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Power Words

 

Techniques > Use of Language > Persuasive language > Power Words

God words | Devil words | Charisma words | Context counts | Notable lists | Practical realities | See also

 

There are words that are hardly noticed. There are words that stand out. And there are words which stand out so much they almost seem to have some kind of special power.

God words

Sometimes words arise in a society or even across societies which, like a God, demand absolute obedience. When they are invoked, you rebuke them at your peril. If I say 'Racial equality is important' then you will be taking your life in your hands to say 'No, racial equality is not important'.

God words often indicate beliefs, attitudes and values, which can be utilized by the attentive persuader. For example if I hear you talking about people being hurt, I might deduce that you have a strong value about safety and hence sell you a car based on its airbags and crumple zones.

There's even a word for it: when words become 'canonized', they become unchallengeable, in a similar way that a particularly good person is canonized into sainthood.

'In' words

Within companies and specific social groups, if I say 'this is profitable' to an executive, he or she will be hard put to turn me down. God words can indicate attitude and can even take the form of apparently meaningless utterances. 'Yo!' can invoke (and even demand) a positive can-do excitement.

God talks jargon

Jargon words can very often be God words, as they have special meaning to closed groups. Invoking them both has a special meaning and tells others you a member of the group. As a policeman walks past a group of youths, one might mutter 'Pig' under his breath. This sends a strong signal to the others, reminding them of their 'outlaw' attitude, binding them more closely together and raising the utterer's standing within the group for risking the ire of the lawman (for whom 'Pig' may be a devil word).

Devil words 

Just as God terms give you power, there are also words which will sap your power. Using these in a positive sense is taking your life in your hands as they may well provoke others to anger. Saying 'sexual harassment is not that important' may well make you a subject of attack (and even people who agree with you will quietly distance themselves from you). 

To illustrate the power of devil words, a reader of this page was so incensed even by examples I originally gave here, that he used very strong language in a communication (in consideration, I have removed the examples).

Devil word repulse

Devil words are so repulsive and so scary, people will quickly turn away from them. The mere thought of being associated with them (or, worse, being seen to be associated with them) is enough to make most people run a mile in record time.

These words are thus useful for attaching to the things which you want people to avoid. If I say 'Brown is so unfashionable' to my daughter who is looking at an expensive brown dress, she will almost immediately drop the dress and move away.

Non-PC words

Non-politically-correct words were once quite acceptable, but as society's values changed and people realized that they were using something unacceptable, it made them run even harder away from them.

Insults

Beyond non-PC words, variations can easily become pejorative and intended to insult, denigrate and belittle. Such words are even more emotionally charged and will provoke others into strong reaction -- which may be the intent of those using the words.

Insults are considered to be less socially acceptable when they are targeted at lower status and vulnerable people. This is one reason why words associated with ethnicity can cause a significant response, particularly from those who consider themselves defenders of the vulnerable.

Words may even be invented or subverted with the deliberate purpose of insult.

Paradoxically, words that have be originated or subverted as insults to particular social segments may be used within that segment in a jokey way, while the same people would be horrified if an outsider used the same word. This both neutralizes the power of the word to some extent and also sends an in-group confirmation message.

Euphemisms and references

When we want to talk about socially unacceptable words we often use euphemisms or other oblique references that let us indicate but not say the prohibited word. A common approach is to use the initial letter, for example when we talk about the 'n-word' or the 'c-word'.

Charisma words

Between God and Devil words are words that invoke particular effects on other people and can make you appear to have a mystical persuasive charisma. Sales books are full of these words and each list is different. They are sold as magical sales secrets based on years of research, but you can easily invent your own. All you do is take a basic need and find words which trigger the need (the stronger the better) in the person to who you are talking. Thus, for example, you can use:

  • Safety-oriented words: guaranteed, safe, secure, sound, healthy, strong.
  • Greed-oriented words: cash, deserve, money, more, free.
  • Control-oriented words: easy, quick, discover, proven, best, grab.
  • Belonging/Identity-oriented words: you, love, good, approved, favorite, new.
  • Trust-oriented words: certain, good, proven, real, right, scientific, sure, truth.

Notice how these are all positive words, as they aim to invoke good feelings. They are, as such, God-Charisma words. Words also can address more than one need (and most do). For example 'easy' also triggers greed and safety needs.

You can also leverage negative emotions to scare people into action with Devil-Charisma words such as only (as in 'only two days left!') risky and dark.

Context counts

The power effect of the words you use depend on the context within which you use them. 'Profit' is very likely to be a God word in most companies, yet in the public services it may well be a Devil word, being taken as an indication of all that is bad about our selfish society.

Words also sit within the context of other words within the sentence. Thus 'This is profitable' is nowhere near as powerful as 'How much more profit will this make you?'

Craft your speech with care and place your power words with even more care and you will become more and more persuasive!

Notable lists

Several lists have been given over the years which are interesting, although never ultimately definitive. One of the dilemmas of such lists is that without context, it is not clear where these are most powerful -- in advertising, one might reasonably assume. They certainly seem to be able to add power, though the truth of being the most powerful words, as they are often quoted, is perhaps doubtful.

The Yale list

An oft-quoted set of power words is commonly attributed to a study at Yale, Duke or California Universities, although it was noted early in the Vidette Messenger in 1963.

Easy, Results, Save, Discover, Guarantee, Safety, Health, Love, Money, Need, Proven, You

Ogilvy's advertising list

Advertising guru David Ogilvy gave a list that appeared in his book "Confessions of An Advertising Man":

Suddenly, Now, Announcing, Introducing, Improvement, Amazing, Sensational Remarkable Revolutionary Startling Miracle Magic Offer Quick, Easy, Wanted, Challenge, Compare, Bargain, Hurry

Wells' children's list

Controversially, researcher William Wells identified words and phrases in 1965 that were most effective with children:

Free, Remarkable, Offer, Hurry, New, Revolutionary, Quick, Advice to, Suddenly, Startling, Easy, The truth about, Now, Miracle, Wanted ,Last chance, Announcing, Magic, Challenge, It's here, Introducing, Improvement, Compare, Just arrived, Sensational, Amazing bargain, Important development

Job applications

There are many lists to help job applicants, a collation of which is available in this website here: Resume/CV Power Words.

Practical realities

In practice, of course, there is no real magic. The words may well influence others, but just by uttering or writing them you are not guaranteed that they will make any difference.

If you are going to use power words effectively, then they should have a subtle effect. Look at the following sentence:

Our new and exclusive products give instant, proven results and come with a free, money-back guarantee, strongly recommended by TVI. Apply now for this limited offer to discover these amazing benefits.

Overloading sentences with power words is like a teenage boy spraying on large amounts of scent in the hope of attracting more girls. The main effect on most people is that it is so obvious that it engenders either scorn or anger.

The ultimate measure of power words is the intentional depth of emotion they trigger, typically in feelings that drive action, such as desire, greed and fear.

See also

Resume/CV Power Words

 

Ogilvy, D. (1963). Confessions of An Advertising Man, New York: Atheneum

Wells, William D. (1965). Communicating with Children. Journal of Advertising Research. 5, 2-14

 

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