Watch Out for Words of Misinformation
Have you ever bought something, and then later regretted it? Have you ever looked back and thought, you made your purchase in order to make the salesperson happy more than you did to make yourself happy?
Has a friend ever persuaded you to go along with a plan, and you later wish you hadn’t?
My 10th-grade geometry teacher, Mrs. Dietz, taught me to beware of words like “all” and “every.” When you use those kinds of words, it only takes one counterexample to be proved wrong.
Conversely, she told me to beware of “none” and “nobody.” Again, all it takes is one counterexample.
In this article, we’ll look at how salespeople and other master persuaders use these kinds of words. I’ll show you why they are so effective. Then I’ll show you how to evaluate proposals on their own merits, without being unduly swayed by these words.
“All,” “no one,” and “every” in social settings
I first became aware of these words about 12 years ago. I live in a downtown area full of restaurants and nightlife. The common after-work meeting place was a spot I’ll call The Beer Barn. We’d play trivia, shoot pool, watch sports, catch up on each other’s lives.
Then, a new bar called Patterson’s opened up about half a mile to the south. My friend Matt went there, had an awesome time, and decided that we should move our group down the road to Patterson’s. (Part of the reason was that Patterson’s was right around the corner from his condo.)
However, we’d been going to The Beer Barn for years, and Patterson’s was a much farther walk or ride down the road for some of us. Matt, realizing this, would say things like,
“We’re all meeting up at Patterson’s after work for happy hour. You coming?” I seriously doubt Matt had contacted each member of our group and got a verbal commitment to that plan. Maybe he texted one or two other people and transformed that into “all.”
“Today everyone’s going to meet up at the street festival, eat some good food, listen to some live music… and then after that, we’re going to Patterson’s. It’s our favorite bar!” Again, it’s unlikely Matt polled everyone in advance. He most likely decided what he wanted to do, then projected that plan onto the group. Also, notice the implied “everyone’s” in the plural “our” of “our favorite bar.”
“It amuses me that you want to sit there at The Beer Barn with no one to talk to, when all of your friends are here at Patterson’s!” That was a text Matt sent me. At the time, there were easily 75 other people in The Beer Barn, including several of my good friends.
Now, I don’t think Matt intended to deceive me or consciously manipulate me in the least. He truly believed that because Patterson’s was the place where he had the most fun, it was also the place all our other friends and I would have the most fun as well.
Still, though, with Matt, I had to keep thinking to myself, “Is what he’s suggesting really in my best interest?”
“All,” “no one,” and “every” in business copy
These blanket words came back into my awareness when I became a writer. I signed up for a few short, free writing courses, whose end goal was to sell me longer, paid writing courses. Most people probably didn't even notice these words in their ad copy, but they caused visions of Matt and of Mrs. Dietz to dance in my head:
“All of the top writers follow approximately the same path. Don’t you want to learn the secrets they know?”
“Of course, you don’t have to sign up for my writing lessons — but do you really want to be stuck with a bunch of articles that nobody reads?”
Post title: “7 Common Behaviors of Every Successful Writer”
Okay. Let’s take a full stop and examine these.
“All of the top writers follow the same path” — Have you ever read Umair Haque? He is unquestionably a top writer on this platform, yet he marches to the beat of his own drum. As Mrs. Dietz said, it only takes one example to disprove “all.”
If you don’t sign up for the lessons “you’ll be stuck with a bunch of articles nobody reads” — I haven’t signed up yet; however, when I check my views, reads, and fans, they are all numbers greater than zero. Once again, disproved.
“7 Common Behaviors of Every Successful Writer” — If even one successful writer is not at the keyboard at 5 AM, your premise is false. If even one successful writer looks at their phone while writing, your premise is false. Are you in the room with all these successful writers when they're working? If not, how do you know they all do it the same way?
As was the case with Matt, these teachers mean well. They want what is best for their prospective students and are leading them down what the teachers believe to be the best path. By no means am I suggesting you decide not to take a course, or buy a car, or take a vacation because there’s “all” or “every” in the ad copy. I just want you to notice it’s there.
Why it works
Why is this kind of language so effective? Two reasons.
Reason number 1 is that most people want to be told what to do. They don’t want to have to think independently. We’re all going to Patterson’s after work? Okay, I’m in! This is the best writing course? Sure, I believe you, let me retrieve my credit card from my wallet!
The good news for you: The fact that you’re reading this article means you are an independent thinker. You’re someone who questions a person trying to set themselves up as an authority. You’re someone who can ask, “I’m being told this is what’s right for everyone — but is it right for me? Is this in my best interest?”
The second reason is scarcity, or as it’s often called these days, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). If I don’t go to this place or that, I’ll miss out on the good time “everyone” had. If I let the deadline pass without taking the course, “everyone” will make money except me. If I don’t read this famous author’s book on how to charm and attract people, “nobody” will like me. FOMO can be a powerful motivator when you have a decision to make right now.
What to do when someone attempts to persuade you with “all,” “every,” “none”
The question you have to ask yourself is this: If you cut out every instance of those words — if you didn’t know “everyone” was going, if you forgot you were told you’d make “no” money if you didn’t buy the course — would you still make the same decision? If so, go along with what the persuader suggests. If not, politely decline. They may press you, trying to weaponize FOMO. Just know that if the opportunity is truly right for you, it’ll come along again.
Pretend you have a miniature lawyer on your shoulder, standing up for you in the face of these all-or-none statements.
“Everyone’s going to be at the…”
“Tonight we’re all going to…”
“You don’t have to buy that car, but you’ll be the only one who…”
Simply cut off those words in your head as they come up, and evaluate what’s being presented on its remaining merits.
Words like “all,” “every, “none” and their variants can be used to introduce a measure of social proof that simply isn’t there. They work because most people want someone else to tell them what to do and because they have a fear of missing out.
The fact that you notice these words indicates you’re a person who thinks for themselves. Take sentences and questions containing these words out of the equation and evaluate everything that’s left on its own merits. If it sounds like something you would do anyway, then you can agree with the proposed course of action without feeling manipulated. If it doesn’t, you can cut loose while avoiding the fear of missing out.
If you have your own experience with this kind of language, tell me about it in the comments. Thanks for reading, and if you’d like to be notified of future stories of mine, feel free to sign up for my email list. Everyone’s doing it!