Words matter: Use them to nudge someone to change their behaviour


The emerging field of Behavioural Linguistics uses science-based principles combined with effective communication to “nudge” action.

“Through language, we are able to persuasively lead someone to an end goal or desired action,” Leigh Crymble, Behavioural Linguist, doctoral student and founder of Behavioural Linguistics firm BreadCrumbs, told a GIBS Forum.

“Actions can be nudged through compelling content to encourage a specific end goal,” she continued.

“Essentially, it uses language to compel people to make a purchasing decision or to change their behaviour.

“Our ideology is shaped through language. Culture, ideology, identity and language are all crucially interlinked. Every word matters,” Crymble said.

The discipline is an offshoot of nudge, a concept in behavioural economics, political theory and behavioural science developed by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein.

Crymble explained how Behavioural Linguistics uses a combination of sociolinguistics, psychology and behavioural science to use language to nudge behavioural change.

The art of nudge-based communication shows how important words are when it comes to encouraging decision-making and purchasing behaviour.

However, she warned: “In the wrong hands, nudging can be a very grey area. It is possible to manipulate people using behavioural linguistics and to nudge them to buy particular products or subscribe to specific worldviews.”

Types of nudge-based communications

With an average of 40 000 decisions to make every day, “we are being constantly bombarded with communications.

Breaking through the noise is crucial for anyone who wants their message to be heard.

Communicators and marketers have to compete fiercely for attention, and mobile technology has made it even more difficult.

The goal is to attempt to get people to pause in their scrolling.”

Crymble explained we all have cognitive biases that allow us to take mental shortcuts to cope with the volume of information that we are presented with.

These shortcuts are what we base our decisions on.

Effective messaging to nudge the audience to action takes into account Content, Contact and Context timing and delivery.

There are four different types of nudge-based communication, or what Crymble calls the Nudge Family:

• Dutiful nudge communications – this encourages good behavioural change and has your best interests at heart. Examples include brands attempting to encourage health nutritional habits or exercise, such as Vitality.

• Dark nudge communications – these are not looking out for an individual’s best interest and include messaging around fast food.

• Deliberate nudge communications – Crymble gave the example of attempts at gun reform policy in the United States as deliberate nudge communications.

• Dreadful nudge communications, or Sludge – This communication is always pejorative and against one’s best interest, for example high interest credit cards which are impossible to cancel because of the number of hurdles put in place by provider.

Seven tips for compelling communications using the principles of behavioural linguistics

1 .Keep it short to land your point

Use fewer words in writing, less sentences in a paragraph. Effective communication that cuts through clutter is pitched at the reading level of a 9 or 10-year-old: “We are overwhelmed and need things to be made easier for us.

The simpler your communication, the more credible it is,” Crymble explained.

She added that communicators should first think what their call to action will be and what ideologies they are trying to shift, “Then craft your communications, rather than trying to retrofit a hashtag.”

2. Time it right.

“The timing of your message is critical. Don’t send out requests on a Monday morning. It is important that you reach people at the right time in a non-invasive way.

3. Nudgey numbers

Odd or unusual numbers grab attention and can help with message recall and building credibility.

4. Tense

The present simple tense is the most credible in the English language and should be used whenever possible.

5. The perfect pronoun

Pronouns are important markers of identity. Using “us” or “we” can help to build a sense of community, or pronouns can be used to exclude. “You want the recipient to feel as included as possible,” Crymble said.

6. Sentence type

Use questions to encourage engagement.

7. Use the principles of Behavioural Science

Crymble suggested using established principles of Behavioural Science. These include Rhyme as Reason (rhyming messages are seen as more credible); Herding (social proving and safety in numbers) and reciprocity.

With any of these, Crymble warned testing is crucial as things can go wrong and have unintended consequences.

“The interplay between language, decision making and behavioural science is without question very powerful. Start thinking about your communication in a way that is very intrinsically linked to help people think how they act, and realise how irrational they are,” Crymble concluded.

• City Press is a media partner of the Gibs forums.

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