Probability Language



One of my favourite movies is “The Pursuit of Happyness”, a 2006 feature film based on the true story of San Francisco stockbroker Chris Gardner, portrayed in the film by actor Will Smith. It’s a story of a man in 1980s San Francisco desperately trying to make a life for his young family and live up to his own high expectations of himself. Through various turns of bad luck, Chris ends up homeless with his young son (played in the film by Will Smith’s real-life son, Jaden Smith), while at the same time taking part in an unpaid competitive internship at one of the city’s top stockbroker companies. He wins a job with the company and eventually goes on to become a wealthy man. It was almost written for Hollywood.

There is a beautiful scene mid way through the film where Chris engineers an opportunity to meet a top potential client at a weekend, knowing that he’s an American Football fan with a directors’ box for that afternoon’s San Francisco 49ers game. He hopes he and his son might get an invite to join them and have an opportunity to talk about investments during the match.

On their way to the meeting the young boy and his father have a discussion about the likelihood of them going to see the game:

Son: Are we going to the game?
Chris: I said possibly we’re going to the game. You know what possibly means?
Son: Like probably?
Chris: No, probably means there’s a good chance that we’re going. Possibly means we might, we might not. What does probably mean?
Son: It means we have a good chance.
Chris: And what does possibly mean?
Son: I know what it means.
Chris: What does it mean?
Son: It means that we’re NOT going to the game.

It’s a lovely example of probability language, the words we use when we are trying to convey to another person the likelihood of us doing something, or of something happening. We are highly sensitive to it and use it effortlessly.

Look at the group of 16 words below. Can you put the words in order from 1-16 based on the strength of the likelihood they convey? For example, from the story above, if you think “probably” is more likely than “possibly” it would be higher up in your list.

Few people will put all of these words in identical order, but I suspect your top ones included, “guaranteed”, “definitely” and “certain” and your bottom ones included the words “hope”, “consider”, “intend to” and “try”.

If someone invited you to an event and you weren’t sure you wanted to go to, but didn’t want to upset the host, you might find yourself using words like “maybe”, “possibly” in your reply. We also effortlessly combine these words for nuanced intention. “I’m sure” is stronger than “I’m pretty sure”.

A sign that you aren’t fully confident in the service or product you offer is when you water down your language and say things like “maybe”, “try to” and “possibly”. "Our role is to help”, “to support”, “sometimes this happens”, “you might find”…

You want customers to know for sure they are going to benefit hugely from your service or product and that they will really enjoy it, even be transformed by it (or else what are you designing it for?) Check to see if you are using weak probability language. If you find any, can you use stronger words instead?