In 1995, direct marketing legend Ted Nicholas published a book titled Magic Words That Bring You Riches…
I have it at my side as I write. It’s an interesting book. A compelling book. A useful book for those of us who use language as our primary tool of persuasion — who want to know the most effective ways to generate specific results with the words we write or say.
Today, it’s considered a classic and collector’s item. If you want to buy it at Amazon.com, it will set you back a minimum of $60.96 (as I write this — that could go up as my readers snag a few copies). The highest priced copy, supposedly “new” or in new condition, is $241.55, plus shipping.
The most valuable lesson in the book though, can be gleaned without reading or buying it. The most valuable lesson is in the title itself.
We all crave “magic words” that will get us the results we most desire…
One of the most highly-cited pieces of research in the field of “magic words” appears in the first few pages of the first chapter of another persuasion classic, Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
The study was conducted by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer.
Langer wanted to test how the language we use can impact the level of compliance we get to a certain request.
In her first test, she asked people waiting in line for a library copy machine, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”
Nearly everyone — 94% — let her jump ahead and make her copies before them.
Dropping her reason for jumping the line for the next test, she asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
Understandably fewer people complied and let her make her copies first — it was down to 60%. (Although there’s an illustration in here that you’d be surprised at what you get if you’re simply willing to ask for it — 6 in 10 were willing to comply with zero reason given.)
Now here’s where we get into the “magic words” territory…
You’d think, if Langer simply tested these two scenarios against each other, that it was the reason of “because I’m in a rush” that created the increased compliance.
That’s completely logical — and a rational conclusion.
However, Langer took it one step further.
For the next test, she asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?”
There is absolutely no rational justification in “because I have to make some copies” beyond the initial request. It’s an empty reason.
If you want to use the copier, of course you need to make some copies!
If you assume that we humans are rational creatures, Langer’s results will shock you — she got 93% compliance with this irrational justification!
Meaning: whether or not her “reason why” made any sense or not, she got almost exactly the same level of compliance!
So, what was the conclusion of Cialdini and the thousands of others who’ve used Langer’s little experiment as an example?
“Because” is a magic word! … Or, is it?
Well, I’ve certainly made it a regular part of my persuasive writing. Because if it works, I don’t want to ignore it. And if it doesn’t — if my prospects need a real rationalization tagged on — “because” is a nice reminder to add some substance.
Later research, in fact, found that “because” isn’t quite a magic word. It does work, in certain low-threshold requests — like asking someone to let you hop in front of them in line at the copier. And especially if you have a real reason to tack on after “because,” it falls into the “no harm, no foul” category of persuasive language.
If you’re a serious student of marketing, you probably love to dig into the classics. Because you know that today’s breakthrough are usually just new applications of timeless principles, and the selling lessons in old books still apply in spades today.
And if you’re into classic advertising books, you may have heard of John E. Kennedy’s Reason Why Advertising (free PDF download at that link — you’re welcome). It was little more than a booklet to promote Kennedy as a copywriter, and his agency, the legendary Lord & Thomas.
But that book, written so many years before Langer’s research, taught us the same thing. People want a “reason why” and will be more likely to respond if you give them one.
“Because” is a shortcut — a mental hack — a “magic word” — that taps into this subconscious mechanism. But the principle runs far deeper.
Some people even make a study of magic words…
I’ve been thinking more of this idea of “magic words” as I’ve gone deep once again into the study of hypnosis.
There’s an offshoot of the hypnosis field called Neurolinguistic Programming, or NLP.
One of the modern masters of hypnosis, Milton Erickson, spent about 60 years mastering hypnosis in all forms. 8 to 12 hours per day. Often 6 or even 7 days a week. For 60 years.
And while some people can get 1 year of experience 60 times over, Erickson was dedicated to constant learning and the compounding learning approach, so by the end of his 60 years he’d made significant advancements in the field of hypnosis.
The most significant of which was in the field of indirect hypnosis.
You probably have an idea in your head of what direct hypnosis is. “Look into my eyes — you are getting sleepy — very, very sleepy!”
But Erickson discovered something very interesting. People go into trance and hypnotic states all the time. It’s easy. We may do it while driving. Or watching TV. Or even reading this email.
It’s very natural for someone to go into trance. And often Erickson could do something as simple as tell a story, and embed a few “magic words” — and by the time the story was done, the subject was completely relaxed, and found themselves in a trance state and ready for Erickson’s therapeutic work to begin. Rather than a direct induction, he got them into hypnosis with indirect suggestions.
In fact, sometimes Erickson told such hypnotic stories that he was able to get his clients to change their thoughts and behaviors without ever going into hypnosis at all!
Others found themselves fascinated with Erickson’s power — and made study of his “magic words…”
And so, for example, you can buy a book like Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Volume 1 and Volume 2 to study Erickson’s uniquer use of language…
And you might even think you’re starting to discover a whole world of “magic words” you can begin to use to get others to do your bidding.
And in fact, I think that there are plenty of things a serious student of copywriting, marketing, selling, and persuasion can learn from diving into all of this.
But, if you think you’re going to discover some “magic words,” I have a word of caution…
The biggest magic words I know is the phrase “magic words…”
There’s a seductive allure to the concept of magic words. If you find yourself too attached to them, it’s all too easy to get lost in believing that the power is in the words themselves.
The power is in you. It’s in your product, your service, your offer.
(Or, in the world of hypnotism, it’s taught that people don’t get hypnotized because of the induction you do, but because you believe and thus they believe that you are “The Hypnotist.”)
If the threshold the prospect has to cross is very low — such as giving their email address — a few “magic words” may have a significant impact.
However, you can’t spout an incantation and expect money to flow to you without reason. You must do things and take action to give the money reason to come to you.
You have to tack on a reason why after your “because” that appeals to both emotion and rational thought, to make sure the power of the word itself will stick.
Then, layer on the magic words, like icing on a cake — and your results will grow more delicious!
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
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