One Word that Makes You (Instantly) More Persuasive

How to be More Persuasive with One Word

Fun question:

Ever wanted to duct tape someone’s mouth shut?

Because you were so worked up?

One teacher in Vancouver actually did it…

She duct taped a student’s mouth shut.

Three students, in fact.

The students say it’s a joke, but there’s a lot of buzz around the duct-taping.

How do you persuade someone, especially students, to do what you say before it gets to duct-taping?

Sometimes, a little psychology will fix it before it gets out of hand.

What to say

Let’s look at a tried-and-true scenario.

In Influence, a classic book, Cialdini writes about a study where he tests how people can be more persuasive.

There is a line-up at the Xerox machine in the office, and one guy wants to cut in line.

In the first scenario, he goes up to someone in the line, and asks, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”

About 60% of people let him cut in line to use the machine first. Not surprising.

In the next trial, he asks someone in the line, “I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I am in a rush?”

This time, about 94% of people let him cut. That’s a massive jump from a small change in the question.

A simple reason, “because I am in a rush,” gets him many more cuts. Funny, isn’t everyone in a rush at the office?

He tried one more scenario. In the last trial, he asks, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?”

Read the question carefully.

Guess what percentage of people said yes?

93% of people let him cut in line when he said that. Even funnier, because a mundane reason gets good results.

The word that makes you more persuasive

It’s just one word, but it makes people at least 33% more persuasive.

It’s “because.”

In the first scenario, there was no reason for him to cut, and he was only allowed 60% of the time.

A plain reason made him 34% more persuasive. And a dumb reason only made that 1% less persuasive.

The point is to give a reason– any reason at all– because it makes you more persuasive. (See what I did there?)

Persuading people to shut up

Today, I was in the car listening to the radio. People were calling in to comment on the teacher who was duct-taping highschool kids’ mouths.

All the callers declared themselves to be teachers, and each gave their own tips on ‘discipline.’

Everyone sounded so reasonable, as if no one ever gets frustrated. At one point, the host bursts out at us: “Well, what do you do when the kid just won’t shut up?”

Sometimes, when my sister spouts nonsense on perfectly intelligent topics and I am simply exasperated, I tell her to “just be quiet,” because she really does not know what she’s talking about in our “discussion”.

That’s as far as I’ll go, and we’re not in a classroom– she is my sister. I treat my students differently.

The caller on the radio made some noises about it but it wasn’t satisfying.

When you do it for real

How do I persuade people to do what I say, and I’m right? It always works and I never yell (actually, I don’t think I’d be able to yell at a student).

First, I ask nicely and give a reason. I make it seem like they still have some control; I might say “Would it be okay if you were quiet when I’m talking, because people can’t hear?” or “Can you please listen when I’m talking, because everyone else is trying to listen?”

This gives them a choice: be quiet or be brought out again, and it’s not actually embarrassing to do what I say because it’s a choice, not an order.

I’m not the type of person to shout, “Sit down and shut up.”

If they refuse, and they are young, then compliment another student. “I like the way Sally is paying attention.”

Making people see the big picture

Sometimes I ask the student, “No? Why not?” Young students don’t know that it’s not okay to talk sometimes, so they’ll think about it.

If the student is old enough to know better and they refuse, my response would be firmer because they obviously cannot be embarrassed easily, from their response. “We’d like it if you were quiet because everyone else is trying to work.”

Bringing ‘everyone else’ into the picture is smart because it’s not just between you and the student anymore– it’s the student versus the entire class. We all want to fit in.

Having people see the big picture is good.

If you’re performing and for some reason they won’t let you warm up on the stage piano at a certain time, saying something along the lines of “I’d like to warm up here at 1pm because I’m sure the audience wants to see me at my best” would work.

If you’re talking to an uncaring stage crew, adding that “I get bad stage fright and have been known to vomit if I don’t warm up properly” would be effective, assuming that it’s true. Now that, they’ll care about.

I’ll be sharing a few more persuasion tricks, but I want to hear from you in your comment below (because you probably do it better than that lady on the radio):

What do you do when someone just won’t shut up? What’s your experience with difficult situations?

Just leave a comment below to join the conversation.

And, if you know someone who will find this useful, go ahead and send it to them.

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  • Tzod Earf June 21, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    I like this article because it mirrors other authors I’ve read lately about the word “because”. It also teaches how to be reasonable while using appeal to emotion, often discounted by proponents of critical thinking. Aristotle taught rhetoric along with logic. We need both to be persuasive because people aren’t ruled entirely by one or the other.

    • Grace Miles June 21, 2013 at 4:43 pm

      In the end, we are all human. Sometimes we bend logic so much that it doesn’t make sense to anyone else but ourselves. We study how people act and behave, and people mostly act the same way under the same circumstances. That’s why we can work backwards: we can change the way people act by setting the circumstances ourselves. Sometimes, tweaking a small thing, like a few words or gestures, will change the outcome a lot.

      That’s how we also know that people around us will change us. I wrote about it here:

      Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting how you think of Aristotle, because his words are popping up everywhere now, on t-shirts, journals, etc. like we’re finding him again. (For example, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Which is true.)

  • Marla June 21, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    I will not duct tape mouths shut.
    I will not duct tape mouths shut.

    well, I could go on but I don’t want to be duct-taped! I have a student like that. she is over-stimulated when she comes to me at 8:30PM – dance classes from 4-7. clarinet, guitar, then piano lessons after dance. drive-thru for supper between dance and music. she can’t sit still or be quiet, and she owns a smartphone and wants her friends to listen I on the lesson. “her other teachers let her” and I do not. when she is like that, I just sit back and say nothing. eventually, she realizes this and asks, “what’s wrong?”, at which point I inform her what’s wrong and we discuss her behavior. essentially, she’s a good kid, but after a day like hers, I’d probably be wound up, too! (and yes, the word “because” enters into my explanation. it’s a great word!)

    • Grace Miles June 29, 2013 at 7:38 pm

      Marla, thanks for your comment. Sometimes we just need a quick pause and check to realize that we’re feeling a bit out of whack. I like how you give her the chance to talk to you, rather than the other way around, because it lets her check herself and gives her the control (plus you don’t become the ‘mean teacher’).

  • Vivian June 24, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    I really appreciate you sharing some tips with us. I learned a lot and will definitely use these tips in the future. I love that every blog post you make contains several examples and perspectives. In here, you talk about a study to a newstory, to your personal experiences, etcetera. Looking forward to learning more. However, I don’t like the way you treat your sister. Telling anyone to “just be quiet” when they are trying to articulate their thoughts is downright rude. You wouldn’t do that to your students, so why would you do that to your sister? Does she really not know what she’s talking about, or do you not take the time to understand what she’s saying, because you don’t like the sound of her voice? Posting that excerpt on the internet, would you feel guilty if she read it, or would you not even care how hurt she would be? It is absolutely embarrassing to say, “I treat my students better than I treat my sister,” but I think that is the case for you. You cover some very interesting topics in your blogposts, and I like that you post personal things here and there, so keep doing that. I’d just like to put this out there, because I have been a “just be quiet” victim. Next time, instead of telling your sister to “just be quiet,” maybe you should ask her some questions instead– to make her feel valued.

    • Grace Miles June 26, 2013 at 9:40 pm

      Hi Vivian, thanks for your comment. I understand what you mean, and maybe you are able to relate when you read my writing.

      It is not embarrassing and I mean it in a humorous way. It is ridiculous when a teacher has to use duct tape.

      I have given my sister much more than I will ever be able to give my students.

      I do not think she would be hurt because she has, for years, preferred sitting in front of the computer and watching whatever with her groupies, than be with her mom or myself. Essentially, she has lost herself.

      When I publish my writing, I acknowledge the fact that it is out there and people may do what they like with it; one of my recent posts was shared more than 1,000 times, and even if I decide to take it down right now, too many people have already seen it, saved it, or copied it.

      Instead of assuming everything is an insult and feeling sorry for yourself as a “victim”, keep an open mind and think happier thoughts.

      After all, people just believe what they want to believe:

      You think you are a victim. That is why everything seems like an insult or attack. But if you think of yourself as a friend or sister, then you’ll hear more jokes instead, and be happier.

      Also look at how you are acting. Are you locking yourself in your room? Are you over-demanding? Look at how you are acting and think about how you relate to people around you.

      For example, if you spend a lot of time on your phone when you can be with your family and doing what close families do, then your family will treat you differently. You made the choice to stay on your phone and text instead of being in the real world. You cannot blame your family for treating you differently, because you act differently.

      Or, if you refuse to spend time with your mom, the one who worked hard to give you a home and feed you, and you prefer sitting around with your stupid groupies, then that is your choice. You cannot blame your mom or your sister for their behaviour in return. You cannot demand, “Where is the rice.” when you have so clearly made your choice: either the internet or your groupies; no mom, sister, or dad.

      In short, stop seeing yourself as a victim and you will see so much more. I have recently worked with a domestic violence shelter, and I realize that we have so much more than those living in third-world countries. You are a person who can change things. You can make it better and you just have to start with yourself.

  • Janis July 1, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    If they refuse, and they are young, then compliment another student. “I like the way Sally is paying attention.”

    Oh god, PLEASE don’t do this. Why do teachers do this? All it will do is get “Sally” resented by every kid in that class.


    • Grace Miles July 1, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      Janis, thanks for your comment. You bring up a good point. Remember that we’re talking about one person who won’t be quiet, not an entire class of noisy people with one quiet person. Because most people naturally want to fit in with their peers, complimenting Sally will work because the entire class’s norms are positive.

      However, if it’s the other way around (there’s only one behaving) then that student might be resented, because negative norms have already been established.

      Also the compliment has to be for something that’s easily done, like be quiet, so people can quickly copy. If it’s for a hard task, the students will start thinking “this is impossible for me” and stop trying at all. Instead, they might ignore you or start hating Sally.

      In short, keep the compliment simple and do it as a check for few people who forget to behave (as opposed to a class full of misbehaving kids and one who’s behaving), like our scenario above.

  • Carson Chandler October 21, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    One thing that usually works with my students is to remind them why they are there. I’ll stop – and just ask them: “wait, why are you here again?” Usually it works pretty well.

    • Grace Lam October 24, 2015 at 8:43 pm

      This innocent question makes it clear that you, the teacher as an authority, do not believe the student is making great decisions. It also applies to other areas of life. Great tip.

  • Joy Hutcher March 26, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    Well, I have a very different life experience. We home schooled our 6 children. We also had a home school co-op of 6 families. Every Friday a parent would teach the group of 25 children a subject of which that that particular parent was a master. Subjects ranged from sailing, rowing and canoeing to math, history and etiquette. The week after the etiquette class, the young teenage son of that parent came to my house for a class. He decided making body noises and smells would be funny. I was surprised, considering what his mother had taught the week before. I asked him to stop, gave him the options of the bathroom or outside. He laughingly ignored me, egged on by the boy’s laughter and the nervous giggles of the girls. He was a big, boisterous leader of the pack. The great thing about home schooling is that the parents are right there. I opened the front door and told him not to come back until he could gain control of himself and not disrupt the group. His mom took him home, (right across the street). His mother was NOT pleased with his behavior. The following week he was seated in the group and very well behaved. We had a prime situation. I am grateful that we didn’t have to deal with a frustrated teacher or principal. We always had a lot of fun, and if the boy didn’t want to co-operate he could just stay home and miss out on all the good times. I hear from my public and private school teacher friends that they spend 45 minutes of a 55 minute class dealing with disruptive children. I hope some of them take your tips because what can a class of 30 learn in 10 minutes?