Word Games: Putting a Method Behind the Words You Choose



[Thanks to our guest blogger Megan O’Hara for contributing this article.]

In our line of work, we’re constantly reminded that words have a profound impact on how we form our opinions and preferences.

That’s a topic discussed in detail in this article by Mike Seccombe of “PowerHouse.” Seccombe cites numerous examples of how “linguistic sleights of hand” are important tactics in England’s political power struggle. Per Seccombe, “One political person’s ‘refugee’ is another’s ‘asylum seeker,’ is another’s ‘illegal,’ is another’s ‘boat person’ or ‘queue jumper.’”

Whether its politics or policy, litigation, sales or marketing, putting a method behind the words you choose to use can make the difference between winning and losing.

My consulting firm, Presentation Testing, uses Perception Analyzers to help our clients weed out those words, phrases, messages and arguments that engage and help audiences form opinions. The dials are an efficient tool for A/B testing messages and words, and pinpointing which ones have the most impact with respondents. As a case-in-point, here’s a real world project that Presentation Testing did for a client a few years ago:

The project focused on the topic of international trade. In Round One, the client was message testing with the dials and a portion of that messaging stated that, “protectionism is bad.” The respondents’ dial lines plummeted. Presentation Testing found that while most respondents didn’t know exactly what “protectionism” was, they dialed down on the message that it was bad because the word “protectionism” sounded like a good thing that we should be doing.

Based off this feedback, we changed the wording in Round Two from “protectionism” to “economic isolationism.” Most respondents, again, didn’t know what “economic isolationism” meant. Despite this, respondents dialed up the message that “economic isolationism” was bad because it sounded like a bad thing and something they should be against.

As this exercise showed, the words you select can have powerful implications even if your audience doesn’t know their exact meaning.

It’s also important to remember that when it comes to words, meaning is in the eye of the beholder or to be more specific, your intended audience.

So, when we test client messages, we look at the dial results based on whatever demographics are the most relevant to the project—in the case of political or policy message testing, we typically look at political persuasion. In the “PowerHouse” article, Seccombe notes that, “A growing body of research indicates people of different political persuasions literally hear, see and even smell the world differently from one another.” Seeing how left-leaning versus right-leaning respondents react to a message helps us figure out what words and messages resonate with each specific audience as well as which appeal to both.

As both my real-world example and Seccombe’s article attest to, the words you choose can make all the difference. So, make sure you have a method in place to test and validate. Your client’s and/or your firm’s success may depend on it. Want to learn more about our method of message and word testing? Download this free eBook on the Essentials of Moment-to-Moment Research