Skip to main content

Africa Adventure Academy - your helping hand in sustainable and responsible tourism development

The most persuasive words in English!


What are three of the most powerful words for persuading another? 


In a classic experiment conducted by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, small groups of people waiting in line at the photocopier machine were asked, "Excuse me, I have five pages, may I use the Xerox machine?" When this request was made, 60% of people complied with the request.

Next, on different groups of people the request was phrased: "Excuse me, I have five pages, may I use the Xerox machine because I am in a hurry?" The result: 94% of the time the line waiting complied.

A third time the request was stated as: "Excuse me, I have five copies, may I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?" This time 93% complied, even though the reason given was self-evident and did not provide any valid cause for having to jump the line.

These bewildering results show that adding the word "because" to a request increases the favourable response rate by more than 50%! And there does not even have to be a valid reason. Why do we have this peculiar reaction?

From an early age one is taught and conditioned to observe the world in terms of cause and effect: "You must eat your food because it will make you strong". Many other 'because' cause and effect sequences are drilled into all of us over time. Later in school and adult life too: "You need to do this because....""The proposition is valid because…" The word "because" is one of the most persuasive words in the English language and our minds react to the word automatically.

Further research by Jerry Burger from Santa Clara University, confirms the effect of the word in a different way. Burger wondered if an unusual request might provoke the curiosity of more people than usual. He asked research assistants to ask passers-by with a very particular request: "Excuse me, can you spare 37 cents?"

Realizing that many of the passers-by might naturally ask, "Why?" the investigators briefed the research assistants to respond in one of two ways: Half the time, they gave a vague reason by saying, "Because I need to buy some things." The other half of the time, they gave a more specific reason: "Because I need to buy a stamp."

The results showed a clear pattern. When the research assistants asked for 37 cents but the passers-by did not ask for a reason, 26% of the strangers handed over an average of 10 cents each.

The results became more interesting when some of the puzzled strangers asked why they were being asked for money and were told: "Because I need to buy some things." Even this vague reason led to more generosity, with 70% handing over an average of 37 cents.

Tellingly though, when the strangers asked, "Why?" and were given the specific reason: "Because I need to buy a stamp," 87% of the subjects handed over an average of 38 cents.

What's the conclusion? Giving a general reason – because I need to buy some things – convinced people to be more generous. Providing a specific and a seemingly valid reason - because I need to buy a stamp - persuaded the people to be the most generous.


Imagine you could be anywhere in the world, doing what you most enjoy and being with the people dearest to you….sounds good doesn't it? You may be a hard nosed business executive or a super organized mom, but don't we all like to imagine and daydream at times? Why is the word "imagine" so powerfully persuasive?

"Imagine" gives permission and instruction - mostly subconsciously - to suspend your fixed belief in the here and now and the strictly possible. It commands your mind to wander in new directions with new possibilities. "Imagine" allows you to think of an event or circumstance as if it had already happened. The more vivid and colorful the picture, the more real it seems.

Is this word really so effective? Can the hidden command to imagine an outcome actually strengthen the message given?

Homeowners in the city of Tempe in Arizona, USA, were asked about their attitudes to cable television. At the time, cable television was available only in large cities. Marketers asked one group of homeowners to reflect on the merits of cable television when it eventually arrived: "Reflect how cable television will provide a broader entertainment and informational service to its subscribers. If it is used properly, a person can plan in advance to enjoy events offered. Instead of spending money on the babysitter and fuel, and putting up with the hassles of going out, more time can be spent at home with family, alone, or with friends."

A second group of homeowners heard a slightly different script: "Take a moment and imagine how cable television will provide you with a broader entertainment and informational service. You will be able to plan in advance which of the events offered you wish to enjoy. Imagine how, instead of spending money on the babysitter and fuel, and then having to put up with the hassle of going out, you will be able to spend your time at home, with your family, alone, or with your friends."

Cable television later actually arrived in Tempe. When the researchers looked at which homes had taken up the offers, they discovered that 20% of the homeowners who read the first version ("reflect") of the appeal signed up. An impressive 47% of the homeowners who read the second version ("imagine") signed up because of the persuasive magic of the word "imagine"!

As far as our minds are concerned, imagining and picturing a behaviour in our minds and actually doing it are more or less the same thing. Sure, imagining an action evokes slightly less activity in the brain. But the difference seems to be quantitative rather than qualitative. The mere act of imagining a behaviour creates a neural pathway that makes it easier for people actually to follow through with the behaviour. Tell someone to imagine a circumstance or consequence and his mind and opinion has already started altering.


Suppose you were in charge of designing and wording the fliers your company is planning to send out in three weeks. Which phrase would you use?

  • Half price!
  • Buy one - get one free!
  • 50% off!

Each of the three phrases denotes the exact same offer, but the second phrase is the most effective. Studies show that phrases using the word "free" outsell other phrases stating the same thing in different terms, by 40%.

Suppose I offered you a choice between a free R100 Amazon gift voucher and a R200 gift certificate that you can buy for R70. Think quickly. Which one would you take? If you jumped for the free gift voucher you would have behaved the same as most people. But look again. A R200 gift certificate bought for R70 delivers a R130 profit. Clearly it's better than receiving a R100 gift voucher for free. But why do we make an apparently illogical decision? What is it about items that are free?

Dan Ariely at Duke University says: "Free is an emotional hot button, a source of irrational excitement." In one experiment, Ariely offered people a choice between a Hershey's Kiss priced at 1 cent (a small and conventional chocolate) and a Lindt truffle (perceived by many to be the chocolate of chocolates) priced at 15 cents. Which type do you think sold better in this instance? Not surprisingly, considering the relative size and quality, the Lindt chocolate sold better - 73% of purchasers bought the Lindt.

Ariely says we have a very strong emotional response to the concept of "free" as the subconscious mind thinks fast and decides mostly by emotion. There are two other important reasons why "free" is so compelling:

  • There is no downside. There is no risk of "losing" something or parting with money when you get it free. 
  • It's a very easy mental shortcut. No calculations have to be made in terms of risk and reward or cost-benefit, so you simply take it.


One word could change everything. When selling, negotiating, mediating, resolving conflict, presenting or simply chatting with a family member, one word in your message can be crucial to how persuasive the message is. Combine the three words discussed and you could have a magic formula. 

Imagine how these persuasive words can create extra impact to your messages, and because they are for free – use it!

Source: Gert J. Scholtz, author of "The Keys to Persuasion"

Not a member of Africa Adventure?

If you provide quality services to travellers within the listed countries of sub-saharan Africa and agree to adhere to our code of conduct including relevant government & travel industry regulations as well as all statutory requirements you are welcome to apply for membership to Africa Adventure.

COVID 19 - Tips for Travellers
The most popular pre-COVID long-haul destinations ...