In Words That Work, Luntz offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the tactical use of words and phrases affects what we buy, who we vote for, and even what we believe in. With chapters like “The Ten Rules of Successful Communication” and “The 21 Words and Phrases for the 21st Century,” he examines how choosing the right words is essential.
10 Rules of Effective Language
Avoid words that might force someone to reach for the dictionary . . . because most people won’t. They’ll just placidly let your real meaning sail over their heads or, even worse, misunderstand you.
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” —Mark Twain
Be as brief as possible. Never use a sentence when a phrase will do, and never use four words when three can say just as much. The best ad-makers and creative artists understand this notion of appropriateness, and they wisely avoid going overboard.
When it comes to effective communication, small beats large, short beats long, and plain beats complex. And sometimes a visual beats them all.
People have to believe it to buy it. As Lincoln once said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. If your words lack sincerity, if they contradict accepted facts, circumstances, or perceptions, they will lack impact.
Credibility is established very simply. Tell people who you are or what you do. Then be that person and do what you have said you would do.
Good language is like the Energizer Bunny. It keeps going . . . and going . . . and going.
Too many politicians insist on new talking points on a daily basis, and companies are running too many different ad executions. By the time we begin to recognize and remember a particular message, it has already been changed.
The success of President George W. Bush in the 2004 election despite deteriorating conditions in Iraq, high unemployment numbers in key states, and the perception that the economy was sinking was due in part to consistency of his message. He didn’t need speech text or a teleprompter in many of his later campaign appearances because the message was always the same and articulated in almost identical language. But what was seen as consistent in 2004 came to be viewed as inflexible and dogmatic during Bush’s second term because of an unwillingness to consider alternative ideas, messages, and approaches to governing.
And that leads to rule number five . . .
As individuals, while we appreciate the predictability of friends and family, we also cherish those things that surprise and shock us. It’s the reason why many of us, in our free time, prefer to try different vacation destinations, different hotels, different restaurants, and different experiences rather than the tried and true.
There is something deep in our character that embraces the pioneering spirit, going where no one has ever gone before, doing what no one has ever done before. If an opportunity is truly new and different, it will attract our attention, our interest, and our participation.
#6 Sound and Texture
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 sound, or the same syllabic cadence is more memorable than a random collection of sounds
McDonald’s slogan “i’m lovin’ it” features eye-catching lowercase letters, even when they begin a sentence, and no matter how hard you look, there is no such word as lovin’ in any English dictionary. But the slogan speaks directly to how customers feel about the experience, and the catchy wordplay has been an important factor in the rise in revenue for the company after a couple years of sales stagnation. Burger King may have it your way, but McDonald’s says it their way.
The key to successful aspirational language for products or politics is to personalize and humanize the message. People will forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel. If the listener can apply the language to a general situation or human condition, you have achieved humanization. But if the listener can relate that language to his or her own life experiences, that’s personalization.
The most memorable example comes from the political world. When Martin Luther King, Jr., uttered the words “I have a dream,” the single greatest aspirational speech of the modern era, he was speaking to the individual hopes and dreams of all Americans—the desire to be accepted because of who we are rather than what we look like.
Paint a vivid picture. From M&M’s “Melts in your mouth not in your hand” to Morton Salt’s “When it rains, it pours,” to NBC’s “Must See TV,” the slogans we remember for a lifetime almost always have a strong visual component, something we can see and almost feel.
Visualizing has as much to do with words as it does with pictures. 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.
Remember “Where do you want to go today?” (Microsoft) “Can you hear me now?” (Verizon Wireless)? Or “Got Milk?” may be the most memorable print ad campaign of the past decade. Sometimes not what you say but what you ask that really matters. A statement, when put in the form of a rhetorical question, can have much greater impact than a plain assertion.
#10 Context and Relevance
Context is so important that it serves not only as the last and most important rule of effective communication. You have to give people the “why” of a message before you tell them the “therefore” and the “so that.”
Context is only half of the framing effort. The other half—relevance—is focused on the individual and personal component of a communication effort. Put most simply, if it doesn’t matter to the intended audience, it won’t be heard. With so many messages and so many communication vehicles competing for our attention, the target audience must see individual, personal meaning and value in your words.
Two Common Mistakes That Break Communications
Mistake #1 Assuming Knowledge
If you’re eBay CEO Meg Whitman, why must you say that you’re “encouraged by the fundamentals that underlie usage growth on the Net” when you could say that you’re happy that more people are using the Internet. If you’re Dell CEO Kevin Rollins, you will tell people that the company needs to “hire in project management capability.” Why not simply state that Dell needs to grow its business and expand its workforce?
Too often, corporate chieftains have used language as a weapon to obscure and exclude rather than as a tool to inform and enlighten. When opaque, esoteric, recondite language is used thoughtlessly, either out of laziness, bad habits, or the failure to realize that the listener, no matter how interested or well intentioned, just doesn’t come from the speaker’s milieu, it is guaranteed to fail.
Mistake #2 Underestimating the Power of the Order
The order in which words are presented also affects how we perceive them.
Film provides perhaps the clearest illustration of this principle. The great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage states that meaning resides in the juxtaposition of ideas or images. Two unrelated images are presented, one after the other, and the audience infers a causal or substantive link between them. A shot of a masked killer raising a butcher knife, followed by a shot of a woman opening her mouth, tells us that the woman is scared. But if that same image of the woman opening her mouth is preceded by a shot of a clock showing that it’s 3 a.m., the woman may seem not to be screaming, but yawning. The mind takes the information it receives and synthesizes it to create a third idea, a new whole.
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.
21 Words and Phrases for the 21st Century
The word “imagine” is an open, nonrestrictive command—almost an invitation. Its power is derived from the simple fact that it can conjure up anything in the mind of the one doing the imagining.
When an advertisement asks the audience to “imagine,” it’s inviting them to take ownership of the product or service being sold—to make it their own. But if the ad says too much or shows too much, it undermines the process of imagination that the advertiser is trying to stoke.
Samsung, a company that makes everything from microwave ovens to MP3 players, has launched an “imagine” inspired campaign, asking its customers to “become captivated by functions and conveniences you never dreamed possible.” This challenge to consumers to push the boundaries of their own minds is accompanied by an image- and sound-laden Web site that creates an environment in which the versatility and variety of Samsung’s products are highlighted.
The idea that we, as consumers, should not have to think about how we buy a product (quickly), use a product (immediately), or fix a product (easily) has become deeply ingrained in us. And when it comes to how we interact with products, services, and people, “hassle-free” is a top priority.
In terms of purchasing, haggling with the car dealer is the single best example of a hassle Americans want eliminated (“Imagine a hassle-free car buying experience” would be my tagline for any car dealer who asked). CarMax, which famously does not permit haggling over prices on its used cars, is succeeding exactly because they have listened to the consumer, and their tagline says it all: “The way car buying should be.”
“Lifestyle” implies that there is more than one model of “the good life,” and all we have to do is choose. This may be relativistic or self-centered, but we live in an era of individuality, and choosing a lifestyle is a crucial component of defining who we are.
Today, “lifestyle” has special currency among young people, who use it to describe what they like, what they believe, and what they want to do. It’s a catch-all term. Instead of talking about how they eat, what they do for exercise, or how much they work, they talk about their “lifestyle” as a whole.
A company that tells its customers that it will “hold ourselves accountable” for the products and/or services it produces is actually likely to get a horrified response from the people who hear that message. It begs the question: “Accountable for what?” It actually implies that something is going to go wrong to justify that accountability. The most subtle suggestion of a need for accountability scares us off. People may demand that companies take responsibility, but they don’t want the companies themselves talking about it. By doing so, a company has already conceded too much . . . and has begun to confirm the public’s worst fears.
Instead, if you want to profess your “accountability” as a company, try a simple, declarative, strong alternative such as “We deliver.” It says you provide what you promise, and it does not allude to the times when you don’t.
#5 “Results” and the “Can-Do Spirit
When we buy something, we want to know that it’s going to provide a tangible benefit—something that we can see, hear, feel, or otherwise quantify. We have little patience for “ifs,” “ands,” “buts,” or excuses. Forget about nuances, niceties, or shades of gray. We don’t care about the process. We care about “results.
Some of the most successful films of the past decade were specifically fashioned around the can-do culture, from the animated blockbuster Finding Nemo about a clownfish in search of his father, to Tom Hanks in the Academy Award–winning Castaway, which tells a powerful story about the will to survive.
Describing your company and products as “innovative” is far better than saying they’re “new and improved.” “Innovative,” on the other hand, is bold and forward-looking, progressive (in a nonpolitical sense), confident, and energetic. It’s a natural continuation and elaboration of the pioneer spirit that built this country. “Innovation” is also entrepreneurial and self-reliant; it suggests initiative, ingenuity, and even passion.
#7 “Renew, Revitalize, Rejuvenate, Restore, Rekindle, Reinvent”
These are the so-called “re” words, and they are incredibly powerful because they take the best elements or ideas from the past and apply them to the present and the future.
Olay Products, a cosmetics company, is in the business of breathing new life and a sense of restoration into the self-image of its customers. As part of their “Age Defying Series,” Olay offers “renewal creams and lotions” and “revitalizing eye gels.” While not directly guaranteeing it, Olay understands that its consumers are looking for the fountain of youth. Words such as “restore” and “rejuvenate” offer customers a chance to reach back in time to when.
#8 “Efficient” and “Efficiency”
For car companies, being able to tout your product as “fuel-efficient” means consumers save money in the long run, a point that is easy to communicate and useful in motivating customers. By the time you read this book, Toyota will be selling more cars than any other manufacturer in the world, and they are surging in popularity because of their Prius hybrid model and its efficient use of gas. Honda has taken advantage of the current oil climate and offers a number of hybrid vehicles that make it the “overall fuel efficiency leader in America.”
#9 “The Right to . . .”
The principle gives people a choice whether or not they’ll actually exercise the “right.” A parent may not choose to pull his or her child out of the local public school in favor of a better one across town, but having the “right”—and therefore the control and the power—to choose the school is important in and of itself. Wanting the “right” to choose your doctor, hospital, and health care plan and actually taking the time and making the effort to do so are two different propositions. It’s why Americans love the language and the concept of the “Patient’s Bill of Rights” health care legislation, even though they don’t like the cost and the bureaucracy. But with the “right to” lexicon, that decision is in the hands of the voters, not the government.
The reason why the phrase “patient-centered” resonates so strongly is that it draws an unspoken contrast with “dollar”-centered and “insurance”-centered medicine. When we’re sick, or when a family member is hurting, the last thing we want the health care provider to be concerned with is dollars and cents. All we want is to alleviate the pain and suffering and make us or our loved ones better. We want the focus to be squarely on us and on the substance of our care, not on procedural matters such as insurance copayments and plan parameters.
Just as President Clinton used the word “investment” over “spending” to defuse the perception of being a “big-spending liberal,” President Bush attempted to use different labels to defuse another hot-button issue—Social Security—by changing the definition of his reform from “privatized accounts” to “personal investment.”
Investment” is more than just a political word, however. Companies that invest in technology, invest in their community, invest in job training, or invest in the future will earn a higher level of appreciation. Even on a personal level, “investing in your future” is one of the strongest motivations for making long-term purchases. Buying is for now. Investing is forever.
#12 “Casual Elegance”
We like our pleasures simple. “Casual elegance” is aspirational; it appeals to our imaginations, our idealized best selves.
One brand often associated with casual elegance is Ralph Lauren. Using descriptive words like “timeless” and “classic,” every Ralph Lauren ad for all of its brands say “relaxation.” This pleasant imagery is meant to transport the consumer to a simpler place in time, where he or she can escape the drudgeries of the daily grind and relax undisturbed; all because the consumer chose the right fabric.
Being “independent” is more of a corporate communication effort than a product pitch. It means having no constricting ties, no conflicts of interest, nothing to hide. A company that presents itself as “independent” is seen as honest, candid, and responsive to the people it serves. That’s one reason why “independent insurance agents” tests better than any individual insurance company—the lack of even a hint of bias.
#14 “Peace of Mind”
“Peace of mind” will eventually supplant “security” as a primary political value. It’s a kinder, gentler, softer expression of “security” that is less politicized, more embracing and all-encompassing.
“Security” has a somewhat limited, very specific meaning that is often scary and militant. It is what employees want most in their jobs, but peace of mind wins every other comparison.
The reason “certified” has begun to enter the lexicon is because trust and confidence in people and promises has evaded.
The most common use of “certified” or “certification” is in the used-car industry, or, as some brands like to call themselves, “certified pre-owned vehicles.” If you still don’t think word choice matters, ask yourself which would you rather own, a used car or a certified pre-owned vehicle.
Corporations are also finding a value to certification. We also know from recent market research that corporate officers themselves expect “certification” from their accounting firms because of legal ramifications.
The term “all-American” and the overt appeal to American pride (rather than patriotism) is not universally appreciated, but those who share the sentiment are absolutely affected by it. It certainly works with older consumers who still see America through red-white-and-blue-colored glasses, particularly when the appeal is forward-looking and values-oriented, such as a reference to the “American Dream.
In just ten letters, “prosperity” encompasses the idea of more jobs, better careers, employment security, more take-home pay, a stronger economy, and expanded opportunity. In fact, “prosperity” is most often described by Americans as the economic component of “opportunity.”
Americans reward politicians who talk respectfully but candidly about their core beliefs and who seem grounded and morally centered; we are perfectly comfortable with leaders whose ethics and worldview come from a religious tradition. But the best way to explain our moral compass is by using the broadest, most generally applicable terms possible. Talking about your “spirituality” implies an inherent morality and seriousness. Going into detail about your particular denomination, on the other hand, will turn off at least some segment of the population.
#19 “Financial Security”
“Financial freedom” used to be one of Americans’ top values and the number one definition of the American Dream. But that was before the dot-com bubble burst, the stock market plummeted, and the September 11 attacks occurred. In the terrifying, unstable world we live in today, “financial security” is now the higher priority.
#20 “Balanced Approach”
Just as professing your independence from partisanship and ideology will win you credibility points with the public (as long as you also appear to practice this philosophy), so too will arguing for a “balanced approach” to our nation’s problems. People understand that America is faced with multiple, competing priorities. They know it’s a juggling act to address numerous issues at the same time. All they ask is that you balance these conflicting needs in a responsible and thoughtful manner.
#21 “A Culture of . .
The word culture used to apply to entire societies, even empires. More and more, however, it has come to be used in a micro sense, to describe every imaginable subculture (and lend to it the dignity of culture as a whole). So today we have the “culture of” hate alongside the “culture of” fear, a “culture of” paintball, the “culture of”corruption, the “culture of” destruction, the “culture of” East Los Angeles, and the “culture of” the Upper East Side.