4 Magic Words That Will Make You Fascinating To People


If you want to attract and charm people, you have to be interesting. The secret to being interesting is not in what you say, but in how you respond to what they say. You can win people every day if you know the magic words.

I learned the magic words and the rewards for using them on a sticky-hot Alabama afternoon when I was nine years old.  There was nothing to do. Mama and Daddy were working. Delilah was off visiting relatives. I didn’t even have Grandmama because Aunt Pauline had taken her to get a permanent wave.

I walked down Petain Street to Smith’s store to watch the butcher cut meat for a while. Walking home, I passed the poor old lady who had just moved into the lopsided shotgun house by the ditch. She waved at me and called out hello. There was nothing else to do, so I decided to join her, sat on the rickety front steps, and asked where she was from, though I didn’t expect her to be all that entertaining. What a surprise I got!

Mrs. Jackson was her name, and she had come from Chicago. When she described it, I could hear the sounds of music, wind, and horns blowing, and I could see the colors. All I could say was, “Wow!” and she kept talking.

She had done things that nobody else I ever knew had done. She told me she was pretty when she was a girl, and told me about dance places where she went dancing and men paid to dance with her. I just said, “Really?” and she told me more.

Mrs. Jackson told me that one night a friend dared her to get a tattoo – and she did it! Daddy had a tattoo, but no lady I’d ever met had one. “You’re kidding!” No, she wasn’t. It was a butterfly and it was on the top of her foot. She took off her shoe and showed me. “Wow!” She also told me they did it with needles (“Really?”) so I knew I’d never get one.

It was the best Saturday afternoon. Mrs. Jackson moved away soon, but she left me with stories to tell Delilah that she wouldn’t believe, and with three lessons for success that I would be invaluable to me in my career.

The 3 lessons for success I learned on a steamy summer day when there was nothing else to do.

  1. People have wonderful, entertaining, and funny stories you’d never expect.
  2. They will tell you their stories if you use the magic words.
  3. The magic words are: Wow! Really? You’re kidding!

That fall, I saw again how the magic words worked when we had a school fundraiser. We raised money by selling boxes of birthday cards, Christmas cards, and all-occasion cards. I spent afternoons knocking on the doors of neighbors, mostly old people who lived alone and seemed happy to let me come in. We would sit on chairs that had crocheted doilies on the arms and they would look through the cards, ooh and ah at pictures of flower baskets, or puppies, or Christmas trees in snow, and launch into stories, not about the cards, but their lives. They told great stories! “Wow!” I listened. Then they bought my cards.

My friend Elizabeth told me I was doing it all wrong. She was in my class and was selling cards too. She said I was wasting time. I was supposed to stay at the door, show the cards, get the two dollars a box, and go to more houses. But I didn’t care what she thought. Maybe sitting and listening to people tell stories wasn’t her kind of selling, but I liked going in their houses, and I liked listening to the stories. So what if I didn’t sell right? So what if she said I wasted time, I thought,  wasting time on people was good.

Not everybody I visited bought, but all my cards got sold and I had to get more boxes! Elizabeth didn’t have to get more boxes.

I learned another lesson.

  1. Waste time on people.

When I grew up and came to my career in business, I found selling to businesspeople in Washington D.C. is no different than selling to the people on Petain Street. The lessons I’d learned about magic words and wasting time on people worked in attracting and keeping clients. The more intensely I listened to them, uttering just enough words to encourage and give them feedback, the more they talked. The more they talked, the more they bought.

Whatever business you’re in, most of success is about people and these four lessons hold the secret to success.

The secret of the magic words is:

If you want to be interesting, make the other guy feel fascinating. And if the other guy is fascinating, your life is more fun.

  • When have you wasted time on a person who surprised you with a great story?
  • What stories have you heard that made your life more interesting?