Why how you say something matters more than what you’re saying

“Those who define the debate will determine the outcome.” – Words that Work, p170

I’m an engineer by training. That means I enjoy precision, I get along well with numbers, and I’m fairly objective when presented with facts. But it would be a mistake to think that the same is true of all people, yet I’m certain I make that very mistake. What frames a reasonable argument in my mind won’t necessarily have the same outcome in someone else’s. Ultimately, that’s why I moved out of Product Management: as a Product Manager, I’d pull together numbers to support my requirements, and I’d consider it to be case-closed. But the real world doesn’t work like that. To successfully advocate for new features and investment, one needs to campaign, and politic, and bang on desks, and personalize the argument to the person making the ultimate decision.

In Words that Work, Frank Luntz explains the importance of defining the debate with precisely-chosen language. The underlying theme throughout the entire book is “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

The book is filled with fantastically illustrative examples of the importance of choosing your words wisely, and I thought I’d share three of my favourites. Note that these are not trivial examples; it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that public policies and even who ultimately wins the United States presidency is determined by exercises such as those below.

Would you rather have free market or private health care?

Here’s a short, simple example from page 140: “By a two to one ratio, Americans would rather receive their health care from a free market system than a private system.”

Here, just a tiny shift in the language changed the poll outcome.

Would you feel better about denying emergency room care than just not giving it?

Here’s another example from page 159: “I tested the issue, and sure enough, while only 38 percent of Americans would deny emergency room care to illegal aliens, fully 55 percent would not give it.”

The words used to articulate a position are as important as the position itself.

Which Medicare reform appeals the most to you?

This example from pages 159-160 is a bit longer, but illustrates the point beautifully:

The most contentious debate of the 1995-96 congressional session was the reform of Medicare. The language in question: Is slowing the planned rate of spending growth in the program a “cut” or not? The answer mattered. In polling I conducted in 1995, I found that Americans opposed “cutting spending” on Medicare by a sizeable three to one. Yet by a still significant ratio of five to three, the public supported “increasing spending but at a slower rate” – just what the Republicans were advocating. And so that became the official way to talk about Medicare.

I also tested three different ways of describing how Medicare spending would increase under the Republican plan:

    1. Medicare spending would increase from $178 billion to $250 billion over six years (what I called the “billions to billions” approach).
    2. Medicare spending would increase by 6.4% a year, every year, for six years (the “year over year” strategy).
    3. Medicare spending would increase from $4,700 per person per year to $6,200 per person per year (the “personalized” approach).

All three statements were true, and all three statements represented the exact same underlying mathematical reality. But the personalized approach was by far the most popular. The billions to billions strategy only works if you’re Bill Gates or Ross Perot, and while math majors or M.I.T. graduates may appreciate a discussion about percentages, no one else does. They’re too abstract. But by zooming in to the personal level, you encourage people to relate the numbers to their own lives and learn exactly what the benefit means to them. Numbers with the smallest denominators and applied per individual are therefore almost always the most effective.

“By zooming in to the personal level, you encourage people to relate the numbers to their own lives and learn exactly what the benefit means to them.”

Maybe this sounds crazy to you, that just massaging some words can meaningfully change the outcome…but the real craziness would be ignoring the truth of it. Not everything thinks the same way you do, and what you say doesn’t matter at all compared to what people hear.


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Leadership, Management, Marketing
One comment on “Why how you say something matters more than what you’re saying
  1. […] Why how you say something matters more than what you’re saying […]

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