Ellen Langer a fascinating social psychologist discovered a single POWER word.
Hollywood is now working on a film, Jennifer Aniston has agreed to co-produce the movie and play the 34-year-old Langer. The movie will be based on her revolutionary 1981 study where she and her colleagues piled two groups of men in their seventies and eighties into vans, drove them to a sprawling old monastery and dropped them off 22 years earlier, in 1959.
The group who went first stayed for one week and were asked to use their imagination and pretend they were young living in the 1950s. The second group, who arrived the week afterward, were told to stay in the present and simply reminisce about that era. Both groups were surrounded in a set—1950s issues of Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, a black-and-white television, a vintage radio. There was entertainment (a screening of the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder with Jimmy Stewart) and spirited discussions of everything 1950s.
In 1977 Ms.Langer and her research team from Harvard conducted a study to understand human behavior. It was called
The Copy Machine Study
This is how the research study worked…
A researcher would spot someone waiting at the library copy machine and walk over with the intention of cutting the person in line. Then, the researcher would look at the innocent bystander and ask them one of three questions.
- Version 1 (request only): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
- Version 2 (request with a real reason): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”
- Version 3 (request with a fake reason): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
You’ll notice that Version 3 didn’t make much sense. Using the phrase “because I have to make copies” was a fairly useless reason for skipping the line. Everyone waiting at the photocopier needed to make copies. The phrase contained no new information, but the researcher was trying to use it to justify the favor anyway.
Surprisingly, this senseless reason performed well. When the researchers analyzed the data, they found the following.
- Version 1: 60 percent of people let the researcher skip the line.
- Version 2: 94 percent of people let the researcher skip ahead in line.
- Version 3: 93 percent of people let the researcher skip ahead in line.
Langer’s research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (
The most powerful word to drive behavior is: because
The study became famous because it uncovered one of the most powerful words we use to drive our behavior: because. Langer’s work proved that as long as we could justify a behavior in our brains (“I’m doing this because…”), we would perform the behavior even if the reason didn’t make sense.
The second most convincing word is: You
Like most of us, your readers and listeners are almost always focused on themselves. Yes, it’s a good idea to speak or write about yourself and your experiences as a way to create a bond with your audience. But before you do that, you need to engage their attention, and the best way is to let them know right from the beginning how what you have to say will benefit them. That makes “you” the single most convincing word you can use when writing or speaking.
Words that convey urgency:
All of us are too busy, and constantly facing competing demands on our attention and time. Given this reality, why should anyone stop and read or listen to what you have to say? Because whatever it is is urgent, and requires their immediate action. These words to convey that notion.
5. Must not
6. Don’t miss
9. Only (as in “only one day left” or “only seven available”)
Words that create connection:
We spend more time connecting with others on social media than we ever have before and yet many of us are also lonely. The trend toward working at home–a wonderful thing in most ways–makes this problem even worse. Your readers and listeners are looking for a sense of connection and community; here are some words that will give it to them.
16. Come along
17. A good fit (as in “our product may be a good fit for your needs”)
Words that help people trust you:
“Because” fits into this category, along with many other words and phrases that imply cause and effect. The reason, according to Darlene Price, author of Well Said!, is that cause-and-effect words and phrases make you seem objective and rational. This list of words includes other excellent cause-and-effect words, as well as other words that imply objectivity and trustworthyness.
18. As a result
20. Caused by
21. For this reason
Words that promise a reward for little effort:
In our busy lives we are constantly, often unconsciously, calculating how we can best spend our time to get the most useful result. That’s why it’s a powerful tactic to use words that suggest that a small amount of effort–such as the few minutes it will take someone to read your message or listen to what you have to say–will bring immediate benefits. One warning though: Do not use these words and then fail to deliver the goods, or you risk alienating your audience. And that’s tough to recover from.
Words that promise a surprise:
In modern times we’ve all become a little jaded, and we’re all on the lookout for anything truly unexpected, especially so we can share it with our friends and on social media. These words tell readers or listeners that what’s coming next will surprise them in some way. Here again, do not use these words unless whatever follows truly lives up to that promise:
36. You won’t believe
This should give you a good start, but there are a lot of other powerfully convincing words and phrases out there. Share your own favorites in the comments. (And see how many of these you can spot in Bloom Factor blog headlines.)
Writing good copy that converts requires a special mindset. If we use the information from this blog post we can create a formula for writing:
Start with a question + add urgency + create a connection + add a because + imply little effort, then + add a promise and surprise
Let’s give it a try! Imagine we are writing the first paragraph to this blog post.