Words that work (It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear) by Dr. Frank Luntz

Hyperion, 2007

This is an informative book by American pollster and political consultant Dr. Frank Luntz. He draws upon his years of experience working with political parties and special interest groups in the United States to demonstrate the craft of effective language. His message is quite straightforward: “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” This book is not for poets and writers who use language in all its glory to create art, but for those who use words functionally: write advertisement copy, persuade voters to elect them, or negotiate with trade unions. It is for those who need successful, get-the-job-done language.

Dr. Luntz has ten rules of successful language:

  • Simplicity: use small words
    • Avoid words that the average person will have to consult the dictionary for. Or else your message will never be understood (or worse), or it will be misunderstood.

Avoid words that the average person will have to consult the dictionary for. Or else your message will never be understood (or worse), or it will be misunderstood.

  • Brevity: use short sentences

Be as brief as possible; use a phrase rather than a full sentence if that will serve the purpose.

  • Credibility is as important as philosophy

Don’t say your product is “new and improved” if it is the same old stuff in different packaging. If your words lack sincerity, or contradict accepted facts, then you lose credibility. Keep in mind the “New Coke” debacle.

  • Consistency matters

Keep repeating your main message so that your target audience always knows what you stand for.

  • Novelty: offer something new

Words that work often involve a new definition of an old idea. One of the most famous instances of shifting the thought process thus is Volkswagen’s “Thin Small” campaign in the late 1950s.

  • Sound and texture matter

Your words should have a syllabic cadence or alliterative property that makes it memorable. One of the best examples is the “Snap, Crackle, and Pop” of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies.

  • Speak aspirationally

Messages need to say what people want to hear. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is the single greatest aspirational speech of the modern era because he addressed the individual hopes and dreams of all Americans.

  • Visualize

General Mills’ Cinnamon Toast Crunch used “the taste you can see”, alluding to the real sugar crystals and cinnamon visible on the cereal.

  • Ask a question

“Got Milk” is one of the most memorable print ad campaigns in recent times, based on a simple two word question.

  • Provide context and explain relevance

Give people the “why” of a message before you tell them the “therefore” and the “so that”.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are where Dr. Luntz provides case studies for words that work. For instance, he describes how changing the name from the “gambling” industry to the “gaming” industry transformed the perception of what had been a somewhat unsavoury pastime into a brighter image of good, clean fun. Dr. Luntz helped craft “The Contract with America”, turned “Estate Tax” into the politically charged “Death Tax” and turned “drilling for oil” into “exploring for energy” – fascinating stories all. He describes all of these cases with an insider’s insight.

You will also be rewarded with tips for personal language for personal scenarios, that is, how to:

  • say “I’m sorry”
  • ask for a raise at work
  • avoid a speeding ticket (say sorry!)
  • talk your way onto the airplane
  • get a table at a packed restaurant
  • write an effective letter

“Words that Work” is, for the most part, steeped in the machinations of American politics. Also, it was written before Facebook and Twitter entered the lexicon and transformed how we communicate and how companies manage their messaging. Its lessons however, are universal and stand the test of time.

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