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Why language is more powerful than you think

Patrick Buckley
Vice President

Patrick Buckley and David Baynham show us how a small difference in language can make the world of difference to behaviour

Words matter.

The way we communicate, whether as individuals or as brands, can impact not only how our audience perceives us, it can influence what they do.

As the only global market research firm focused solely on language, we’ve long known that effective communication can drive behaviour. From our early days helping political leaders communicate to their constituencies, to our current work helping businesses position their brands, we’ve seen countless examples of how the right language strategy can drive change.

Few examples prove this point better – or more interestingly – than the work of Keith Chen, an economist at UCLA.

In his work, Chen discovered that there was a sizable difference in spending and saving behaviour between languages in which the grammar required the speaker to tell the future apart from the present. For example, English is a language that looks to the future. We say, “It will be cold tomorrow”. In Finnish, however, there’s no requirement to distinguish between the present and future tenses. Their phrases would be, “Today be cold” or “Tomorrow be cold” which, for them, requires no distinction. And that subtle difference has a real behavioural impact.

The right language can drive behaviours in ways you might not imagine

Chen found that when language treats the future and present as the same, people start behaving as though the future is no different from the present. Futureless languages like Finnish see the future as being of equal importance as the present, while future languages such as English see the future as something that can be put off, or worried about later.

The research for this study was collected from 76 developed and developing countries and surveyed individuals with a common income, family dynamic, education, and religion. It found that futured speakers saved only 69% as often as their futureless counterparts and had 39% less retirement assets. Chen even accounted for GDP, growth rates, interest rates, and unemployment rates but still found that language was the strongest predictor of spending and saving habits. By talking about the future in a defined way – a way that separates it from the present – it becomes easier to ignore it.

While Chen’s example is clearly a case that’s evolved naturally over time, and through the contrasts formed by varying national cultures, it has real business implications. Imagine if you could find the language keys to unlocking specific outcomes. Imagine if a 401k provider could instill potential customers with a sense of ‘futureless’ language.

The potential of these kinds of language keys stretches even to B2B communication. Take, for example, a conservative chief technology officer at a large multinational company. Your business is providing multiple products that have the potential to vastly improve this company’s operational capabilities, and yet adoption is slow. In an attempt to radically shift your communications, together with a desire to sell everything at once, you begin to speak to this CTO in terms of a gradual journey of adoption, at a pace that suits them and is tailored to their business. The adoption of these products becomes all the more achievable in his or her mind, linked with a sense of progression and building upon their existing operation. All of a sudden the CTO starts to behave like that avid purchaser you want him or her to be.

It’s easy to discount the impact that language can have on our behaviour because we have confidence in our own wills and ways. But research continues to show that finding the right language keys can drive behaviours in ways you might not have imagined.

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