Words that work | Frank Luntz

Published: 2008

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Frank Luntz is a political strategist and researcher in language and linguistics. He is best known for working with communications within the American Republican Party. Luntz believes that a politician who are weak in the first 60 seconds will have to fight for the next 60 minutes to recover. In the book, he shares ten rules for effective communication.

 “Language is like fire: Depending on how you use it, it can either heat your house or burn it to the ground”

IT IS WHAT PEOPLE HEAR. You may have the best message in the world, but the recipient will always interpret it through their own feelings, conditions, prejudices and beliefs. The key to successful communication is to put yourself in the listener’s shoes to know what he or she is thinking and feeling. Market research is crucial as the meaning of words changes over time. Without research, trying to influence is only a shot in the dark.

RULE 1: SIMPLICITY. The most effective language clarifies rather than obscures. Good things come in small packages – and from small words. The most effective language for both men and women are everyday language. For example, women generally respond better to stories, anecdotes and metaphors, while men are more factorial and statistical.

RULE 2: BRIEFNESS. Never use a sentence when a phrase is enough. Never use four words when three words can say the same thing. If some visual says more than a thousand words, use it. For effective communication, small wins over big, short over long and simple over complex. And sometimes something visuality strikes wins all.

RULE 3: CREDIBILITY. If your words lack sincerity, contradict accepted facts or perceptions, they will have no effect. Then you will not succeed in politics or business. The importance of authenticity cannot be overstated. Be the message rather than telling it.

RULE 4: CONSISTENTLY. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Good language is like the Duracell rabbit. It goes on and on and on.

RULE 5: OFFER SOMETHING NEW. Words that work are often a new definition of an old idea. While we appreciate the predictability of friends and family, we also nurture the things that surprise and shock us – provided the result is pleasant rather than painful.

RULE 6: SOUND AND TEXTURE. A string of words having the same first letter, the same sound or the same syllabic cadence is more memorable than a random collection of sounds. Apple’s “Think different” was a grammatical travesty (should be “Think differently”) but the company was wise to continue with the shorter.

RULE 7: SPEAK ASPIRATIVELY. The key to success in marketing or politics is to personify and humanize the message to trigger an emotional memory. As actor Warren Beatty has said: “people forget what you say, but they remember how you made them feel”.

RULE 8: PAINT A CLEAR PICTURE. Ineffective visualization can ruin even the most potentially promising product. M&M has succeeded with “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand”. Oil companies have replaced “drilling for oil” with “energy exploration”.

RULE 9: ASK A QUESTION. In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked tens of millions of listeners and Jimmy Carter “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”. Put direct pressure on the recipients of your complaint to make them see things your way. “What would you do if you were in my shoes?”.

RULE 10: GIVE CONTEXT AND EXPLAIN RELEVANCE. You have to give people “why” before you say “why”. Some people call this framing. Luntz prefers context. In marketing and politics, the order in which you present information is as important as the content itself. A + B + C is not the same as C + B + A.

ORWELLS 6 RULES. (1) Never use clichés, (2) never use a long word if short words work just as well, (3) if you can delete a word – do it, (4) never use passive form if you can use active form, (5) never use terms / jargon if an everyday word has the same meaning and (6) break these rules if necessary.

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