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The Best Words to Use for Building Rapport and the Ones to Avoid at All Costs

Dale Carnegie would covet this conversation research.

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BY Amit Bendov - 28 Dec 2017

The Best Words to Use for Building Rapport and the Ones to Avoid at All Costs

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Dale Carnegie's iconic self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is one of the best-selling self-help books of all time, and for good reason: being likable, and being liked, is an invaluable asset in every form of human interaction.

But while I'm all for curling up with a good book -- and the publishers of "How to Win Friends" have done an admirable job of updating newer editions of their much-loved volume since its initial release in 1936 -- modern AI research has given us an even more valuable toolbox to help humans succeed in the ever-complicated world of interpersonal interaction.

At my company,, we're hard at work cracking the nut of human conversation and likability, better known as the field of conversation science. We look at sales calls, conversation transcripts and deep-dives of business dialogue to figure out how specific words, signals and contexts can shift a conversation or flip an encounter entirely. In short: We're using AI to write a map for more successful human interaction, and we now have hard data at our fingertips that can show us which words and phrases to use (and avoid) when you want to win friends and influence people.

Here's how we did it: Using conversation intelligence technology, Gong's own self-learning conversation analytics engine that transcribes and analyzes calls, our data science team crunched through more than half a million B2B SaaS calls. Each call was recorded, speaker-separated, transcribed from speech-to-text, and analyzed using machine learning and natural language processing.

The calls were anonymized, and fell across the wide spectrum of gender, age and topics. But for the calls that tanked (in terms of close rates), there were common words and phrases kept popping up.

To win friends and influence people, here are some key takeaways from our research.

1. Don't say "Show You How"

A little bit of "Show you how" is ok. SaaS salespeople, our research shows, can drop this little phrase into conversations up to three times without it having an overall effect on close rates. But treat the ever-tempting "show you how" like salt -- sprinkle it in too liberally, and you'll ruin things beyond repair.

When this phrase was used four times or more on any call throughout the sales cycle, close rates swan dove by 13 percent. That's because prospects want to know why they need something, not how it works. Spend too much time showing them the latter rather than explaining the former, and you'll lose interest, and most likely, the sale.

2. Do talk less, and listen more

Most people talk more than they listen. Others split the difference. Both groups could be doing even better, though. It turns out at the ideal talk-to-listen ratio is 43:57, which means your prospect is speaking more on the call than you are.

Tight-lipped person on the other end of the line? Try saying "It seems like you .... " or "It looks like you...", both phrases that punch high on the empathy scale and let the prospect know you're in the mood to listen, and listen well.

3. Don't say "We Provide"

The human brain is an amazing piece of machinery, and savvy salespeople know that certain keywords immediately deploy walls of anti-sale defenses in prospect's minds. "We provide," it turns out, is basically a trigger that lights up an entire switchboard of resistance. If your client is Pavlov's dog, "We provide" is the bell that tells them, immediately, to expect a pitch and get ready to dodge it.

To put it another way: Close rates dropped 22 percent when salespeople used the term four or more times in a single call.

4. Do open your calls with words that engage that brain

We spend so much of our daily conversation. "How are you?" "Have a nice day." "She can't come to the phone right now."

In sales, if you want to succeed, you must break through that drudgery. The brain looks for patterns in conversation because it prefers to be lazy, so if you open your calls with something punchy and surprising -- think "Howdy, pardner!!" Instead of "Hello, is this Mike?", you force the person on the other end to snap to attention, shut off the autopilot, and kick into gear processing skills that call for higher engagement.

5. Don't say "Competitor"

The use of this seemingly-innocuous phrase creates two stumbling blocks for sales people -- it makes it harder to not just close deals, but also to secure next steps.

The reason? "Competitor" is a harsh, aggressive term, better suited to internal conversation between colleagues at the same company rather than agent-client dialogue. Our research here illustrates another key takeaway in conversation science: Know who you are talking to! All conversations are not alike.

So what do you say instead? There are lot of options. "Alternative solutions" works nicely. "Peers" and "fellow providers" can also do the trick.

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