Book Report: Words that Work


Words that WorkFor most people, language is functional rather than being an end in itself. For me, it’s the people that are the end; language is just a tool to reach them, a means to an end. But it’s not enough to simply stand there and marvel at the tool’s beauty…you must realize that it’s like fire, and the outcome depends on how it is used…to light the way…or to destroy.” (Words that Work – p265
)

Title: Words that Work: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear

Author: Frank Luntz

Publisher: Hyperion

Publication Date: 2007

Origin: Frank 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.

Summary: The book’s subtitle, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” says it all, but is deceptively simple. Luntz devotes the book to explaining how the same words have different meanings to different people and how the precise choice of words can dramatically change outcomes. Throughout, he cites case studies, famous examples (e.g., political speeches and campaigns, advertising, etc.) and other sources to support or illustrate his points. From time to time, he also provides explicit examples of which words work and which words don’t, including clear lists of words to use and avoid in political communications.

My Take: I’ve said before that I’m a real stickler for precision and clarity, so this book was right up my alley. I very much enjoyed the real-life examples, and found them to be both illustrative and memorable. Words that Work took me a long time to read, since I was marking up pages and taking notes at a high frequency, and I found it interesting the entire way.

Read This Book If: You want to become a more effective communicator, in work or life.

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Notes and Quotes:

  • xi: “Good language is just as important to twentieth-century trendsetters like IBM and twenty-first century innovators like Google as it is to blue-blood law firms whose partners’ ancestors were on the Mayflower and twenty-one-year-old soon-to-be entrepreneurs who’ve lived in the United States exactly one month.”
  • Reminiscent of one of the main messages of The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, that there is no objective reality, xi: “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”
  • xiv: “The critical task is to go beyond your own understanding and to look at the world from your listener’s point of view. In essence, it is listener-centered: their perceptions trump whatever ‘objective’ reality a given word or phrase you use might be presumed to have.”
  • xxiv: “Language is like fire: Depending on how you use it, it can either heat your house or burn it to the ground.”
  • xxvii talks about being “authentic” and “genuine”, reminding me of Lessons from the Top
  • I’ve always been fascinated by people who can disagree without being disagreeable…it is a skill I definitely lack, xxxiv: “The debate exchanges between Obama and Clinton said it all. One divides; the other unites. One sounds calibrated from a focus group to arouse your fury; the other comes from the heart and is designed to rouse your hopes. One closes with a threat, the other closes with a wish. Obama has learned how to disagree without being disagreeable.”

“Obama has learned how to disagree without being disagreeable.”

  • xxxvi underscores the importance of communicating a vision, consistent with the third element of a leadership story (Lessons from the Top)
  • xxxvii: “This isn’t dumbing down: brevity, clarity, and simplicity are simply the hallmarks of good communication.”
  • I liked this Winston Churchill quote, from p1: “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

“Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” – Winston Churchill

  • Chapter one turned into this post: The “Ten Rules of Effective Language”
  • Here’s an interesting footnote from p32: “My greatest frustration with politicians and corporate leaders is that they talk about being constituent-centered but they don’t actually communicate it. For example, instead of reading to children, they should encourage children to read to them. Instead of conducting shareholder meetings that allow limited or no voices from the floor, CEOs should conduct listening sessions where they ask the question and shareholders do the responding. If a constituent or shareholder is asked a question by a senator or a CEO and is given the chance to respond, the entire audience is empowered – and grateful.”
  • p34 has a good quote from Bill Maher (who is quoted many times in the book): “Single words really do control the debate. Pro-life, for example, makes the other side automatically pro-death.”

“Single words really do control the debate. Pro-life, for example, makes the other side automatically pro-death.” – Bill Maher

  • p36: “Never lose sight of whom you are talking to – and who is listening. Remember that the meaning of your words is constantly in flux, rather than being fixed. How your words are understood is strongly influenced by the experiences and biases of the listener – and you take things for granted about those experiences and biases at your own peril.”
  • p40-41 relay an interesting story (about demographically equivalent focus groups having markedly different reactions to some Ross Perot political content when it was presented to them in a different order) to highlight the importance of presenting information in the correct order: “The language lesson: A + B + C does not necessarily equal C + B + A. The order of presentation determines the reaction. The right order equals the right context.”
  • p43: “The most effective, least divisive language for both men and women is the language of everyday life.”
  • p45: “Positioning an idea linguistically so that it affirms and confirms an audience’s context can often mean the difference between that idea’s success and failure.”

“Positioning an idea linguistically so that it affirms and confirms an audience’s context can often mean the difference between that idea’s success and failure.” 

  • …and that message is illustrated with this example on p46: “By almost two-to-one, Americans say we are spending too much on ‘welfare’ (42 percent) rather than too little (23 percent). Yet an overwhelming 68 percent of Americans think we are spending too little on ‘assistance to the poor,’ versus a mere 7 percent who think we’re spending too much.” And the book is filled with similar examples, where questions with the same meaning but different language  (e.g., “withholding emergency room services from illegal immigrants” gets far more support than “denying emergency room service to illegal immigrants”, despite meaning the same thing!)
  • One lesson from p46 is to focus on the result, rather than the details: “If the context is a government program itself, the process and the public hostility is significant. But if the context is the result of that government program, the support is significant.” (e.g., a spending increase to lower crime would get more support than one to increase law enforcement)
  • p49 introduced me to George Orwell‘s essay, Politics and the English Language, which then led to this post: Language Lessons from George Orwell
  • p56: “The English language in general and creating words that work in particular is a living, dynamic, shifting challenge…and being generationally aware is essential when it comes to effective communication.” This quote is preceded by a table of “contemporary youth language and definitions”, and is followed by etymological examples of the changing meaning of many common words.
  • Remember the good ol’ days, when words meant something? p60: “But when everything is a crisis, and when all our lives are spent in one crisis or another, what that really means is that nothing is. We have put our words on steroids and amped the language up so high that unless we communicate in overdrive and hyperbole, we believe – perhaps correctly – that nobody will hear us. In the process, we’ve sacrificed nuance and judgment and distinctions, and thereby cheapened the conversation.”
  • p63, on why you should never use the word niggardly (and Wikipedia has some more examples): “Making assumptions about the extent of your audience’s vocabulary is not only stupid – it can cost you your career.” Over the years, I’ve worked with people who’s primary communication strategy seemed to be to use obscure words to impress or intimidate the audience; usually, the audience just ends up thinking “you’re a tool”. And in the event that the audience is primarily people for whom English is not their native tongue, and furthermore consists of people you’re hoping will buy something from you, such a strategy is horribly ineffective.
  • Some solid advice on p70: “It’s one thing to insist on proper usage in a piece of formal writing, but if you’re speaking or communicating informally … it’s really more important to be understood than to be heard.”
  • p79: “If you want to understand public opinion and to influence private behavior, understanding intensity is the most important component of market research in general, and (in) language development in particular.”
  • p80, something to keep in mind: “The most powerful messages will fall on deaf ears if they aren’t spoken by credible messengers. Effective language is more than just the words themselves. There is a style that goes hand-in-hand with the substance.”

“The most powerful messages will fall on deaf ears if they aren’t spoken by credible messengers. Effective language is more than just the words themselves.”

  • …on why it takes more than words to be a leader, p82: “A superstar creates a persona in the public mind by conveying certain essential characteristics about himself or herself. Successful leaders establish this persona not by describing their attributes and values to us, but by simply living them.”
  • I have a note on p83 next to a passage about pulling in the audience, “Always look for ways to bring the audience in!” As it happens, I was at a talk last week in which the speaker successfully got the audience quite involved, and I was making a checklist of all the things he was doing.
  • p89 is in a section about responding to attack messages, and has this advice: “Unless and until you say something to break the rhythm of a negative story, it will continue.” Beside this I’ve written in the margin that this would apply perfectly well to competitive attack messaging in marketing.
  • p90 describes how Rudy Giuliani “always explained the why in his policies as well as the how.”
  • p91 talks about how if a politician or celebrity becomes a character, then that becomes like a sheet of Teflon, and nothing ever really sticks…because attacks are against the character and not the person. It got me wondering what my character would be, if I ventured into politics.
  • p97 has some advice from Jack Welch, which I think applies beyond business: “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”
  • Speaking of the top ad campaigns of all time, as listed by Advertising Age, p117: “Almost all of the best of the best involve mainstream themes, everyday people, a positive outcome, and simple language…The idea has primacy. Accessible language rules.”
  • p118, repeating a key warning issued by Al Ries and Jack Trout in several books: “Curiously, it’s not uncommon for companies to abandon incredibly successful slogans for new ones that flop.”
  • p119, while listing a handful of recognizable excerpts from historic speeches: “And what all those great phrases of the ages have in common is in their inspirational and aspirational tone: each is positive, uplifting, and delivers a call to action.”
  • p120-121 dissect Jimmy Carter’s infamous “Malaise Speech“; here’s a warning that struck home for me, because my first temptation is often to just tell the harsh truth: “The speech was a reminder not of what Americans could be if they dared to dream, but rather a declaration of what they had in fact become in that particularly dark period of our history. Instead of appealing to American aspirations, the malaise speech harped on their anxieties and insecurities. It was gloomy rather than optimistic, telling us to get our heads out of the clouds, put our feet back on the ground, and see just how badly we had lost our way.”
  • p123 talks about the legendary “Daisy Girl” political ad; you can watch it here on YouTube
  • Go get yourself a catchy earworm, p125: “Almost every presidential debate is won or lost not on substance, or even style, but on a single phrase or statement that catches the public’s ear and is replayed again and again.”
  • p126: “When communicators pay attention to what people hear rather than to what they are trying to say, they manage not merely to catch people’s attention, but to hold it.”

“When communicators pay attention to what people hear rather than to what they are trying to say, they manage not merely to catch people’s attention, but to hold it.”

  • p128, for all you corporate communications folks: “The one component that virtually all successful corporate communication efforts have in common is the decision to take a proactive approach. In today’s anti-corporate, deeply distrustful, and highly politicized environment, there’s a simple linguistic equation: ‘Silence = Guilt’
  • …then that thought continues on p129, with: “Every attack that is not meant with a clear and immediate response will be assumed to be true.”
  • Here’s another example of the importance of choosing the correct words when trying to build support, from p140: “…by a two to one ratio, Americans would rather receive their health care from a free market system than a private system. Just a simple shift in a single phrase can and does account for a huge shift in public perception.”
  • There were a few pages in this region that led me to write this post: Why how you say something matters more than what you’re saying
  • p166: “Change the name and you change the fortunes.”
  • p170: “Those who define the debate will determine the outcome.”

“Those who define the debate will determine the outcome.”

  • This chapter, “Political Case Studies”, included many illustrative examples of the power of words; what stood out to me was that all the case studies were personalized and aspirational.
  • p179-180: “There is so much more that unites us as people than divides us by race, income, gender, and any other demographic attribute. Audiences may look very different on the outside, but they will respond to the same hopes and fears internally and emotionally.”
  • Not sure how I feel about this one, p198: “Always look forward, not back. History goes in cycles, and everything old is eventually made new again. If you want to propose an old idea, don’t acknowledge that you’re stealing from the past. Present it as something fresh: renewing a concept and revitalizing it.”
  • p204: “You can’t anticipate what an audience is going to hear if you don’t know who they are.”
  • p205, a quote from Will Rogers: “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.”
  • p211: “‘Common sense’ is also the best context (rule ten) to sell an issue… ‘Common sense’ is not just the best argument for almost any policy prescription you might propose – it’s essential. If you win and occupy the rhetorical territory of ‘common sense’, your position will be virtually unassailable.”

“If you win and occupy the rhetorical territory of ‘common sense’, your position will be virtually unassailable.”

  • p220-225 led me to write The appeal of hope and optimism in communications; I also listened to Robert F. Kennedy’s speech (linked within that post), and I recommend you do the same. These old speeches are powerful things.
  • p230: “The male focus is on self-expression, not on the other person’s reaction or understanding of what he’s saying…Women are strikingly focused on the recipient of their message.”
  • p231 has good advice on how to ask for a raise, and reminded me of sports contracts: “Most importantly, you have to put yourself in the shoes of your boss. To him or her, your raise or promotion is not viewed as a reward for past performance. It’s a speculative investment on your future performance. The question your boss will be answering for you is not ‘What have you done for me lately?’ it’s ‘What are you going to do for me tomorrow?’ Be prepared to explain how you’ve done your job well – but realize that demonstrating past and current value is only half of the message you need to deliver. You will be most effective if you emphasize what your boss is most concerned with: the future.”
  • p234, and I think many of us have seen this to be true over the years: “An angry or insulted bureaucrat will stick strictly to procedure.”
  • p236, in a section on how to write an effective letter: “Remember, everything you need to say should be up front. All that you want to say can come later.”
  • This chapter, “Twenty-one Word and Phrases for the Twenty-First Century”, led to this post: Five words to supercharge your marketing communications
  • Poignant stuff on p265: “For most people, language is functional rather than being an end in itself. For me, it’s the people that are the end; language is just a tool to reach them, a means to an end. But it’s not enough to simply stand there and marvel at the tool’s beauty…you must realize that it’s like fire, and the outcome depends on how it is used…to light the way…or to destroy.”
  • p266: “If you take away only one lesson from this book, let it be the subtitle, these eleven words: ‘It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.’
  • p266: “Repeating a faulty message loudly or vociferously, even if crafted with love and care, won’t help people understand you.”

“Repeating a faulty message loudly or vociferously, even if crafted with love and care, won’t help people understand you.”

  • p279: “Sometimes it is not what you say that matters but what you don’t say. Other times, a single word or phrase can undermine or destroy the credibility of an otherwise successful pitch or presentation. Effective communication requires that you stop saying words and phrases that undermine your ability to educate.”
  • p283, and this applies beyond the narrow scope of the quote: “The title or label you give a particular tax or government program determines its popularity.”
  • p283: “When you use the words of your opponents, you are accepting their definitions and by extension their conclusions.”

“When you use the words of your opponents, you are accepting their definitions and by extension their conclusions.”

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Posted in Advertising, Books, Leadership, Marketing
6 comments on “Book Report: Words that Work
  1. […] thought of Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer? I was also reminded of Frank Luntz’ Words that Work (worth a read for anyone in […]

  2. […] Words that Work – It’s not what you way, it’s what people hear (Frank Luntz) […]

  3. […] 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.“ […]

  4. […] it turns out that there’s at least one person in the world as particular as I am. In Words that Work, Frank Luntz stresses how choosing the right words is often the difference between success and […]

  5. […] 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 aspirationally (rule #7). The most […]

  6. […] 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 […]

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