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Want to Win Someone Over? Talk Like They Do.

What new research tells us about the power of “linguistic mirroring.”

What does it take to become a more convincing communicator? New research suggests that linguistic mirroring — that is, adjusting your communication style to match that of your audience — is an effective tool to increase your ability to influence others. In this piece, the authors describe four key dimensions of linguistic mirroring, as well as several tactical strategies for leaders looking to win over a client, judge, or other important evaluator. Ultimately, they argue that building genuine relationships with key evaluators is the best way to gain insight into their linguistic preferences — but it’s up to all of us to make sure that we use the power of linguistic mirroring for good.

What new research tells us about the power of “linguistic mirroring.”

Whether you’re pitching a big client, presenting to an executive, or attempting to win over a judge, a strong preexisting relationship with the person who’s evaluating you is likely to make you much more effective. Why is that? In our recent research, forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly, we found that preexisting relationships give people greater insight into how their evaluators think, reason, interpret, and process evidence, helping them tailor their messages with a process we call linguistic mirroring.

For example, if you know that your evaluator favors linear, logical reasoning in their own communication, you’re most likely to convince them with arguments that rely heavily on facts. To influence an evaluator who uses a more narrative, informal style, you would be better off leading with a story. When you mirror your counterpart’s preferred communication style, they’re likely to find you more convincing — so being familiar with whoever will be evaluating you can give you a significant advantage.

To explore this effect, we studied how lawyers influence judges when representing plaintiffs in patent infringement cases. Our research included firsthand observations of such cases; more than 50 semi-structured interviews with lawyers, in-house counsels, federal judges, and clerks; and a quantitative analysis of publicly available data from more than 1,000 patent infringement lawsuits. We consistently found that lawyers who had preexisting relationships with judges exhibited more linguistic mirroring and won a greater proportion of cases than others. (We controlled for the impact of the relationships themselves.)

Specifically, our research showed that these lawyers had a better sense of whether their judges would be moved by data or by emotional appeals, whether they would respond better to confidence or to arguments that left room for ambiguity, and how much they valued personal disclosure. Familiarity with their evaluators gave the lawyers a huge leg up when it came to knowing what approach would resonate (and tailoring their communication style accordingly). For instance, in one of our interviews an experienced litigator described the importance of linguistic mirroring when persuading a judge to compel a counterparty to provide additional documentation.

One approach when you write them is to state, ‘‘Here is what I asked for, here is what they gave me, and I am entitled to the difference.’’ Real logical and straightforward. Another way is to say, ‘‘Listen, we are the white knight. We have been fighting for months, and they have been stealing and they have been lying, and these are no-good people.’’ So, you get the judge to think that you are the white knight. Every time he reads the papers, you are the white knight. Some judges like that. Others would say that is unprofessional; they would say, ‘‘All I hear is a lot of name-calling.’’

Our quantitative analysis of the writing styles of more than 1,800 legal documents (containing more than 25.5 million words) confirmed that litigator’s intuition. We used a leading research-validated tool for computational linguistic analysis to score the writing styles of judges’ and lawyers’ publicly available documents along four dimensions:

  • Analytical thinking. Writing samples reflecting formal, logical, and hierarchical thinking received a higher score in this dimension, while those with more informal, personal, and narrative thinking received a lower one.
  • Clout. Writing samples that demonstrated high levels of expertise and confidence scored higher in this dimension, while a lower score indicated a more tentative, humble, or anxious style.
  • Authenticity. Writing samples with a more honest, personal, and open style received higher authenticity scores, while those with a more guarded, distanced tone received lower ones.
  • Emotional content. Writing samples with a more positive, upbeat style received higher scores, while an anxious or hostile tone indicated a more negative emotional leaning.

Using this framework, we compared the lawyers’ writing styles with the styles of their presiding judges, tracking the extent to which the lawyers’ styles mirrored the judges’. We then looked at whether mirroring affected success in litigation. As you can see in the graph below, we found that the legal teams that mirrored the judges’ linguistic styles were significantly more likely to win their cases. (In our sample, the average probability of winning was 11.5% — typical of patent litigation, in which many cases are settled out of court or terminated on procedural grounds.)

We also found that the linguistic-mirroring advantage was far more common among lawyers who knew their judges well. Those who had clerked for the presiding judge and still lived within driving distance of them were the most likely to engage in linguistic mirroring, suggesting that strong, ongoing relationships were critical in giving lawyers insight about the judges’ communication styles.

Of course, not every relationship is as clearly defined as that between a lawyer and a judge. Nevertheless, linguistic mirroring can be a powerful tool for anyone, whether you’re attempting to influence a coworker, a manager, a partner, or a client. There are several ways to apply these principles in the workplace.

1. Pay attention to how others communicate.

To influence others, notice how they reason, articulate their thoughts, ask questions, and respond to counterarguments. Then use those insights to inform your own communication style. Try breaking down their linguistic style with the framework we used to analyze the legal documents: Where does your evaluator’s style fall in terms of analytical thinking, clout, authenticity, and emotional content? Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • To prove a point, does your evaluator tend to rely on facts and data or on anecdotal evidence and storytelling? When they comment on other people’s presentations, what arguments do they single out as most persuasive?
  • When they communicate, do they exude confidence and expertise or take a humbler approach? To what extent are they swayed by credentials and expert endorsements?
  • How much do they disclose personal information and convey their emotions versus remaining more professional and detached? When they do tell personal stories, how much vulnerability do they express?
  • When asking a question or making a point, do they tend to be emotional and energetic or calm and collected?

In addition, take note of their preferred communication tactics. Does the person you’re trying to influence prefer a write-up, a PowerPoint presentation, or a free-flowing conversation? When they lead a meeting, how far in advance do they tend to provide materials, and how much do they expect people to study those materials before the meeting versus walking through them live?

2. Build genuine relationships.

The advantage associated with a strong preexisting relationship was much smaller for lawyers assigned to judges who had extensive publicly available writing samples. All lawyers could presumably access the samples and use them to optimize their communication styles. Strong preexisting relationships were much more important when judges had fewer public writing samples.

When it comes to business relationships, if you’re working with someone whose talks or articles are available online, reviewing those materials can be a good starting point — but the best way to gain insight about their preferred communication style is to cultivate a genuine, ongoing relationship. Not every evaluator has a YouTube presentation or a white paper you can review, and in those cases a strong relationship can be indispensable.

3. Consider whether evaluators are likely to change.

Across our studies, the worst-performing legal teams were composed of lawyers with lackluster credentials that were clearly optimal for a particular judge (all the lawyers on the team had clerked for that judge, say) — lawyers who then floundered when the desired judge was not assigned to their case. Assembling your team on the basis of social capital with key evaluators is most advisable in situations where the evaluators are known in advance and are unlikely to change. If that isn’t the case, you’re better off optimizing your team for human capital: the skills and competencies needed for the job.

Particularly in contexts where changing a team’s composition isn’t easy (because of labor costs, onboarding costs, optics, or other considerations), it’s worth carefully considering the trade-offs between social capital — which could become obsolete if evaluators change — and human capital, which is likely to remain useful regardless of other changes. We rarely have superstar teammates who bring both the exact skills needed for the task at hand and strong social connections to key evaluators, so this is an important trade-off to think about.

4. Don’t forget about ethics.

The techniques we’ve described can be used to enable positive change — such as leading a nimble strategic adaptation; launching a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative; or supporting a social cause such as access to health care or education — but they can also be used for malicious purposes. When considering the ethics of influence, think honestly about the implications of your actions for the collective good.

For example, linguistic mirroring can be an effective tool for persuading a client to buy your company’s product or service. But you’ll want to be sure you’re presenting an honest picture of your offering with respect to the client’s needs and not using your influence to manipulate the client into making a poor decision.

Similarly, although we would expect lawyers to do the best they can to represent their clients’ interests, we would argue that a legal system in which lawyers’ relationships with judges determine the outcomes of cases — which then become legal precedent — is hardly ideal for society. A prohibition against using that advantage would be virtually impossible to enforce, but it might make sense for legal institutions to prevent judges from presiding over cases argued by lawyers who have clerked for them. A similar practice has been standard in academia for decades: A scholar’s former dissertation adviser is precluded from serving as a reviewer or an editor on any papers that scholar submits to academic journals, in part to avoid unfair evaluations resulting from the scholar’s ability to influence the evaluator.

Whether or not we recognize it, influence is a critical factor in our professional lives. Every day we seek to influence customers, suppliers, distributors, and our colleagues — and the research shows that our effectiveness stems not just from the merits of our arguments but also from the way in which we deliver those arguments. If we’re familiar with the people we are trying to influence, we can mirror their linguistic styles, conferring a powerful advantage. It’s up to us to use that advantage for good.

What new research tells us about the power of “linguistic mirroring.”

If You Want to Win, Tell Your Team It’s Losing (a Little)

The finding: People who are slightly behind in a competition are more likely to win than those who are slightly ahead. The research: Jonah Berger told subjects that they were competing with a person in another room to see who could make the fastest keystrokes and that the winner would receive a cash prize. After […]

The finding: People who are slightly behind in a competition are more likely to win than those who are slightly ahead. The research: Jonah Berger told subjects that they were competing with a person in another room to see who could make the fastest keystrokes and that the winner would receive a cash prize. After […]

The finding: People who are slightly behind in a competition are more likely to win than those who are slightly ahead.

The research: Jonah Berger told subjects that they were competing with a person in another room to see who could make the fastest keystrokes and that the winner would receive a cash prize. After one round he gave the subjects feedback, saying that they were far behind, slightly behind, tied, or slightly ahead of their competitor. Only the people told that they were slightly behind picked up the pace significantly in the second round. Overall, the subjects in that group performed faster than the “slightly ahead” group.

The challenge: Are you really more likely to win if you’re losing a little? Professor Berger, defend your research.

Berger: The results were clear. Effort increased dramatically only for people who believed they were slightly behind in the competition. What’s more, we found a similar effect when we analyzed real-world field data from 60,000 basketball games, including 18,000 NBA games. The relationship between the score and the likelihood of winning was fairly linear. For every two points a team was ahead, its chances of winning increased by about 7%—except for this major discontinuity right in the middle. Teams that were down by one point at halftime were more likely to win than teams that were ahead by one point at halftime. They won as much as 8% more often than they would have if the relationship had stayed linear.

People Who Are Slightly Behind Exert More Effort

How subjects in a typing contest responded, on average, to feedback on how they were doing.

HBR: One point isn’t much in basketball. That seems fluky.

It’s not a fluke, and the fact that the game is close is precisely the point. The effect is present only when the team is just slightly behind. Teams that are leading should be more likely to win for two reasons. One, they tend to be better teams—that’s why they’re ahead. And two, the losing team simply has to make more points to win. But we’ve found this interesting insight—that being slightly behind boosts motivation and thus performance. A team in that situation knows it can compete and recognizes it must work harder in the second half to achieve its goal. So it does. After the Women’s World Cup soccer final between Japan and the U.S. in July, one commentator noted how odd it was that Japan seemed to play better when they were behind. Our works shows it’s not that odd.

NBA players are intensely competitive by nature. It’s hardly a random sample.

You’re right about that, but I find it com­pelling that the losing team had something more to give. Why aren’t they working their hardest always? Shouldn’t it be impossible to increase the effort and motivation of an elite sample like that? I think it says something about human nature that we still exert a bit more effort when we’re slightly behind.

What exactly is “slightly” behind? How do you know where the cutoff point—where motivation doesn’t increase—is?

Obviously, context matters. If I’m one sale behind another salesperson but we average only three $1 million sales a year, then that’s not really slightly behind. The person has to truly feel they can overcome the deficit they face.

How do you know this applies to Joe Salesman, who may not be as competitive as a pro basketball player and who isn’t competing on physical skill alone?

In one of the lab studies, we measured people’s self-efficacy—how confident they felt about their ability to succeed. While people who were slightly behind tended to work harder, the effect was strongest among people high in self-efficacy. And I think the effect should be similar for intellectual pursuits, as long as the task is something that effort will help.

Your lab games and basketball games used metrics—a number of keystrokes, a score—and included a halftime. Are hard numbers and a break required to generate the effect?

Breaks help. The basketball data show that the slightly behind teams make up most of the deficit right after the halftime break. They come out very strong. Halftime is basically an evaluation time. It helps to have situations where the team can regroup. So if a competition is not as structured as a basketball game, you want to create that break. As for metrics, to the degree you can come up with any sort of numbers, it will help, I suspect. But they’re not absolutely required. We still saw the effect by just telling people they were “slightly behind.” It can be a subjective metric, such as “He works slightly faster than you,” or “His reports come in slightly cleaner.”

Key Number

Winning teams were most likely to make up any deficit they faced in the first seven minutes after halftime, showing that a break for assessment can lead to a surge in effort.

I see how managers might apply this. I can also see employees’ getting sick and tired of constantly hearing they’re slightly behind and just giving up.

I suspect that if you try to do this over and over, the effect will just disappear. But the key insight here is that companies should change their incentive structures. Bonus structures typically reward the best performers. That’s great for people close to the top but might even demotivate those who are far behind and know they can’t catch up.

Our research shows that there are better ways to motivate people. Competitive feedback along the spectrum should help boost everyone’s performance. Evaluations that compare the second best to the best, and the 100th best to the 99th best, and give bonuses based on people’s improvement could really increase motivation and effort.

I think you’ve just described golf handicapping.

Precisely. It’s called “flighting.”

Where else do you want to take this research?

My collaborator Devin Pope is looking at the effect of round numbers on motivation. What happens if I get an 1190 on my SATs rather than a 1200? One interesting question is, Which is more motivating: fixed metrics or competitive reference points? Will employees work harder if you give them a fixed goal or compare them to another person?

I would put this Defend Your Research slightly behind the best one we’ve ever done.

Let’s take a break, and I’ll try harder when we pick it back up.

Bonus structures typically reward the best performers. Our research shows there are better ways to motivate people.

The finding: People who are slightly behind in a competition are more likely to win than those who are slightly ahead. The research: Jonah Berger told subjects that they were competing with a person in another room to see who could make the fastest keystrokes and that the winner would receive a cash prize. After […]