How to Kill A Persuasive Speech With One Tiny Word

What do a persuasive speech and my high school first aid class have in common?

How to rescue your persuasive speech by avoiding one tiny word
How to rescue your persuasive speech by avoiding one tiny word

Imagine you are walking down a crowded city street, a rush of cars going by and the smell of pollution burning your nostrils. A smart dressed man in his mid-40s is walking in front of you. Stops abruptly. Collapses to the ground. You drop to the ground, feel for a pulse – there is none. You start performing CPR and yell “Somebody call 911.”

No one moves. No one takes out their cell phone. They just stare blankly back.

Why? Why didn’t anyone do something?

Simple.  In a crowd, people believe somebody else will take action. The more people there are, the less likely one person springs into action.

In high school first-aid class, I learned that if someone is hurt and there is a crowd standing around, you point at one person and say “You call 911.” You give one person the responsibility of making the call. That person knows he is on the hook. He takes out his cell phone and calls.

Why do I bring this up?

A few weeks ago, I asked you what’s the most important word in any presentation? (Hint: The answer is “you”)

The feedback I got on that post was overwhelmingly positive. I also took some flack for it. Some told me that using the word “you” was too direct.  You is accusatory. The audience will think you are preachy or a better than them. Clearly some people had a problem with “you” (well really me in this case).

I was told NOT to use “you”. Use “we” or “us.”

I realize that “you” is terrifying. Asking directly for what you want makes you vulnerable. You might get rejected. No one wants to be rejected. You hedge. You soften your language. However, if you use “we” or “us” you might as well address your audience as somebody. “We” increases the odds of inaction and guarantees rejection. The point of speaking is to inspire action!

“We” sucks, kills your persuasiveness, and this is why.

Who the heck is we anyway?

Who is the “we” you are referring to? Are you referring to the “we” that is your family? The “we” that are your colleagues at work? Who is “we”? If the audience doesn’t see themselves in your speech, they don’t think you are talking to them. They will not identify with ubiquitous we. When you say “we”, it’s easy for an audience member to say “not me”.

We is patronizing

Have you ever had your doctor ask you “how are we today?”  Really, I don’t know how “we” are, but I can tell you how I am, and I’m feeling a bit patronized. In speaking, “we” transforms those amazing individuals in your audience into one faceless mass. “We” takes away individuality, personality and depersonalizes all of those people who showed up for your talk. We shows that you don’t care about those individuals as super awesome people.

We does not act

A “we” does not take action. Individuals take action. If you want your audience to take action, you need to ask the individual person. Remember no ask – no get!

Let’s say you just gave an amazing talk. The audience hung on your ever word. Then you say, “If we liked this talk, we can pick-up a copy of my book.”

Not only does that sound weird – no one is going to buy the darn book.

If you don’t metaphorically point at the audience and ask those 100 individual you’s to do something. No one will.

You is persuasive. You is personal. You is engaging. Be brave. Let yourself be vulnerable. Ask for what you want! The we won’t give it to you, but a you most certainly will.

What say you? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. (Wouldn’t it had been totally lame if I asked “What say we?” Yeah, you know it would).

 

  • http://ellenbremen.com Ellen Bremen

    Michelle, you gave me a lot to think about here. I teach using inclusive language, but using it appropriately i.e., helping the audience have a feeling of “We’re all in this together.” I give the example of Theodore Roosevelt’s speech when we was running for President and speaking to an agricultural association. He used “we” several times to make the audience feel like he was one of them, and this is considered a “great speech” of our time :-).

    The way you define using “we” (or, rather, not using it!) makes total sense. I’ll rethink clarifying use of inclusive language and when it is proper. Definitely not in the call to action, like you state! Ellen @ChattyProf

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      I think there is a place for we – in team building or soothing a divided country. A high school coach giving a team a pep talk before the big game. We makes sense then.

      In persuasion, you need to ask someone to do something. JFK’s “Ask not what your country could do for you..” famous line would have totally sucked if he had said “we”.

      I’m glad I made you think! Inclusive language has it’s place, but not in persuasion (or sales).

  • http://www.inconcertweb.com Matt Ward

    WOW…YOU nailed it on the head….not “WE”!

    Thanks for making it more clear.

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      YOU are welcome. Glad you liked the post.

  • http://www.websitedoctor.com/ Alastair McDermott

    Great analogy, very thought provoking.

    I do try to educate clients in biasing their website copy from “us” to “you. I’ve also been giving a lot of thought to the royal “we” that tends to get used on small business sites run by one person. There’s a lot to be said for appearing larger, but also a lot for straight up honesty.

    Thank you, Michelle, for the interesting blog post.

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      Thank you, Alastair, for your comment. I am fascinated by how so much of this “speaking” advice I give is applicable in other ways. The royal “we” has confused me when I know that the person runs a solo shop. I’ve actually asked someone – who else works with you after seeing “we” all over their website. In my opinion, it’s ok for a solopreuner to not have a staff. I respect the honesty more (maybe others don’t).

  • http://www.breaktheframe.com Alli Polin

    Brilliant! It starts young… my 4th grader is learning persuasive writing and next week they take their writing to be able to speak to the class to make their argument. She’s talking about why kids should not have homework and she says “We should not have homework because you will have less time for video games.” I think all of the “yous” in her class will feel that one hit home. Thanks, Michelle!

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      I think the audience will be already in her corner on this speech. :-) Maybe not the most important member of the audience…the teacher. Thank you for sharing you daughter’s speech, Alli!

  • http://donnellking.com/ Donn King (@donnellking)

    To quote the Dude: “The royal ‘we’!” Didn’t work for him, won’t work for us. Or you, rather. :) Very good points!

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      I totally forgot about that scene! If it doesn’t work for the Dude, it won’t work for you. Is that a new slogan?

  • http://www.patrickkphillips.com Patrick

    Excellent points.

    In marketing, we are always encouraged to use “you” whenever possible because it establishes a better connection to the viewer/listener.

    It can be scary — or even awkward — if the scenario being presented isn’t likely to apply to the audience, but in those cases, I generally rewrite the copy so that there’s a way to make it more relatable.

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      Thank you Patrick. Marketing, speaking, blogging – I think avoiding “we” and using “you” whenever possible increase engagement. Rewriting is key – especially if it might not exactly apply – the challenge becomes to make it relatable.

  • http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/ Craig Hadden – Remote Possibilities

    Having people say not to use “you” sounds very familiar. When I blogged about it, someone made similar comments (http://wp.me/p1PHR3-45/#comment-55 ). As I said in my response to that, though, whether “you” sounds accusatory or preachy depends wholly on the context (e.g. compare “You need to…” with “You can choose to…”)

    Sure, there are times to be careful with using “you” (like if the talk’s controversial), but most of the time it’s the best option, as you say.

    Your comment about addressing the audience as “somebody” reminds me of the quote that Nancy Duarte cites in Resonate about “writing a love letter and addressing it ‘to whom it may concern’.”

    Did people give you flack on Twitter? Can’t see any negative comments on the post you linked to.

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      My readers didn’t give me flack, but this article was syndicated on B2C and Ragan PR – that’s where I got the “we” blow back. It’s funny how different website cater to different audiences. My community was very supportive, but I definitely hit a nerve in other places. Thank you for your always thoughtful comments!

  • http://www.fbcgallatin.org/Larry/ Larry Yarborough

    I am a pastor. Forever been a “we”-er (for all the reasons you cite above) … until you persuaded me to experiment in the “you” post a while back. It’s made a difference in speaking, managing & leading. Ive discovered my fears over the accusatory “you” are trumped by my actions of love toward the community I serve. Thanks for giving me the gumption to get out there.

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      Hi Larry! I love hearing success stories like this one. People really want to feel like you are talking to them. When the intent behind your message is one of love and goodness – people get that and the you is just invites them in.

  • http://www.pammccall.com Pam McCall

    Michelle, I love that you gave great examples.

    I have been struggling with this in my writing. I know to use YOU and I do. Sometimes my writing wants to revert back to the group (we) as a whole in examples, and I have to fight myself not to do it.

    So it takes discipline to think in terms of YOU, but I agree. . . it is the way it should be done. After 25 years owning a retail business and doing marketing, you learn to speak to [A Customer], not many.

    Great post.

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      Thank you Pam! It’s funny as I write my book, I struggle with reverting back to “we” as well. However, sometimes I am talking about myself and the reader and that’s a “we”, but if it’s a call to action it has to be a “you.” Right now, I am doing my marketing plan. Writing a description of my ideal client, and yep it’s all about the one customer, not many!

  • http://www.professionalsoapboxing.com Jen Furlong

    Hmmmm…much food for thought. Thank you so much for this post. I teach speech and we do spend time discussing the importance of identifying with the audience. Of course that leads into the use of words like “us” and “we” in order to do just that; however you make an excellent point regarding the use of “you” in persuasive speaking. I hadn’t considered this point before. It really does underscore the importance of linking accountability with a person’s actions. Nothing will make you feel more accountable than someone straight up saying “this is YOUR call” or “YOU will make the difference.” Thanks Michelle. This will be passed along to my students.

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      This has been one of my more controversial post. We is great for inclusion but it is all about the context and the goal of the communication. Thank you for trusting me with your students, Jen!

  • Kerri Danner

    Thank you for the excellent post. I was actually in a group situation where I needed “someone” to call 911. I ended up doing it myself! This post will help me in an upcoming Responsible Conduct of Research Workshop that I do for undergraduate and graduate level research trainees. Thanks, again!

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      Wow Kerri! That’s a scary real-life example of the power of “you”. Great to talk to you yesterday. I hope your workshop rocked last night!

  • Oluwatobi Fagbohun

    Thank you so much. I am writing a persuasive speech right now and there are just some places where I do no think “we” is hitting my point. I guess I have to give what my professor wants though.

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      I’m glad this provided confirmation for how you feel. However, as a former professor I’ll tell you – do what your professor wants – it helps with getting a good grade!

  • http://www.sccbi.org/ sccbi.org

    This site was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something which helped me.
    Kudos!

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      You’re welcome!

  • http://www.writershock.com Tim Schoch (shock)

    People love being personally included and “you” gets the job done, particularly when addressing a group. And, look yourself in the mirror in the morning and say “You rock!” It feels great! Even better than “I rock,” which is like some kind of creepy hollow boast to yourself. “You” works excellently if you forget someone’s name, too: “It’s you!” Thanks for the post.

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com Michelle Mazur

      You rock – Tim Schoch! That even rhymes! Yes, people love it when they feel like you’re speaking just to them even in a sea of face – it’s good to speak to just one.

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