Persuasive Language: A Primer On Linguistic Presuppositions

In the classic book Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski wrote:

“The map is not the territory.”

No map shows all details of the land it represents. Maps distort, delete, and generalize the terrain.

For example, a road map:

  • Distorts the land by making terrain a flat sheet of paper that is a smaller representation of reality.
  • Deletes all information that isn’t necessary for a road map (elevation, geological information, buildings, etc.).
  • Generalizes information to make it easier for you to understand (all four lane roads have the same type of line and color).

We do the same thing with language. In order to easily share information we have to remove many details. We distort, delete, and generalize our communication.

What Are Presuppositions?

persuasive language map of the moon

Persuasive language isn’t a list of “power words” given to you by your favorite guru. Persuasive language slips by when you use distortions, deletions, and generalizations in your language. Your Presuppositions.

Everything you write and say has multiple assumptions built into it. You can’t speak without assuming something exists or is caused by something else. This is natural.

You – the communicator or the listener – take these assumptions unconsciously and interpret them into some meaning. Your unconscious translates them into an experience and you don’t have to think about it (consciously).

But you want to think about the presuppositions you’re using. When you use them effectively you’ll create communication that slides by conscious resistance. The conscious mind of whoever you’re influencing won’t be aware of what’s happening. You’ll help him believe, do, understand, etc. without his conscious realizing what’s occurred.

Presuppositions are what’s unspoken and has to be true in order for your sentence to make sense.

This may seem a little like mind control. And it can be. Most of this comes from the work of Milton Erickson, the legendary conversational hypnotist. However, it’s not a quick fix. You won’t change someone’s mind with just one sentence. If you did, it’s only because that single sentence came after hundreds of others.

A harsh example of how ideas are layered into your language.

When did you stop beating your wife?

This is obvious because it creates a knee jerk reaction in most people. The things presupposed are blatant and (hopefully) not true. Think about it, what’s presupposed in that sentence?

  1. It assumes you beat your wife in the past and it happened over a period of time.
  2. You stopped beating your wife.
  3. I knew about both.
  4. You have a wife and you’re capable of beating her.
  5. You will answer this question.

If you were asked that question, and you never beat your wife, you would have a bad reaction. The unconscious assumptions won’t be accepted and violate your “reality.”

Persuasive Language Goes Beyond Simple Words

While the above example is rough, I use it because it obviously violates what would be accepted as true by your unconscious.

As I said before, presuppositions allow you to influence without involving conscious resistance. You’ll be able to slip ideas past the guard.

If you don’t understand how presuppositions work, you can pass ideas which will hurt your persuasive message. Your language could create doubt, confusion, and other problems that will stop your customers from moving ahead.

I’ve read sales letters and heard presentations where 80% of the message lined up just right. It’s a straight shot to influence the customer. But, there was 20% there that will kill the deal. The 20% which doesn’t line up, because they accidentally presupposed the wrong things, invalidates the 80%. And they lose.

Categories and Examples of Linguistic Presuppositions

Presuppositions have a unique structure so you can identify what you’re using and how it alters perceptions. Use them with deliberate intention.

Linguistic Presuppositions Of Existence

Presuppositions of existence are the most basic and obvious form. In the “When did you stop beating your wife?” example I pointed out how it assumes you and your wife exist. These are obvious.

Deeper in the structure, your marriage and the fact you had the ability to beat your wife are also presupposed to exist. By assuming they exist it allows you to focus on the content of the action

Adverb and Adjective Linguistic Presuppositions

Adverbs modify verbs. You can usually identify them as words ending in -ly.

  • You’ll quickly learn to use these after reading this article.
  • You’ll easily notice adverbs in this article now.

Adjectives modify other nouns and pronouns in your sentence. They modify the people, places, and things your speaking about.

  • This is a fun subject to understand.
  • This may seem like a mysterious subject but you’ll understand it with some practice.

How do adjectives and adverbs work for persuasion? Even if you disagree with the adjective or adverb in the sentence (”I won’t learn this quickly.”) you still accept what’s modified (”you’ll learn this”). It changes the focus from the verb or noun to the modifier and presupposes the verb/noun will happen/exists and bypasses any conscious resistance.

Linguistic Presuppositions of Awareness

You can identify presuppositions of awareness with words like notice, aware, realize, understand, experience, among others.

  • Are you aware of how much easier your life will be when you learn to use these?
  • When you realize this is only the surface of how these work, you’ll notice their elegance in persuasion.

Notice how these examples force you to bring your awareness to what I want you to believe. I’m not asking you if your life will be easier after learning these. I’m asking you if you’re aware of how much easier your life will be after learning these. Whether you say “Yes, I’m aware” or “No, I wasn’t aware of that,” you’ve bought the underlying statement “your life will be easier after learning these.”

Time and Ordinal Linguistic Presuppositions

Time and ordinal are slightly different but use many similar words in their use. You can identify these with words like: Before, during, after, later, first, second, last, etc.

  • After you sign up for e-mail updates you’ll be able to download the book Friction Free Sales & Marketing for free.
  • You can finish reading this article before you sign up for updates.
  • The second thing you’ll do after registering is confirm your e-mail address so we can send you the book’s download link.

These all assume something happened before, during, or after the event mentioned. In the last example, I mention the second thing you’ll do after signing up. This assumes you’re going to sign up and do the first.

Cause and Effect Presuppositions

These are one of my favorites because cause and effect is the linguistic structure of beliefs. You can identify these in sentences where X causes Y. Or replace ‘causes’ with: because, forces, allows, makes, and other words implying a cause/effect relationship between parts.

  • Using persuasive language effectively allows you to sell easily and confidently.
  • Simply reading these examples will cause you to notice their use everywhere around you.
  • Because you’re smart, you’ll notice the different ways you can write a cause and effect sentence.

You can also use implied cause and effect. These are a little more subtle and still have the same bite. Instead of X causing Y, the structure of implied cause and effect is similar to “As X, Y.”

  • (cause) As you read these examples, (effect) you’ll notice them being used everywhere in your life.
  • As you think about ways to use these in your life, you’ll find yourself becoming more curious to what’s possible.

Cause and effect is fun. Anything can cause something else (when you set it up correctly). If you noticed in the examples, for the cause I used things like “reading the examples,” thinking, and “you’re smart.” Would you have thought about questioning how reading, thinking, or you being a smart person had anything to do with the effect? Probably not. And if you did, it’s because the sentences are alone and not used in a specific context.

Complex Equivalence Linguistic Presuppositions

Complex Equivalence is similar to Cause and Effect. They also contain the linguistic structure of how we speak our beliefs. Instead of X causes Y, the pattern is identified by X equals or means Y. It’s used with words like: means, equals, is (and other forms of the verb “to be”).

  • Signing up for email updates means you’ll happily enjoy my book on overcoming resistance.
  • Reading my book is the smartest thing a person can do this month.

Again, similar to Cause and Effect, anything can mean or equal something else. They allow you to link unrelated ideas in a way that’s hard to argue with (Or, the ideas were unrelated until you brought them together in this way).

Linguistic Presuppositions of Possibility and Necessity

In linguistics these are identified by “Modal Operators.” Modal Operators are verbs that modify other verbs. I lump them into two categories: Possibility and Necessity.

Modal Operators of Possibility are: Can, Could, Able to, Choose to, Might, etc.

  • You could feel overwhelming guilt if you don’t sign up and read my book.
  • You might understand the basics after reading this. I highly recommend practicing so you can feel the impact of how they work.

Modal Operators of Necessity are: Should, Must, Have to, Need, Want to.

  • If you want to sell with less resistance you need to sign up and download my book.
  • A person must practice the basics to become a true master of their craft.

These can raise resistance in your customer when used incorrectly. I’m sure you’ve experienced someone telling you how you “need” to do something and you reply, “Oh yeah. I need to do that, huh?” Make sure you’ve worked your way up to a point where you can say, “you need to do this.”

The Exclusive/Inclusive “Or” Linguistic Presupposition

I don’t know if you’ll find this one really obvious or if you’ll be simply identify it very easily? It involves using the word “or.” With it you’re able to present options, or what seem like options to your customer, by including or excluding what you want him to choose.

  • Will you sign up now or after you read the rest of this article?
  • Do you understand how powerful presuppositions can be or are you merely beginning to realize their power in persuasion?

This is a beautiful way to let your customer think he’s making a choice when he’s not. Either option he agrees to means he’s agreeing to what you want him to do.

The first example doesn’t ask you if you want to sign up. It asks you to tell me when you’re going to sign up, before or after finishing this article. Did you notice what is presupposed in the second example? (hint: Presuppositions are powerful!)

The Drawback

At first glance you might have thought these were ridiculous and wouldn’t convince anyone. You would’ve been right. They won’t work as stand alone sentences.

All language and meaning comes from the context of your communication. You have to build rapport to stretch these. You can also realize how these patterns are used naturally in your daily language. Everything you’ve read in this article (or anywhere today) contains many presuppositions.

Exercise

Before you wonder how you would use these in “real life,” spend some time and write 5 to 10 sentences for each of the presuppositions. Naturally, I would recommend you write more, maybe 20-30 each for several days, to deeply familiarize your unconscious with the process. However, start with what you can. Begin with something so you can really learn how they alter your effect.

Don’t worry about being elegant. That will come with practice. Create long, drawn out sentences. After you’ve written some from each category, start combining multiple patterns.

Just write.

Let it be rough and nasty. Then step back and notice the rough edges. You need a rough stone before you can polish it into a beautiful gem.

The next couple articles will cover using presuppositions with power and the devastating mistakes you make every day.

If you haven’t already, sign up now for email updates so you can be notified when they’re published.

Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

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