Ask 100 sales reps whether you should swear during conversations with customers, and probably 99 would say, “No way.”

And it’s true that turning the air blue is not the best approach if you want to get the sale. R-rated content is best left for the movies.

But you may surprised to learn that several research studies show that a little mild swearing actually can enhance persuasion in certain circumstances.

Persuasion in various domains
To be upfront, these studies deal with persuasiveness in public affairs, electoral politics, and legal testimony. So they’re not perfectly aligned with sales situations. But persuasion is persuasion is persuasion, and there may be lessons for salespeople in them.

Let’s look at these studies:

  • Study #1: Researchers at Northern Illinois University had 88 volunteers view a video of a man speaking about the desirability of lowering tuition costs at another school. One version of the speech used a mild expletive — “damn” — near the beginning, a second used the same word near the end, and the third had no swearing. Then the researchers measured the participants’ attitude toward the tuition issue, using a seven-point scale. They found that the first speech was 7% more persuasive than the control, and the second was 5% more persuasive. Both of these were statistically significant, the researchers said.
  • Study #2: Italian researchers created bogus blog posts by a fabricated political candidate, and had 110 randomly selected adults read them. Some of the participants got a post that included two vulgar expressions — “up s**t creek” and “a situation that p****d off everyone.” The rest looked at a post without such expressions. (In some cases the author of the post was presented as male, and in others female.) The researchers then asked the participants to rate their impressions and likelihood of voting for the candidate on a seven-point scale. Result: Those who had read the slightly vulgar message were more favorable toward the candidate and expressed a greater likelihood of voting for him/her.
  • Study #3: A psychology professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands, exposed experimental participants to fictitious testimonies from alleged perpetrators and victims of crimes. He found that scattering swear words in written testimony made it more credible to the audience.

Informality, passion
The evidence is, dare I say, persuasive. There’s something about swearing that improves the believability of the person uttering it. The studies gave a couple of reasons: Swearing has an attractive informality, and it seems to indicate a convincing passion on the part of the speaker.

Now, do you actually want to use swear words when you talk with buyers? That probably depends on a number of things, notably how well you know the other person. If you’ve picked up signs that your buyer him- or herself isn’t a stickler for formal, proper language, you might want to drop a strategic “hell” or “damn” into the conversation when you’re trying to stress a particularly important point.

But don’t overdo it, and please don’t take any of these research findings as license to get really down and dirty. The experiments were about MILD swearing, not the kind of obscenity that some people qualify as “locker-room talk.” Really cutting loose during customer meetings isn’t likely to win you any friends, or sales.

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