Stephen Colbert would call it “truthy”– something that comes from the gut, sounds true, feels right, may be accurate — but ultimately has no basis in fact.
Colbert’s idea about “truthiness” came to mind recently when I found Internet references to a list of the most persuasive words in the English language. The product of market research by a prestigious institution, the list could be really helpful to EEC’s clients, my friends and colleagues, and me personally.
So when I ran across a list of the most persuasive words in the English language, I thought, “Great — it’s about time someone got scientific about this.” I wanted to use the list to become a better communicator and help my clients communicate more effectively.
So here’s the list:
It makes sense that someone would be able to quantitatively document what were the most persuasive words in our language. After all, neuroscientists and behavioral economists use advanced technologies to demonstrate how brains respond to specific words or images. For decades, market researchers have measured people’s responses to ads for soft drinks, cars and presidential candidates. Given what we know — and are learning — about what makes people tick, the real question might be, “Why has it taken so long to figure out the most persuasive words in our language?”
The list may sound true. Definitely, it’s overdue. But in Colbert’s words, the list is “truthy.” It has no basis in fact. A series of blog posts on Language Log, operated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, traced the history of this purported list and then convincingly debunked it.
Those blog posts showed variations of this list have been circulating for more than 50 years. Sometimes the list has 10 words, sometimes 12 and sometimes 16. It has been variously attributed to non-existent studies conducted by Yale University, Duke University, the University of California, a large (unidentified) advertising agency and a prominent (also unnamed) marketing magazine.
Colbert would be proud — an urban myth that predated the Internet by decades is still alive and well!
But what does this mean to us as utility communicators? Should we stop trying to show customers, employees or other stakeholders how something will affect them? When writing copy, are we to downplay “results,” shy away from “savings,” or discard “safety?”
Of course not. These words resonate with your audiences! But before we start drafting copy, we can use these words to help frame the value proposition that makes the service or program relevant to our audience:
- Here’s how this will affect you, specifically
- How much money, time or effort does this new service save?
- What are the results?
- Discover all the ways you are wasting energy!
- How do customers feel about the new program!?
Like carpentry, communications is a craft that blends art, science and experience. The product, and the practitioner, get better with practice. If these 10 influential words are the hammer, saw and screwdriver in your metaphorical toolbox, you will construct better copy.