, but we’ve got a lot more to do.”)

Taflinger’s quote above goes a step further by describing that oftentimes the syntax and word selection in advertising are far more important for conversion events than any facts that are presented about the product.

Assuming that organizations (and politicians) aren’t doing anything unethical, what these seem to suggest is that people sometimes react to communication in a different way than they might intuit. Thinking outside of the box and A/B testing may help to make your communications more effective…even if that means that it is less specific or robust as you personally might prefer.


Content is more than the sum of words. It is how we react to the words… or images… or data. What I wanted to do was to give you a list of research-based words that would make you more effective as a writer. Hopefully, by looking at the context and framing of words rather than at a list of “power” words and phrases, this post is more valuable than it otherwise might have been.

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Images via Pixabay: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.