The #1 selling book, the Bible, uses mostly nouns and verbs. Coincidence? No, verbs and nouns – not adjectives or adverbs – tell stories. People remember stories, not descriptions.
Efficient verbs also prime traits, making adjectives useless. For example, “he gobbled up the food” sounds stronger than “he ate tasty food.” Readers have already been primed to associate the verb “gobble” with “tasty” food, so leave omit the adjective and write fewer words.
Whorf (1956) demonstrates that language shapes our thoughts. Use language to inspire and motivate action. This article shares tips to get you started.
Compliments in noun form loom larger than those in adjective form
“You are a reader” over “you read frequently”
Compliments in noun form (generic compliments) reflect the target’s identity. No matter the day, she is “a reader.” Conversely, complements in adjective form (nongeneric compliments) specify a moment in time. Her “reading” exists today, but maybe not tomorrow. The behavior ebbs from her identity (Walton et al., 2004; Cimpian et al., 2007).
Verbs motivate action, but nouns influence emotion
“You are a gem, and I need your help” over “Please help me”
Asking for favors can be uncomfortable. First, label your target with a positive noun, then hit them with the verb. Nouns exhibit abstract descriptions; hence they lack agency and subside one’s ability to simulate the action in her mind.
Similarly, in negotiations, use nouns to diffuse a counterpart’s anger. Idan et al (2018) demonstrated that nouns reduce anger.
Negotiators arguing for a two-state solution in Jerusalem did better when describing their argument as “I am for the division of Jerusalem” over “I am for dividing Jerusalem.” In the noun context, counterparts felt less anger, guilt, and fear than those presented with verbs.
Speak in the present tense to reduce hyperbolic discounting and motivate action now
“Earn new benefits” over “You will earn new benefits”
Those speaking in weak Future-Time Reference (FTR) languages save more money, exercise more, and smoke fewer cigarettes. A strong-FTR language forces its speakers to divide time between the present and future habitually. For example, an Englishman who speaks in a strong-FTR language would describe tomorrow’s rainy weather as “It will rain tomorrow.” Conversely, a German, who naturally speaks in a weak-FTR language, would describe the same event as “It rains tomorrow.” The two sentences are semantically identical, but the word “will” changes the speaker’s perception of time (Chen, 2013). Aligning with Chen’s results, Mavisakalyan & Weber (2016) found that weak-FTR speakers are more likely to adopt environmentally responsible behaviors and support policies to prevent environmental damage.
- Chen, K. M. (2013). “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets”. American Economic Review, 103(2), 690–731.
- Cimpian, A., Arce, H.-M. C., Markman, E. M., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Subtle linguistic cues affect children’s motivation. Psychological Science, 18(4), 314–316.
- Idan, O., Halperin, E., Hameiri, B., & Reifen Tagar, M. (2018). A rose by any other name? A subtle linguistic cue impacts anger and corresponding policy support in intractable conflict. Psychological Science, 29(6), 972–983.
- Mavisakalyan, A., Tarverdi, Y., & Weber, C. (2018). Talking in the present, caring for the future: language and environment. Journal of comparative economics, 1–35.
- Walton, G. M., & Banaji, M. R. (2004). Being what you say: the effect of essentialist linguistic labels on preferences. Social cognition, 22(2), 193–213.
Nick specializes in applying behavioral science to business communication. Since earning his bachelor’s degree in Economics & Music from the University of Pennsylvania, Nick has sold products for several companies across many industries: music, advertising, SaaS technology, and information technology. He is earning his masters degree in behavioral economics at IDC Herzliya in Israel and curates the popular Spotify podcast playlist “Behavioral Economics.”