The “Ten Rules of Effective Language”

Dr. Frank Luntz¹ is a political strategist and pollster who describes his specialty as “testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their product or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate.” He begins his book Words That Work – It’s Not What You Say, it’s What People Hear with a chapter on “The Ten Rules of Effective Language”, and in this post I present and comment on these rules.

“Just as in every other field, there are rules to good, effective communication. They may not be as inflexible and absolute as the rules against speeding or avoiding your taxes, but they’re just as important if you wish to arrive safely at your destination with money in your pocket.” – Frank Luntz

Luntz came to my attention via a Deadspin article passed to me by a colleague.  The article, “Inside a Secret NHL Focus Group: How a Top GOP Strategist is Helping Hockey Owners Craft Their Lockout Propaganda”, described how Luntz was running focus groups in order to determine the communication strategy and messages that the NHL should adopt and promote in order to win over public opinion during the recent lockout.  I found the article and subject quite fascinating and subsequently ordered Words that Work.

The book’s first chapter, “The Ten Rules of Effective Language” tells us that, “Just as in every other field, there are rules to good, effective communication. They may not be as inflexible and absolute as the rules against speeding or avoiding your taxes, but they’re just as important if you wish to arrive safely at your destination with money in your pocket.” (p1)

Then, after a brief preamble, Luntz presents to us his ten rules.

Rule #1. Simplicity: Use Small Words

In general, you don’t want to use words that will require a dictionary for your audience to understand your message.  Most people don’t have dictionaries on hand, and fewer still will bother to look up the meaning of your words after the fact.  I personally struggle with this, and often have to remind myself that much of what I write in a professional environment will be consumed by an audience for whom English is not the first language.

Rule #2. Brevity: Use Short Sentences

Similarly, you don’t want to use long, meandering sentences that require the reader to remember a few things in order to make sense of the final message.  Say one thing.  Then say the next.

Rule #3. Credibility is as Important as Philosophy

In Luntz’ words, “People have to believe it to buy it.” (p8)  This rule reminded me of one of the points in Lessons from the Top: …a leader cannot survive if his followers come to see him and his stories as inauthentic. (p106)

Rule #4. Consistency Matters

It’s amazing how many of the books I read share common examples.  For instance, to illustrate this rule Luntz refers to Avis’ campaign tagline of “We try harder”, which was used successfully for decades.  Ries and Trout cite this same example in Positioning.

Not surprisingly, all three experts have come to similar conclusions, with Luntz saying, “Finding a good message and then sticking with it take extraordinary discipline, but it pays off tenfold in the end. Remember, you may be making yourself sick by saying the exact same thing for the umpteenth time, but many in your audience will be hearing it for the first time. The overwhelming majority of your customers or constituents aren’t paying as much attention as you are.” (p12)

“Finding a good message and then sticking with it take extraordinary discipline, but it pays off tenfold in the end. Remember, you may be making yourself sick by saying the exact same thing for the umpteenth time, but many in your audience will be hearing it for the first time.”

Now that’s pretty consistent what Ries and Trout told us, “The chief executive who has spent 30 years with one company will obviously see that company differently than a prospect whose total exposure over the same 30 years can be measured in minutes or even seconds.” (p160)

Rule #5. Novelty: Offer Something New

Audiences are easily bored, and you might need to give them something new.  Often (again consistent with the lessons of Positioning), the best approach is to offer a new twist on something already in their minds.  In Luntz’ words, “…You should tell consumers something that gives them a brand-new take on an old idea. The combination of surprise and intrigue creates a compelling message.” (p15)

Rule #6. Sound and Texture Matter

Luntz cites a number of examples (including Rice KrispiesAlka-Seltzer, and Intel) in support of his assertion that, “The sounds and texture of language should be just as memorable as the words themselves. A string of words that have the same first letter, the same first sound, or the same syllabic cadence is more memorable than a random collection of sounds.” (p16)

Rule #7. Speak Aspirationally

This section reminded me of Lessons from the Top, as one of that book’s lessons was that an effective leadership story has to answer the question “Where will my leadership take us?”

Luntz explains that “messages need to say what people want to hear” (p18), and that “the key to successful aspirational language for products or politics is to personalize and humanize the message to trigger an emotional remembrance.” (p18)

Remember: people will forget what you say, but not how you make them feel.

Rule #8. Visualize

In small words and a short sentence, Luntz instructs us to “Paint a vivid picture.” (p20) To support this advice, he argues that “the slogans we remember for a lifetime almost always have a strong visual component, something we can see and almost feel.” (p20)

He also zeroes on on the importance of the word imagine: “There is one word in the English language that automatically triggers the process of visualization by its mere mention.  That word: imagine. Whether it’s the car of your dreams or the candidate of your choice, the word imagine is perhaps the single most powerful communication tool because it allows individuals to picture whatever personal vision is in their hearts and minds.” (p21)

“Whether it’s the car of your dreams or the candidate of your choice, the word imagine is perhaps the single most powerful communication tool because it allows individuals to picture whatever personal vision is in their hearts and minds.”

Rule #9. Ask a Question

Here’s another example that crops up all over the place in communication manuals. In competition against Jimmy Carter during the 1980 United States presidential election, Ronald Reagan asked Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

This question – so simple, so memorable, so personal – was more powerful than any essay or fact-based argument Reagan could have made, and perhaps more than any other factor led to his victory. Luntz sums up the lesson nicely on page 23:

“A statement, when put in the form of a rhetorical question, can have much greater impact than a plain assertion.”

Rule #10. Provide Context and Explain Relevance

There’s a Nietzsche quote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how” (I’ve seen this alternatively translated as, “He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how”), and I immediately thought of it upon seeing the title of this rule.

In Luntz’ words, “You have to give people the ‘why’ of the message before you tell them the ‘therefore’ and ‘so that’. Without context, you cannot establish a message’s value, its impact, or most importantly, its relevance.” (p26)

But don’t lose sight of the importance of seeing things from the audience’s perspective (yet another similarity to Positioning); when explaining “the why”, it’s critical that you don’t make the mistake of explaining why something is important to you; instead, you have to succeed at explaining why it’s important to your audience.

¹I’m not going to wade into or examine his political views, since I’m just here to learn; if the man can convince people to vote for a complete buffoon or ignore overwhelming science, then he must know a thing or two about communication.

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Posted in Advertising, Books, Leadership
4 comments on “The “Ten Rules of Effective Language”
  1. […] #8 of the ten rules of effective language is to visualize, and “there is one word in the English language that automatically triggers […]

  2. […] a recent post, The Ten Rules of Effective Language (from the book Words that Work by Frank Luntz), I wrote about the importance of speaking […]

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