Over the last 5 years, I have taken an unusual interest in linguistics. My interest was prompted by the book Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What They Hear, by Frank Lunz.
Lunz is a political pollster. His job is to take a politician’s idea and test it through market research to find the best way to describe the idea.
He is probably the highest-profile pollster for the political “right” in the United States and because of this, he is possibly the pollster most studied by those on the political “left.”
The big takeaway I got from Lunz’s book is how changing a single word can radically change a person’s support for an idea against an idea.
In 80/20 terms, word choice is incredibly 80/20.
Here’s one example.
In the United States, when someone dies, the money that they pass along to their heirs (usually children) is taxed by the U.S. government. When this tax is described as an “estate tax” (e.g., your estate is the total value of all your belongings and financial assets at the time of death), something like 75% of Americans supported it.
But when the exact same proposed policy was described as a “death tax,” something like only 15% of Americans supported it.
Mathematically, both proposals were identical — but the difference was in using the “estate tax” vs. “death tax” (which sounds like either you are not allowed to die until you pay your taxes, or like it is adding insult to injury. Not only are you dead, but they tax your dead body).
The implication of this research is if you are for the tax, you want to call it an “estate tax.” If you are against the tax proposal, you should call it a “death tax.”
After reading dozens and dozens of examples in Lunz’s book, you can’t help but realize that choosing words matters… A LOT.
By the way, this is one reason why in all of my teachings, especially in Look Over My Shoulder, I am so incredibly picky about what words a candidate uses in a case interview.
This is because with clients, when you say something is always true, then it better be true 100% of the time.
If it is only true 99% of the time, you are, at best, inaccurate, at worst, lying.
This is one reason why consultants rarely say “always” or “never” — because it’s hard to prove such absolute cases.
Once I started paying attention to word choice, I also noticed that the words someone uses to describe a situation very much reflect how they think about it too.
(This is particularly the case with clients, C-level executives, bosses, etc…)
For example, when someone’s favorite sports team wins a big game, you’ll often hear people say:
“We won the big game.”
Yet if the same team loses a big game, the same people will say:
“They lost the big game.”
This kind of stuff happens all the time in everyday life — even in consulting.
In consulting, there are two specific situations related to word choice that I want to point out to you.
Situation #1: The Transition from You to Us
As I’ve mentioned previously in my program on How to Succeed in Management Consulting, when I first start working with a client, I ask questions like:
a) What were your sales last year?
b) What are the biggest problems you face in your business?
I do this because “they” are the client and “I” am the outside consultant.
But, after working with a client for several months, I very deliberately and consciously make a switch in my use of pronouns… switching from “you” to “we.”
So many months later in the client relationship, I’m much more likely to ask:
a) What were our sales last year?
b) What do you think are the biggest problems we face in the business?
This switch is very deliberate on my part.
I do this because I want the client to perceive me as “part of the team.” I want the client to think of me as a close trusted advisor — someone in the “inner circle”
— as opposed to some outside “vendor” (you never want to be “just” a vendor).
In my entire career, I’ve never had a client say, “Hey… you just switched from the 2nd person to the 1st person plural voice. I caught you!”
Most often, they barely notice the switch. But, the more I say “we,” the more they see me as part of the “we.”
As I mentioned earlier, the words we use reflect how we think.
I think the process works in reverse too.
You can change how someone thinks by convincing them to change the words they use.
(You might want to re-read that last sentence twice. It is a huge insight very few people grasp.)
This leads me to my second situation where word choice is important to pay attention to and is an example of this idea.
Situation #2: Change Their Words, Change Their Thinking
Sometimes, it is very hard to get clients to change what they do until you get them to change how they think. But, changing how they think is often surprisingly difficult.
Quite often, the historical way of thinking has so much momentum, cultural significance or inertia that it is very hard to change just by suggesting they do so.
In these situations, I often try to convince clients to simply stop using a single word and use a different one instead.
Let me give you two examples.
I have a client who is struggling with sales growth that has stalled. Despite the client’s very hard work, company sales have hit a ceiling.
In going through the standard analyses, I’ve confirmed that customer demand for what my client offers is very strong. Competition is minimal. The client’s point of market
differentiation is excellent.
When my client’s executives are in front of prospective clients, they win the business more than 80% of the time.
So, given all of this, how can sales possibly be flat?
My client is a professional services business. Well, my hypothesis was that the client’s top executives (who are also its lead service providers) were so busy delivering services that they weren’t actually spending much time selling.
I had their top 5 executives keep a time diary. (By the way, I’ve had several clients do this and they are all shocked at where their time goes.)
It turns out that between the top 5 executives, on average they collectively spent something like 10 hours a week on sales activities. That works out to 2 hours of selling time per week per person.
Well, mystery solved.
The problem isn’t growing sales, the problem is getting more sales time scheduled (in part by delegating service delivery to others).
Analytically, I figured this out within a few weeks. Yet months later, I noticed the senior client kept saying that they have a “sales problem” and they need to make some
changes to “jump-start sales.”
It was at this moment that I realized that my original insight was not being grasped by my client. After seeing this happen for a few months in a row, I asked the client to
make a simple word choice change.
I said: Anytime you intend to say that we have a “sales problem,” I want you instead to say that we have a “sales time scheduling problem.” So, instead of saying we need a new initiative to “boost sales,” instead say we need a new initiative to “boost scheduled sales time.”
A simple shift like this can sometimes make a big difference.
Let me give you another example.
In 2009-2010, in the middle of the Great Recession, I was giving a lot of speeches on the implications of the macroeconomic environment on CEOs of small- and mid-size companies.
One of the challenges my CEOs were struggling with was they felt that since their product and service offerings were much better than their “competitors,” they should be
generating a lot more revenue.
I realized that when these CEOs used the word “competitor,” they were actually referring to direct competitors — completely ignoring:
1) substitute goods and services (which is why this point is in my business situation framework); and
2) the customer deciding to just ignore the problem and not buy anything from anybody.
Quite often, their salespeople were hearing, “Your products are definitely better than everyone else’s, but we’re just not going to buy right now.”
As you might imagine, they were very frustrated.
So, here is what I suggested.
I said: In your companies, I want you to ban the word “competitor.” Instead, whenever any one of your employees is tempted to use the word “competitor,” I suggest you have them use the phrase “all the alternatives to buying, including doing nothing.”
Now I want you to go back and evaluate all of your marketing and sales materials and see if you clearly explain why your offerings are better than this expanded definition of “competition.”
For example, I know your presentations have a section explaining why your product is better than product X. But do you have a section that explains why buying from you is better than “doing nothing” (which is one of the alternatives to buying)?
(Nobody did, because up until then it was a foregone conclusion that clients would buy from someone.)
Do you have a section that explains why buying from you is better than the customer attempting to solve the problem “in-house” (which is yet another alternative to “not
Do you have a section that explains why buying from you now is better than buying from you in 1 year? Keep in mind, they’re not rejecting your product or service, they’re simply rejecting your proposed time period. Do you sell against this kind of “competition”?
But once they started using the phrase “alternative to buying” instead of “competition,” it suddenly became very clear to these CEOs what problems they needed to fix in
their sales, marketing and product development efforts.
Suddenly, it was very clear that being substantially better than one’s direct competition was not sufficient. You had to be better than all of the alternatives the customer can buy right now.
Now, if I told them this (which I did), they would all make a note of it and most likely not do anything differently as a result.
But, by convincing them to change the use of one small phrase, suddenly they realized what needed to change and were much more likely to change because of it.
So, the two big lessons in all of this are:
2) Change the words, and you’ll automatically change the thinking.
That’s my thought for today.