Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Talking more abstractly helps startups raise funds: Jonah Berger of Wharton

Why turn shoulds into coulds, when 'don't' is better than 'can't', the power of 'because', the right way to say 'no'...

Published: Jun 21, 2023 09:36:06 AM IST
Updated: Jun 23, 2023 12:04:59 PM IST

Talking more abstractly helps startups raise funds: Jonah Berger of WhartonJonah Berger, author and marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

In his new book Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way, Jonah Berger, author and marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, talks about the hidden science behind language and how to use it effectively to change minds, engage audiences, and drive action.

Q. What are the fresh insights into language that led to planning this book?
We use language all the time—whether we are writing emails, putting together presentations, calling clients, or talking to colleagues or bosses. Even our private thoughts rely on language. But while we spend a lot of time thinking what we want to get across, we think a lot less about the specific style or words we use to communicate our ideas. That is a mistake because subtle shifts in language can have a big impact. For instance, our research has shown that saying “I recommend a product” rather than “I like a product” makes others a third more likely to take our suggestion. From the language we use in office emails to that we use while applying for a loan, they provide important information about who we are and how we are likely to behave in the future.

The key question is: What are these magic words and how can we take advantage of their power? There have been some amazing changes in the availability of language now. We produced language all the time but now it is all being recorded. There are also new technologies to extract insights from language data. Tools like machine learning, natural language processing, and automated textual analysis, combined with the digitisation of everything from cover letters to conversations, allow us to analyse language and learn more and more about what people are saying and why. These are some of the foundations on which this new book has been built.

Q. What scope does language data hold for businesses?
Businesses can gather insights from a wide variety of language data to improve their marketing. Through social listening, for instance, they can get a sense of how customers perceive their products and services, what they are likely to choose in the future, which appeals they are most likely to be persuaded by, what the competitive space is like, and so on. It’s often unstructured data, but it’s a great way for us to learn more things about our customers, our competition, and the competitive space based on what people are saying.

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Q. You talk about using ‘could’ instead of ‘should’ for creative problem-solving…
We are often stuck while trying to solve a difficult problem. We try to choose between the options available but we cannot figure out the right way to move forward. The standard approach then is to think about what we ‘should’ do. Some researchers looked at whether thinking about what we ‘could’ instead—a subtle shift in just one word—can make a difference. They found that thinking in coulds rather than shoulds led people to be more creative and to come up with better solutions.

When we think in terms of should, we take a very narrow view, think about just one right answer. Consider this: Your pet has a rare kind of cancer and the only drug that can help is available at a factory nearby but is extremely expensive. Out of desperation, you even consider stealing it. The dilemma is: Should you help your pet or stay within the law? What if you think instead in terms of what you ‘could’ do—maybe offering to work for free for the drugmaker or trying a GoFundMe campaign. Thinking in terms of ‘could’ always helps us widen our perspective and consider new possibilities.

Q. Can pitch language influence funding decisions?
Research finds that talking more abstractly helps startups raise money. This is because when deciding whether to fund a startup, investors do not just try to understand the business. They want to assess whether it has the potential to grow and scale up. While concrete language focuses on the tangible, abstract language gives a bigger picture.

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If you talk about Uber, for example, it would have been easy to describe it as a company that gives you a ride from point A to point B. With this, you get a really concrete sense of what they do, but they do not sound that big a company or a solution. Instead, a co-founder positioned the company as a ‘transportation solution’ and it suddenly seemed like a much bigger business with a wider potential market. This brought them more investment.

Q. How best can brands leverage the power of emotions?
Marketers should first consider if a product, service, or experience is more hedonic or utilitarian. Is it being bought for pleasure or enjoyment, or for more functional or practical reasons? When emotional words are used to describe hedonic things like movies or music, people generally will be more interested in making a purchase. Describing a utilitarian thing like a blender as “amazing” or “delightful” will not necessarily make it seem attractive. In fact, it may backfire by lowering trust in what was said and the person who said it. The same applies when filling out a job application because the employer’s approach is utilitarian. They look for people who can solve a problem or add value. It’s not just enough to list positive adjectives pick the right ones.

Q. Speaking with power—how can it drive persuasion?
In one of his speeches when he first ran for office, Donald Trump said, “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore… When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time.” Some people felt this was overly simplistic and empty but he was elected President a year later. This is what startup founders like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, famous leaders, great salespeople, or even gurus do—speak with a great deal of certainty. And not surprisingly, the more certain someone seems, the more others are likely to get persuaded. For instance, while seeking financial advice, people tend to choose advisors that seem more certain because it is hard not to believe what they’re saying could be correct.

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However, the opposite is true with most of us. We often use hedges like “I think” or “I might” or probably fillers like ‘um’ or ‘like’. These words undermine our impact by making us seem less certain. And speaking with uncertainty makes us look less confident and makes other people less likely to take our suggestions.

Q. The power of new technologies like Natural language Processing (NLP)…
NLP and automated text analysis are exciting areas to think about when it comes to customer analytics. Many companies are using NLP—using what customers or potential customers write or say—to help predict their future behaviour. For instance, while dealing with customer complaints, it will help in knowing what they are looking for and whom to connect them to. Machine learning, which helps to figure out who might be more likely to cancel a service and automated text analysis, allows us to travel back in time and know how people felt about a product, say, three years ago. ‘Look alike targeting’ can lead us to potential customers with interests and attributes similar to existing ones. Really thinking about language, it’s all out there. This is an area of huge opportunity for marketers.