The Power of Simple Direct Language


It’s amazing the opportunities we miss because we doubt our own powers of persuasion.”

The above quote is from an article written by Vanessa Bohns, an assistant professor at Cornell University, “You’re Already More Persuasive than You Think” which recently appeared in Harvard Business Review.

Bohns reports on the results of research she and her colleagues have conducted that looked at how much people underestimate the amount of influence they believe they have when asking someone for assistance. In one experiment, it turned out that strangers were twice as likely to say “yes” to a request as the participants had expected. When they returned to the lab, many participants expressed surprise at how willing people were to go along with their requests.

Bohns also reports on research by Frances Milliken of New York University and two colleagues which found the majority of 40 employees at knowledge companies did not bother to speak to their bosses about key issues because of a belief that raising the issues would make no difference.

Research also suggests that the best method for smoothing over a conflict with someone may not be to offer help, but to ask for help. However, since we tend to focus too intently on our own feelings — of embarrassment, weakness, or shame —  we don’t realize that a request will often stimulate a positive reaction, and as a result we do not bother asking for help.

The net result of all of this is untapped potential to influence others, to effect change, to speak out when something is wrong.

Once people do embrace the influence they have, they begin to ask for things more readily. And they start to hear that magical word “yes” more often.

So as Bohns notes, “Like it or not, we all have a powerful tool for making change: simple direct language.”

She offers four tips on how to successfully make requests:

  • Just ask
  • Be direct
  • Go back and ask again (Bohns has done research that indicates that a person is more likely to respond yes to a request if they have previously responded no to another request)
  • Incentives are not needed (again, Bohns’ research shows that people are as likely to respond yes to a request whether there is an incentive or not).

Bohns’s closing comment summarizes her research quite well:

We tend to have a lot of misconceptions about influence — how much of it we have, the best way to wield it. Fortunately, the reality is more encouraging than we imagine. The power of a simple, direct request is much greater than we realize.

When I first started running my personal training studio, I signed up for a year-long sales training program, since I had no background in sales. I still clearly remember the sales trainer telling us that the number one mistake that ineffective salesmen make is that they never ask for the sale.

The salesperson may be great at schmoozing, at making a presentation, at responding to the prospect’s objections, but where they have difficulty is in closing the deal, in asking the client for the sale.

The reason why makes sense. It’s easy to schmooze or to make a presentation because everybody feels good, there’s no chance for rejection. But once you ask for the sale, there is the possibility that the prospect could say no, and no one likes to experience that sense of rejection.

However, the successful salesperson may instinctively be in tune with all of the research noted above, and realizes how much influence they do have over the prospect, and as a result are much more likely to hear that magical word “yes”.

(Unfortunately in my case, I just didn’t hear that word often enough. And I never thought to go back to the people who said no the first time to see if they would respond differently a second time. Hmmmmm. I wonder what would happen if I applied to Harvard again…)



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