Melbourne Business School News The way you write reveals how powerful you think you are

The way you write reveals how powerful you think you are

Be careful next time you draft an email – the language you choose will reveal more about you than you think.

how to write

New research by Melbourne Business School Associate Dean of Research Professor Jennifer Overbeck and colleagues has found the way you write reflects how powerful you think you are, and more importantly, directly affects how powerful others perceive you to be.  

While the concept that how you write an email may affect people’s perception of you may not be new to popular culture, it was only a theory and had never been fully explored in research before. 

Prof Overbeck’s paper not only validates this hypothesis, but also goes a step further, showing a correlation between the written language used by an individual and their strategies for pursuing and using power – namely, whether they favour dominant power behaviours or prestigious ones.  

The researchers found that dominant people, who choose to rule with fear and aggression, tended to cut down on pronouns and stack their language up with a lot of conjunctions, such as ‘and’ or ‘but’. 

“Even though these people were writing about themselves, they didn’t use the word ‘I’,” Prof Overbeck said. 

“Instead, they would make more declarative statements such as ‘this is true’ rather than ‘I think this is true’.” 

On the other hand, people who opted for a prestigious approach preferred to influence people with their competence and inclusivity. These people used more positive words like ‘friendly’, ‘self-confidence’ and ‘joy’.  

Prof Overbeck said using this more inclusive approach was perceived to be just as effective at demonstrating power as those who opted for dominance.  

“The more positive words used, the more people rated you as high in power and high in prestige,” she said.  

“It totally goes against the idea that powerful people have to be tough, or that being positive makes you seem weak – our data show the opposite.”

infographic showing how to write a powerful email

Importantly, the research showed that these patterns and language cues were also correctly interpreted by objective observers, with readers of the text accurately predicting whether a writer saw themself as dominant or high in prestige. 

Published in the European Journal of Personality, the findings suggest that language could help CEOs, leaders and those seeking career advancement to command a greater sense of respect and power.  

Along with Prof Overbeck, the research was led by Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and Otto-Friedrich University of Bamberg Research Associate Robert Körner, who was formerly a visiting PhD student at Melbourne Business School, and also included Otto-Friedrich University of Bamberg Professor Astrid Schütz and Leipzig University student Erik Körner. 

Examining the powerful  

Though the relationship between power and language has been examined before, most research had focused on signals of powerlessness, rather than power, Prof Overbeck said.  

It had also tended to focus on signals that were observable in spoken language, rather than written.  

“We know a lot about how someone’s style of delivery can indicate their level of power,” Prof Overbeck said. 

“For instance, we know that people who are less powerful use a lot of hedges and hesitations. They also use upspeak, meaning they phrase things as questions rather than statements, or ask others to validate what they are saying. 

“A lot of nonverbal cues also differ between powerful and powerless speakers. What we didn’t have was a good sense of the words themselves – what kinds of words tend to be used by people who feel powerful versus people who believe themselves powerless. 

“We wanted to see whether people use particular words or patterns of language differently, even if they’re not aware they’re doing so. And more important, we wanted to see whether other people pick up on those cues.”   

Rating power, dominance and prestige

To test their theory, the researchers asked 400 participants to write short self-descriptions, which were then anonymously shared with objective observers who read them and assessed the author’s sense of power, dominance, and prestige. 

“We had the participants write something, before we even introduced the concept of power, so there was little risk they were consciously trying to convey a certain image in their writing; there were no power cues,” Prof Overbeck said.  

“It was really just them writing about their lives.” 

The next step was to assess the participants’ own sense of power and how much they relied on dominant power behaviours or prestige power behaviours.  

The objective readers each read several self-descriptions without knowing anything further about the participants, and came up with their own rankings of how much power each author had and how likely they were to use dominance or prestige behaviours.  

Dominant people don’t explain themselves 

The research team discovered systematic language cues used by dominant people that were easily picked up by observers. 

“Along with using conjunctions, people high in dominance avoid the use of leisure-oriented words such as ‘TV’ or ‘music’. They’re task-focused,” Prof Overbeck said. 

“Quantifiers were another thing they would rely heavily on; for example, ‘there are lots of reasons’ or ‘there’s a lot of money’ – they are intentionally vague. 

“This is something Donald Trump does all the time, it’s his way of saying – I know what is going on and it is simply your job to believe me and follow me. 

“This is true, I think, for many CEOs and others who are used to commanding people. If I have a lot of power and I want to hold my power over you, I don’t have to explain myself to you. I’m just going to use very, very vague language.” 

People who ranked highly in prestige, on the other hand, were prone to talk about their connections with others.  

"We found that people who had a high measure of prestige tended to use a lot of words describing being social. We think these folks recognise that connecting with others is a useful tool for carrying out influence."

“But another possibility is that the sense of connection creates your feelings about your power: If you have a lot of friends, it gives you a better sense of power, whereas if you are isolated, you feel like you have less.”  

They also used emotive words that specifically focused on reward.  

“They might talk about feeling good because they received a bonus or a raise or reflect positively about a compliment they received at work,” Prof Overbeck said.  

Another common thing that prestigious people did was avoid informal language used on the internet, phrases such as ‘lol’ or ‘ok’. 

Creating a powerful persona 

So, can someone looking to present a certain image manipulate their language to appear more powerful?  

“We didn’t test it – but that is a reasonable assumption,” Prof Overbeck said. 

“For example, if you want to be seen as dominant, you might cut down your use of pronouns, and stop using so many conjunctions.  

“Those little tweaks could support a belief among your subordinates that you were someone to defer to, even subconsciously. Language is a powerful tool.” 

To read the full research paper, visit The Language of Power: Interpersonal Perceptions of Sense of Power, Dominance, and Prestige Based on Word Usage.  

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Professor of Management, Associate Dean, Research