The language of persuasion-nudging through the noise

Over the last two years most decision-makers have been faced with the challenge of trying to change people’s behaviour. Whether it was to encourage them to participate in a vaccination drive against a global pandemic or to wear masks in public spaces, policymakers and politicians were all grappling to find ways to get their respective citizens not only to adhere to regulations, but to choose to do so willingly.

Some campaigns were more successful than others and academics will be studying those in the future to understand what the key factors were that contributed to their success.

For Leigh Crymble, facilitator on the Behavioural Linguistics Masterclass at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and behavioural linguist at BreadCrumbs Linguistics, the link between language, decision-making and behaviour is powerful and could provide the answer. Her company specialises in Behavioural Linguistics, an effective mix between cognitive psychology, behavioural science, and sociolinguistics.

“Behavioural Linguistics is new to the world of Behavioural Science, but in essence it is the science-based use of language to persuade. It is about nudging responsible action using communication, with the core belief that language is one of the most powerful ways to change behaviour,” says Crymble.

Decisions and mental shortcuts

Every day, human beings make thousands of decisions (according to a study at Cornell University, more than 200 on food alone). If we had to use all of our cognitive ability to address each of these decisions, we would be fatigued by the time breakfast arrives.

Enter cognitive heuristics – mental shortcuts that aid in problem-solving and probability judgements.

Crymble says a couple of hundred of these have been codified. “They assist us in making quick, almost-autonomous decisions where we don’t have to dedicate too much thought, strategy or structure,” she explains.

The list includes biases such as anchoring (tending to rely too much on the first information offered), the certainty effect (people overweight outcomes considered certain, as opposed to outcomes that are just possible), commitment (tending to be consistent with what we’ve already done or said we’d do previously), the Dunning-Kruger effect (where those who are ignorant or unskilled in a certain area tend to believe they’re more competent than they are) and ego depletion (people have a limited supply of willpower, and it decreases with overuse).  There are many more and recognising these heuristics assists in understanding how behaviour can be influenced through language framing.

A complex world of choice architecture and nudging

In 2008 economist Richard Thaler developed the concept of Nudge Theory. His seminal work on the topic would eventually win him the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2017.

Simplified, the theory suggests placing small, practical stimuli (nudges) to guide people towards a decision that benefits them in the long run. Once you organise the context in which people make decisions, with the help of these nudges, you are playing in the field of ‘choice architecture’ – a phrase coined by Thaler and fellow researcher Cass Sunstein, also in 2008.

Through her work for Discovery Vitality, Crymble saw nudging in action, as well as the good it can do to encourage people to act with the best interests of their future selves in mind. From this, she decided to focus on the linguistic elements of behavioural change to make even more of an impact.

Today her company assists organisations, charities and corporates to use language to persuade, but she says they are very careful who they work with.

“How you use the science and where you apply it could become a very philosophical debate. But we choose to work with brands that offer something that makes someone’s life better. A key part of our behavioural world is that people must always have the freedom of choice in what they end up doing,” she says.

Top tips for increased persuasion

In her Behavioural Linguistics masterclass at GIBS, Crymble shares many insights, including a number of linguistic tips that immediately make a difference in communication.

“We have a behavioural communication toolkit that we take clients through, to help them achieve their goals – whether it is a sentiment shift for the brand, a sales campaign or to position themselves as thought-leaders in an industry,” says Crymble.

One of these tips is to keep it simple. While this sounds obvious, Crymble advocates for clear communication that is pitched at an 11- to 12-year-old’s comprehension level, with short sentences, few words and accessible vocabulary.

“This does not mean you’re dumbing down content – it means you are respecting your audience enough to frame your communication consciously, by making it easy to understand,” she says.

A second tip is to use the “nudgiest” tense in English, the simple present tense, when you communicate. This tip plays into the heuristic of present bias, where people tend to want things now, rather than later.

“We are more likely to follow a call to action if it is presented to us in the now,” says Crymble.

A third tip is adjective use. “There is research that shows by simply adding adjectives of taste and origin to a healthy food option such as chickpeas – for example making it ‘spicy, Madagascan’ chickpeas – it immediately made it more appealing and had a positive impact on sales.”

Words matter

In a world where consumers are constantly bombarded by omnichannel marketing, cutting through the noise is becoming increasingly difficult. For Crymble, this means that organisations and companies cannot afford to spend hours crafting content, only for it to be discarded because it was not easy to understand, too long or irrelevant.

The fact that language and its appropriate use is a key differentiator is good news for economic players who grasp its importance and hone this skill to persuade the audience of their relevance. (It gives this journalist hope for the relevance of my craft.)

For those who don’t, it seems they do so at their own peril.

Brought to you by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).

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