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You can tap into powerful, yet background words of influence

01 Jun, 2020 Persuasion, influence, motivation

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

Background words can be a simple, but convincing means of influence. Robert Cialdini discusses some fascinating examples in his new book, Pre-suasion.

One of Cialdini’s discussion points is the way an outstanding US health service even goes to the extent of aligning terms used in internal communication with its corporate healthful values and medical ethics.

This highly successful non-profit organization even goes to the extent of avoiding violent metaphors generally taken for granted and commonly used elsewhere.The organization uses achievement-related words such as goal and outdistance, but prohibits the use of words with menacing associations such as target, beat, mission and combat (disease). They don’t use bullet points; they use information points or dot points. They don’t attack a problem; they approach it.

All this may seem a bit corny, but it works.

Several studies have shown that subtly exposing people to words that signify achievement, such as win, attain, succeed, and master, increases their performance on an assigned task and more than doubles their willingness to keep working at it. So when you see a business office or call center where posters are prominently placed with messages in big font urging people to OVERCOME, SUCCEED, PERSEVERE or ACHIEVE, take note – these actually work.

Quite often such urgings are accompanied by photographs or illustrations. Research shows these work as well. For instance, a Canadian study found fundraisers in a call center were given information on paper carrying a photo of a runner winning a race. By the end of their 3-hour shifts, these callers had raised 60% more money than their comparable co-workers.

Conclusion: Initial incidental exposure to simple words or images can have a pre-suasive impact on later actions that are merely associated with the words or images.

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from

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