Game of Cults: Using Rituals, Sacred Words, and Linguistic Spellcasting to Captivate Readers

The power of words

Amanda Montell lays out a solid argument that the basis of a cult’s power structure is the use of language. She takes an academic approach to demonstrate how pervasive cults are in American culture.

In the last article, we discussed how people commonly believe that everyone else is under the influence of peer pressure while they themselves are immune. The same goes for our view of cults. Other poor schmucks get brainwashed by cults; we’d never fall for such duplicity.

Other fools act like lemmings, following the leader, and people get killed.

But consider the civic, recreational, and religious groups we belong to. Could they be using the same cultlike persuasive tactics?

In ancient times, bards were thought of as spell casters. They could weave magic with words. The most potent spell was satire, where the bard could damage your reputation now and after your death through the stories they told.

Cult expert Steve Hassan has created a model called BITE to help people understand cult leaders’ tactics as they seek to control Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotion. Most of the cult leader’s influence is exerted through the use of language. They influence the group through the words they use and the words they DON’T allow others to use.

It’s a scary list. It starts relatively benign but gets horrific. As we learned with pseudo-sciences, the idea is to create a slippery slope. That your fans step on and don’t realize the gradual slide further into your brand cult.

Don’t get me wrong. Humans have a vital need to be part of a social organization. It’s a given to seek inclusion and status. We all desire belonging.

It’s when individuals use the group dynamic to coerce others, like propagandists do to unify sentiment, that things get unhealthy. Quick.

Behavior and mind control isn’t a mysterious, ambiguous process. It’s a system that eliminates individual and critical thought to get the group to serve the purposes of a leader.

I can think of many cults I’ve been a member of over my life. Take a moment to be objective about the organizations you belong to as well. Step outside yourself and examine whether these groups have a special (cultlike) language.

For example, there was a time when I was into CrossFit.

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CrossFit has rituals, sacred words, and special language (WODs, PRs, Box). All have meaning and show you’re an insider when you use these words.

Within the book business

Indie publishing is the same. There is a vocabulary that insiders understand. Sure, much of it is based on craft and understanding how things work, but languages are also designed to limit how you think.

Even within a group like published authors, there are sects and subcategories. What genres do you write? Are you self-published, or do you work with a publisher? Are you wide or in KU? These words help us identify and qualify ourselves and others as Us or Them.

Do you ever consider how this language also limits your ability to think?

How much of your business practices are driven by what others say or do?

In a cult, language is designed to establish black-and-white thinking, categorize good and evil, simplify and limit thought, change identity, and get you to adopt the cult’s map of reality.

This influence can go beyond mere thought-stopping where the objective is to eliminate your ability to question the status quo. Cult language can become institutionalized, verbalizing mob sentiment. The monkeys pull you off the ladder and they don’t even know why.

Remember that second generation of monkeys that would react violently to any monkey that tried to climb the ladder to get the fruit? This second generation just accepted this practice as normative. This was their reality.

Your use of language is vital. We want your brand to be thought of much like a religion—with reverence and as having the ability to deliver readers from the mundane.

Your story, its characters, and world are all formed of words. A fabricated reality that affects your readers’ real-life world.

Take this skill set to craft a pseudo-environment around your brand. What words can you use to ignite emotion in the individual and reinforce sentiment in the group?

If you can manage that, you will blur the lines between reality and your story world. After the last few articles, we’ve come to see how reality and fiction are the same. If done right, the words you craft together create reality in your book and the group’s reality.

This isn’t a stretch.

Researchers discovered that fMRI reading of brain activity shows the same areas of association activated in the brain when quizzing a reader about a favorite character or a friend.

In the brain, they are the same.

Deliberately craft language and phrases that influence your readers to feel that they are part of your story world and that your community is an extension of it.

Why do people go to theme parks? For the theme.

Rely on your skills as a storyteller to craft a group language that weaves in the best of what your story world has to offer.

Take this to the next level and think like a cult leader. How can the words you use in your stories and marketing influence thinking about your brand? How can you deepen the emotional connection at the individual level and form the sentiment at the group level?

Most of us look to escape through a book to a better place. People act better. The world has magic. Danger is confined to the book’s world, while we readers are safe. Outcomes are predictable. The next step is to make that language part of your marketing and inter-group communications.

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One of my clients is amazed at the willingness of readers to adopt these cultlike behaviors. Yet, is it so strange that people support each other when provided with a supportive climate?

It becomes something special that you look forward to doing.

CrossFit has the perfect mix of competitiveness and community. You’re part of a “box,” their word for a private gym. You compete to put up your best time, and while the elite finish in half the time you do, they cheer you on and support you as you make gains.

You may have been around CrossFitters and laughed inside as they evangelized about the lifestyle. If you are one, you know your evangelizing comes from a feeling of support and well-being you want others to have.

Along the way, CrossFitters eagerly pay over a hundred dollars a month in gym fees to work out in a glorified garage. It’s not a way of life; it’s a business.

Most brands never think about how they can use language to craft sentiment around the group that enjoys the brand. Even fewer products are so reliant and interconnected to language as publishing is. But given the fact that your product is words, you have a unique opportunity to weave a spell and beguile your customers.

One more thing…

Creating a list of your sacred words and language will help you craft a consistent message and set it up for easier adoption by your reader community.

Authors who have embraced the ideas in Advantage have seen cult-level engagement. One author reported that her readers have adopted the greeting used by characters in the story world when engaging with each other.

​​​​​​This can happen through happenstance, or you can become an architect and make the use of sacred, story world words deliberate. This becomes your way to control and limit thought around your brand.

Read: Important Points from ‘Part 2: The Group’ and an Introduction to ‘Part 3: Gamification’