Magic Words Book Summary - Magic Words Book explained in key points
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Magic Words summary

Jonah Berger

What to Say to Get Your Way

4.6 (1164 ratings)
17 mins
Table of Contents

    Magic Words
    Summary of 6 key ideas

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    Key idea 1 of 6

    Activate a sense of identity

    Words are all around us. We each use about 16,000 of them a day. Yet we rarely think about which words we use. 

    It turns out that this choice can be pretty important.

    In 2014, scientists conducted a study to find out how to get kids to tidy up. They allowed 4- to 5-year-old children to play for a bit and then waited until they were engaged in another activity. Then, they asked them to tidy up. They asked one group of kids to “help” clean up the toys, while they asked the other group to be “helpers” in cleaning up the toys.

    Which group do you think was more likely to tidy up? 

    The ones that were encouraged to be “helpers.” 

    This brings us to our first trick in the bag: using words that activate a sense of identity. 

    One way to do this is to use nouns instead of verbs – like in the study. Nouns evoke category labels. It’s the difference between “Rebecca runs” and “Lisa is a runner.” Category labels such as “runner” imply a certain permanence. They make us think that a trait is an integral part of someone’s personality. Running seems like a stable part of Lisa’s identity, whereas Rebecca simply jogs once in a while. 

    That’s why it can help to use nouns to get people to do something good. Kids may not want to “help” at the moment, but they want to be seen as a “helper.” In 2008, political strategists used this principle to increase voter turnout. Instead of encouraging people to “vote,” campaigns talked about “being a voter.” It worked: voter turnout rose by 15 percent. 

    Another way to activate our own sense of identity is to use the word “don’t” instead of “can’t.” When we’re on a diet, for instance, we tend to say things like, “I can’t eat chocolate cake right now, because I’m trying to be healthy.” But this suggests that we actually do want to eat cake – it’s just that some outside force is preventing it. This makes it much harder to resist. So next time you’re trying to change a habit, speak in don’ts: “I don’t eat chocolate cake.” “Don’t” activates our sense of identity, and that makes us feel empowered. It suggests that we’re not trying to be healthy, we are healthy.

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    What is Magic Words about?

    Magic Words (2023) teaches you how to use the power of language to achieve your goals. Want to win an argument, nail a job interview, or get your child to clean up after themselves? This guide reveals the magical yet scientifically proven words that may make all the difference.

    Who should read Magic Words?

    • People interested in psychology and language
    • Anyone wondering which words to use to market themselves or their product
    • Anyone who wants to become better at (public) speaking

    About the Author

    Jonah Berger is a Wharton School professor and a world-renowned expert on natural language processing and consumer behavior. He’s the author of several other bestsellers, including Contagious: Why Things Catch On (2013) and The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind (2020). He also consults for companies like Apple, Google, Nike, and Amazon. 

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