Which Words Matter The Most When You Talk

Language, like anything else, can be hacked for greater effectiveness. Here are some techniques to make your words—your best tool at work—more powerful.

One of the things I fuss about a lot (especially for Buffer copy, for example our welcome email if you sign up) 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 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 is also to simply create an emotion. The one key question we ask ourselves is:

"How does this make you feel?"

The question might sound very obvious. And yet, it’s a very different question to say for example "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" whenever you write even a single line, we immediately improved the amount of responses we got from our users.

Recently we explored how much sleep do we really need to work productively. Let’s do the same with language and dig in to how our brain works and expose some of the most persuasive words in English.

This is your brain on 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 channelled 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% words" rule

You’ve probably heard the above many times before. It’s one of the longest standing study results that has become a synonym for how language works. Only in recent years have people explored again what the contents of that study were.

The study which dates back to 1967 had a very different purpose and 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 percent 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

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."

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."

Something I struggle the most 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 fewer 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.

The most important everyday language skills

First is the skill of asking questions: "What would you do?"

When I read this, I realized, I totally suck at it. Journalist-turned-entrepreneur Evan Ratliff put it like this: "Aall 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.

Second, remove "is" from your vocabulary.

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

The most persuasive words in English

In a terrific article Gregory Ciotti researched the top 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:

"Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language." —Dale Carnegie

"Free"—Gregory explains Ariely’s principle of loss aversion. All of us naturally go for the lowest hanging fruit and free triggers exactly that:

"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."

Check out the full post from Greg here.

Quick last fact: Make three positive comments for every negative statement, and for every negative argument give 3 positive ones.

That last tip, which surprised me a little. comes from Andrew Newberg. His research suggests that negative arguments have a very detrimental effect to our brain. We need to pay particular attention to not let them take over and working agains them with this 3-to-1 ratio:

"When you get into a dialogue with somebody to discuss any particular issue, a three-to-one ratio is a relatively good benchmark to think about; you wind up creating the opportunity for a more constructive dialogue and hopefully a better resolution."

I love exploring how we can improve our language for better conversations and better lives. What have you found to work best when talking/writing to others?

Reprinted with permission from Buffer.

[Image: Flickr user Chris Preen]

Add New Comment


  • Vicki

    Great article.  Thanks!  For those speaking about Dale Carnegie - it's great but don't dismiss Toastmasters Int'l - I'll be sharing this with my club members.

  • Barb

    Barb Girson

    Great points and reminders about:
     1) speaking briefly
    2) facial expressions
    3) avoiding [excessive] adjectives.
    I appreciate insights like these to help me on my communications journey. It is a lifelong path.
    To the comments about the typographical errors: I am waiting for the 3 positive comments to follow! Take heed of the 3:1 ratio - another good tip.

  • Michael T. Breslin

    Fantastic article Leo.  I help folks write resumes and cover letters and help them prepare for networking and interviews.  There is so much here that I will be passing on to them...especially your quote below:
    “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

  • Guest

    I think this article contains some great information; however, the typographical errors render it almost impossible to read coherently. Is that a joke?

  • Jake Burdess

    I think more than typographical errors they are grammatical - I am assuming Leo's first language is not English? I must agree that the article is quite interesting, though the reading experience is tough when it doesn't read naturally...

  • seema june

    i only see 2 errors...the article is good enough to let a few typos slide by. 

  • Iván Darío Montealegre Quijano

    So great article and useful to read well between lines, sounds and create better understanding. Thanks

  • Ricardo Pereira Soares

    Good article!
    I'm trying to be more direct and not use the future possibilities with "could", "would", "should", etc.
    I like use the Dale Carnegie concepts and pay attention, truly, when talking to me.

  • LeoWid

    Hi Ricardo, great to hear from you and that's a perfect way to start. It's so easy to slip "could, would or should" into any sentence and make it less impactful, glad you discovered that one. And nothing beats Dale! :)

  • Gail Gibson

    Excellent article Leo - thank you very much. I find that when you use words that evoke emotion you make the reader feel like you are talking directly to them and their situation. The 1960's sales & marketing acronymn A(Attention) I (Interest) D (Desire) A (Action) stills works today. It is one of my prized writing tools that I use for my own and my clients' copy.  

  • LeoWid

    Hi Gail, thanks a lot for stopping by and for the kind words! I completely agree, this reminds me of the famous “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  line, that exactly emphasises that. The emotion of a reader is all that one should care about as a writer - thanks fro the great contribution, Gail!