For the past two years, I’ve been privileged to serve on the board of a wonderful Jewish nonprofit called Daily Giving (dailygiving.org), in which one can automatically donate $1 of tzedakah a day and support dozens of worthy organizations. I’ve mainly assisted the founder of Daily Giving, Dr. Jonathan Donath, in writing press releases about the organization and crafting emails to its donors.
About a month ago, Jonathan asked me to write an email that he wanted to send to active donors on file, encouraging them to increase their daily donation from $1 a day to $2 a day.
I spent about an hour or two on the project, carefully choosing just the right words that I thought would convince as many donors as possible to increase their commitment to Daily Giving.
The email was deployed to a few thousand donors before Rosh Hashana, and to date about 100 individuals have pledged to give an extra dollar a day to Daily Giving … and help support the many charities that we regularly assist.
You can do the math, but this simple 750-word email was able to raise tens of thousands of extra dollars a year in tzedakah for Daily Giving.
I tell you this story not to brag, but to make a point about words.
Words are extremely powerful. In this case, they convinced a hundred people to double their donation to a worthy nonprofit.
In the past, as part of my professional work, I’ve written advertising and marketing promotions where I’ve used the same exact copy in two versions, but tested two different headlines — and one headline generated three times as many responses as the other headline.
Once I changed a single word in a headline – and it yielded a 50% better response!
I happen to be in the business of using words to sell goods and services. However, we are all in the business of using words in our daily lives – and we ought to appreciate their enormous influence.
Words can harm – it is said that the tongue has no bones, but it’s strong enough to break a human heart. No doubt we have all been the recipient of hurtful words at some point in our life, and we know just how painful those feelings can be. Whoever came up with the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” likely was a hermit who never experienced the sting of hateful speech or negative comments from others.
We recently finished reciting the 44 different “Al Cheit” sentences during the Yom Kippur service. Look at them carefully, and you’ll notice that about a third of them involve speech. Clearly we are being reminded how many sinful things can unfortunately result from using the wrong words, or even using words that may not inherently be wrong, but are being used at the wrong time or being said to the wrong people. Too often we don’t choose our words carefully, and fail to consider the importance of the words we select.
On the other hand, words can be a very positive force as well. Communicating the right words to our friends, family members, and neighbors might be the single most important factor in impacting the depth of our relationships. Those who give thought to the words they choose are often rewarded with great success and happiness. While I was sitting shiva recently for my father, of blessed memory, I received dozens and dozens of calls and emails from friends and family. There were a handful of comments that stood out, and brought me great comfort, because they were just the right words chosen for the moment. Words can — and often do — make a difference.
When we were young, we were taught to use magic words, such as please … excuse me … may I … I love you … you’re welcome. I’d like to mention two pairs of magic words that have served me particularly well over my life.
The first are the words, “Thank you.” Those two simple words create an enormously powerful connection between two people. By acknowledging and remembering a person’s deeds with a thank you, you are providing the recipient with a sense of accomplishment, appreciation, and positive reinforcement. In addition, you are demonstrating gratitude towards that person in a humble and respectful manner.
No wonder nonprofit organizations are always instructed to send thank you letters or make thank you calls immediately after receiving a donation. Of course, they are hoping that they will receive a second donation of greater value sometime soon after that, and the thank you call, in fact, has proven to help in that regard. But it’s the same psychological factors are at play here than when you say thank you to a friend. You are telling that individual that you appreciate what he or she has done.
The second are the words, “I’m sorry.” Our sages were very wise when they came up with a period of time during the year when we focus on any wrong we may have done to others, and are specifically instructed to apologize for our actions. However, the truth is that we should be performing this exercise throughout the year. Saying I’m sorry cannot undo what has already been done, but it can certainly ease the pain and tension of the resulting aftermath. It can help repair relationships, because it values connections over the pride of one individual.
Personally, I probably say the words “I’m sorry” too often, but if that’s my worst sin, I can definitely live with that – and I certainly do not need to apologize for it! I always would rather choose the path of humility and healing over arrogance and pride.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said the following about words: “Speech has power. Words don’t fade. What starts out as a sound ends in a deed.”
May all of our sounds result in the performance of good deeds for the rest of humanity.