Words Matter, Even the Ones Nobody Sees

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Shortly after launching my first fitness facility, I wrote an article on marketing for what was then the leading industry magazine.

The question was straight forward…

How do you attract the “deconditioned” market to your club?

This was the holy grail of the fitness industry; getting the people who were unfit, sedentary and largely disinterested in movement to reclaim exercise as an integral part of their lives. The size of the deconditioned market vastly outstripped the the existing member population. Still does.

Despite the fact that the health club industry has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing at the quest for decades, some 80-85% of U.S. still will not join or stay members of health clubs. If you could connect with and inspire even a sliver of them to exercise, it’d be not just a boon for society, but for the fitness business.

My answer was simple…

Stop calling them the “deconditioned market!!!”

It makes sense to us that the language we use to speak to the people we most want to attract and serve matters. In fact, it matters immensely. It’s the reason I’ve studied the psychology of language, influence, copywriting and behavior change for nearly two decades.

You cannot attract and inspire conversation and trust and, eventually, action if you have no idea how to speak to the people you most want to serve (and who’ll make it easiest for you to build a business serving them).

We get this. Intuitively.

But, somehow we don’t get that the language we use “internally” to speak not to, but “about” them matters just as much, if not more. Because it creates both a dialog and a cultural context within our organizations that lays the foundation for how we identify, connect with, treat and serve these people.

The moment you call the people you want to serve a “market,” you’ve already begun the process of dehumanization and kickstarted your dysfunctional relationship.

In the case of the fitness industry, labeling the people who hold the key to your success the “deconditioned market” was tantamount to calling them slothful marbled meat suits with pulses and purses.

Given that frame, do you really think you’d be able to effectively cultivate the culture, offerings, environment, solutions and messaging capable of serving those unique and beautiful humans on the level that would attract and inspire them?

Not a chance. You’re screwed before you even begin.

My friend, Ryan Lee, commented on this more recently in the context of the name of a marketing technique that’s become very popular in the online world, the “tripwire.” Simply put, a tripwire is a very low-price offer with disproportionately high-value that compels someone to buy, then sets off a sequence of up-sells and cross-sells that very often exponentially outsize the amount of the original sale.

The technique can be incredibly effective, and like most marketing techniques, it can also be executed with an ethos of either respect and grace or disrespect and brute force. What caught Ryan’s attention, though, was how the strategy was being labeled in the industry.


The word itself wreaks of disrespect. Dictionary.com defines it as:

1. a wire used to set off concealed explosives, as one stretched across a footpath to be struck and activated by the foot of an enemy soldier.

2. a wire that activates a trap, camera, or other device when stepped on, tripped on, or otherwise disturbed.

Using the term tripwire immediately frames those we most want to attract and serve as the enemy. Someone to be engaged, as a first line of defense, with trickery, trepidation, surveillance and potentially, violence.

What an absolutely horrendous internal frame.

As an alternative, Lee offers an invitation to business-builders and marketers. Instead of tripwire, start using a different phrase—welcome mat. Even though your customer will never see the term, it creates the internal context for how you view, treat and solve for those who gift you with the opportunity to earn a living.

Language matters.

Not just the words your customers, clients, community see, but those you think, those you craft and share internally, those that never see the light of day yet, nonetheless, make the difference between light and dark, respect and disrespect and, often, failure and success.

My invitation today…

Think about the “inside language” you’re using. Even if the person you most want to serve never sees or hears these words, they will feel them and, inevitably, be either repelled or compelled by their ripple.

And so will you.


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19 responses

19 responses to “Words Matter, Even the Ones Nobody Sees”

  1. Pamela Miles says:

    From one wordsmith to another: LOVE THIS, JONATHAN!

    People often say, “It’s just words!” Words may be the most powerful resource we have. Our word choice reflects our deepest beliefs and carries them into the future.

    The great Persian poet Hafiz said, “Your words become the house you live in.”

  2. Sarah Arrow says:

    I love your views on the language and how it’s used. There are plenty of people that are repelled by the word “killer” yet you see marketers (and people similar to me) use it all of the time because they think that’s the language of success.
    I don’t like tripwire or lead magnet, I prefer ethical bribe. It sets out my stall in advance – I’ll bribe you, but I’ll do it ethically as I’m an ethical marketer – I’m not denying who I am or what I do.

    My final thought on this thought-provoking post… Why not create your own language for your own people? One they feel speaks to them and connects them to you instead of using what works for other people?

  3. Grant Wattie says:

    Well said Jonathan. Love the quote by Hafiz Pamela. Reminds me of something the Continental philosopher Heidegger said: “Language is the house of Being. In its home we dwell.”

  4. Great post Jonathan!

    The Scriptures warn we reap what we sow. We sow deceit, trickery and violence, we’ll one day get those in return. How many businesses used such practices to one day wind up in court or in a negative news report? Yes, people may use such words to achieve success, however such success is short-term.

    However, if we use “welcome mat” language: honesty, love and care well get those in return. And we’ll have more than enough poured into our lives: money, customers, love, you name it.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Evie says:

    This is another way of getting back to the basics. As I try to figure out how to market my work, I see where it’s so easy to get wrapped up in market speak and lose sight of the people with whom I want to share my art as people who will sit in their living rooms or gardens and enjoy my creations. How much longer and more meaningfully will they enjoy it if it comes from a more meaningful place? How much more likely am I to connect with people and create relationships when it comes from that place? So helpful and coming from the right place. Thank you.

  6. Be Kind, Be Helpful or Be Gone – This is my mantra for working on building a community of healthy people. Great thoughts Jonathan as I work as an online marketer and I see these patterns happening everyday.

  7. “Language matters.”

    In an era of texting shorthand, it’s easy to forget that words shape everything in some form or fashion. Words give meaning. As someone that’s been in and around the internet marketing industry for decades (gulp, I can say that now!), I’ve worked with “take no prisoners, conquer them all” marketers and the “heart-centered, non-slimy approach” marketers. It’s not just in the copy, it’s an attitude that feeds their words.

    In my experience, folks who show up with authenticity and integrity, using words of expansiveness, inclusiveness, and acceptance with their audience tend to have more staying power and build legacy businesses (what I call a Noble Empire), while “cut-throat” companies tend to hit a peak then decline – like most fads do – because they haven’t learned how to hold space for their community in whatever way it appears.

  8. I enjoyed your article very much, thank you for your brave words, seldom heard in marketing land…

    One remark: if you just change or rephrase the language you are working one level to shallow in my opinion.

    The question is what is our real intent? Are we honest with ourselves or in denial?

    Yes we all have to earn some bucks in this world, but are we into ‘helping’ just for the money and are our words genuine and on par with our real passion for healing or helping or have we cleverly mimicked the appropriate phrases?

    This is what people gradually will start to intuit more and consequently will be less fooled into buying what they don’t need.

  9. Dana says:

    another keeper…

  10. Rick Wolff says:

    As the economy atomizes away from big corporations and back to individual agents, as we learn how to market, we also learn how marketing is (excuse the expression) aimed at us. The worse the analogies marketers use, the more disgusting marketing will continue to feel, just when we all need to be adept at it, both giving and receiving. I like where this is going.

  11. Kristina says:

    Yes! This is so true! During the past year of starting up, I have been the most desperate, sad and drained after talking to different marketing coaches. They talk about human beings as if we are prey to be exploited in masses. I don´t want to be part of that world view, so I decided to close the door on them and follow my heart, guts and true inspiration, like yourself and Marie Forleo. Thanks for being a real inspiration!

  12. Alice Bandy says:

    Great article and wise words. I love how you take old school values like kindness and respect and turn them into cutting edge marketing tools. The Good Life, for sure. Rock on Jonathan. We flying along in your gulf stream.

  13. Sam Hunter says:

    Words have so much power, and I do try to use mine carefully. This is such a lovely example – many thanks from a fellow word lover!

  14. Brad Feld calls this Thinly Disguised Contempt. And that post meant so much to me – informed everything I’m supposed to do around here.

  15. Excellent piece! Makes me a fan right there! So many words create a “them” when we think we are trying to create an “us.” The internal language externalizes itself in our attitude even when we are not aware of it.

  16. Hi Jonathan, this piece is spot-on. Reminds me how important my own internal language is in thinking about my clients. And I love the concept of a “welcome mat.” Such a simple, powerful image to keep in mind as I go about my work. Thanks!

  17. Stuart Baker says:

    Wonderful, sensitive post, Jonathan. I was in a training recently on “soft, subtle awareness.” Very real and powerful. The unspoken and whispered words do carry energy. For me being very curious about opening my soft, subtle awareness more and more just takes me into a deeper world with deeper, quiet connection to others.