The Myth of the Magic Words
By Jessica Albon
Even if 93% of all communication isn’t non-verbal, it’s true that at least a portion of your communication has nothing to do with what you say, but rather how you say it. But what does that mean about writing? Emails, sales letters, Tweets, blog posts… If all the other person has to rely on are the words you’ve used, that’s all the communication that’s happening, right?
Erm. Not exactly. Even setting aside all of the possible visual cues (like images, typography, line length, capitalization, etc, etc), communication is never as black and white as the words on this page.
See, the people you’re communicating with, they’re not robots. Which means that they’re participating in the communication. Which means they’re responsible for about half (and usually more) of the communicating that’s getting done. If they’re scanners instead of readers, they’ve just missed that very important point you’ve made about how their participation results in the meaning they get (for example).
Not only is there “their” role in the communication (or, in the case of this article, your role), but there are also nuances at your disposal. Nuances like punctuation. Word choice. Sentence length.
In fact, in many ways, punctuation can be used to take the place of tone of voice and facial expressions. And, when in doubt, there’s always the smiley
Because we see written communication as black and white, though, there pervades a myth of the magic words. This myth holds that there are words you can use in any and all circumstances to get exactly what you want. I blame mothers everywhere. (Sorry mom.)
After all, when we’re kids, we’re all but told if we simply intone the “magic words” of please and thank you, the world is our oyster. Thus, it stands to reason that as adults, we would continue to believe it when wicked internet marketers promise to reveal the “magic words” that will Get Our Customers to Buy Buy Buy! (or whatever the promise happens to be).
For much of my early professional career as a copywriter, I believed this myth right along with everyone else. I devoured copywriting programs, in part, to learn what those magic words were so that I could write the most powerful copy possible. I signed up for classes that promised to reveal what those magic words were that would keep my emails from being misunderstood by the recipient. I hired mentors who offered to teach me how to never be misunderstood again.
In the end, I had to admit the simple fact: there’s no such thing as “magic words.” There’s no such thing as a magic phrase that will always soothe disgruntled clients. There’s no such thing as a perfect paragraph that will always convince past-due clients to pay their bill. There’s no such thing as a magic phrase that will get the right people to buy now (and the wrong people to buy something else instead).
Sure, there are ways to communicate more effectively and more clearly. And yes, getting clear on your intention before you put fingers to keyboard can absolutely go a long way towards preventing misunderstandings. And that rule to not send emails when you’re pissed? It’s often helpful as well.
But the truth is, sometimes people misread what you’ve written. Heck, sometimes they even do it on purpose just because they want to be outraged. You simply can’t convince someone to do something they’re dead set against, even when they ignore your words at their own peril. (Mere words have yet to convince Izzy he must be on a leash if he’s going for a walk.) Sometimes words make things worse. Even when they’re carefully chosen and properly punctuated.
There are some solutions, to be sure. It’s seldom a waste of time to be mindful of the impression you’re making and to get clear on where it’s out of alignment with the impression you want to be making. But, at the end of the day, you may as well stop searching for the “magic words.” They simply don’t exist.Blog