Tag Archive for: Words that Work

Choose Your Words Carefully Because They Matter

This summer was a whirlwind! After an unusually heavy amount of travel in the first half of the year. I was looking forward to no airports or hotels until I began making the rounds for fall sales training. All of that changed when I made it known to the head of State Auto’s claims division that I was available if he needed my help. To be honest, I
thought he might invite me to sit in on a few meetings in our home office and share my expertise in influence. Instead he asked if I would travel to each of our claims offices to give an overview of persuasion to all of our claim reps.

Six cities and two-dozen sessions later I concluded with a presentation to the senior leaders in our claims division. As I fielded questions at the end of the talk I was reminded about the need to choose my words carefully. If anyone should be aware of this it should be the guy who teaches influence for a living! Having said that, we can all slip at times and I’m no exception.

During the presentation, I shared about a particular application of the principle of reciprocity. This principle of influence alerts us to the reality that people feel obligated to give back to those who first give to them. The particular application I shared that day had to do with concessions. That is, when we concede a little by taking a step to the middle, quite often people feel obligated to take a step towards the middle in response to our first move.

As I spoke about this I shared a story from Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., that shows how powerful concessions can be. Dr. Cialdini had some of his graduate assistants spread out across the campus of Arizona State University to randomly ask people this question:

“Hi, I’m from the juvenile county detention center and we’re looking for people who would be willing to chaperon a group of juvenile delinquents on a day trip to the zoo. Would you be willing to volunteer?”

As you might imagine, spending a day at the zoo with juvenile delinquents didn’t sound appealing so not too many people offered up their time. In fact, only 17% agreed to be chaperons.

At a later time, to test the theory of concessions the graduate assistants started with a much bigger request then retreated to a smaller request upon hearing no. It went something like this:

“Hi, I’m from the juvenile county detention center and we’re looking for people who would be willing to be a big brother or big sister for some juvenile delinquents. Generally we like people to commit a few hours every weekend and we ask that people sign up for two years. Would you be willing to be a big brother or big sister?”

As you might imagine, nobody said yes because that’s a huge commitment but as soon as that offer was rejected the graduate assistants retreated to a smaller request, the one they’d asked people days before:

“If you can’t do that, would you be willing to be a chaperon on a day trip to the zoo for some kids in need?”

The response in that case was a 50% volunteer rate. That’s triple the initial request even though it was the same time commitment – one day at the zoo!

You might not have caught the subtlety in how I shared that second request but someone from our legal department pointed out that the second request for the day trip to the zoo wasn’t exactly like the first request because dealing with “juvenile delinquents” is different than helping some “kids in need.” It’s probably easier for people to say yes to “kids in need” versus spending all day with “juvenile delinquents.”

It was a good reminder for me about how powerful words are! The reality was both requests were identical in the study but I got lazy when I shared the story that particular day. In the study both requests were to spend a day at the zoo with some juvenile delinquents so it was an apples-to-apples comparison.

This post isn’t so much about the power of reciprocity by way of concessions, as it is to remind us that we need to choose our words carefully because they matter. Frank Luntz, a conservative pollster, brilliantly shows this in his book Words that Work. I highly recommend the book because it will open your eyes to scripting used by political parties. For example:

  • Taxes. If you’re against taxing inheritances passed down to family members you’ll talk about the “death tax” but those in favor of taxing inheritances will refer to it as the “estate tax.” Each description conjures up very different images and feelings.
  • Immigration. If you’re for opening up immigration you might refer to people already here as “undocumented workers” but those against it call these same people “illegal aliens.” Again, each word choice creates very different mental pictures and feelings.

These are just two examples of how word choice describing the same thing can make a very big difference in people’s perception of the issues. Remember, what you say and how you say it can make all the difference when it comes to hearing “Yes” or “No.”


Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.