"The words of this book," writes the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, "represent the language of America, not the language of a single political party, philosophy, or product." Despite what one might expect from the originator of loaded terms like "death tax," most of his book lives up to that promise of evenhandedness.
Luntz has made a career of spinning political and corporate messages. In focus groups and dial sessions he painstakingly tests words, phrases, speeches and speakers to find the precise language that is most appealing to voters or consumers. The political side of his practice has been mostly for Republican clients, but in this book he tries to keep politically neutral; where his own opinions come through, they're usually labeled as such. On the whole he sticks to his subject: how using well-chosen words and phrases can strongly influence listeners.
Throughout the book Luntz repeats the mantra, "It's not what you say, it's what people hear." That could be parsed in some disturbing ways, but Luntz seems to mean simply, "It's not what you say, it's precisely how you say it." There's certainly nothing ground-breaking about that idea. The practice of rhetoric — persuasive language — goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. But, on the evidence of this book, people remain as susceptible as ever to having their views and reactions shaped by the way ideas are phrased. It's good to be reminded of language's power, and it's especially useful to read how marketers are using it on us right now.
A glaring example of Luntz's failure to remain entirely neutral is the persistent use of the word "Democrat" as an adjective, as in "Democrat Party." This is well understood to be charged and partisan language (otherwise known as fightin' words) and in this context, where a minimum of scholarly tone ought to be observed, Luntz should — and surely does — know better. He also refers matter-of-factly to his 2005 New American Lexicon as having been written in the service of a "pro-business, pro-freedom" agenda, failing to acknowledge the loaded nature of both of those terms and especially the second. The idea that all Americans agree on what best serves "freedom" is patently silly.
Despite such lapses, Luntz presents much valuable insight and useful advice for his intended audience of policymakers, business leaders, and those who advise or aspire to be either one, regardless of political leanings. (But read on for a way the book can also benefit the average citizen-reader.) As in much popular nonfiction, the book is big on enumerated lists: "Ten Rules of Effective Language," "Myths and Realities about Language and People," "priorities, principles and preferences that matter to all [Americans]," and the like.
Some items seem fairly obvious, like advice to use short words and sentences, or the notion that Americans aren't big readers. But Luntz convincingly makes the case for including them by providing interesting examples of people shooting themselves in the foot by not recognizing them — e.g., pre-Inconvenient Truth Al Gore talking over the heads of the public — and related observations, like the way older viewers at TV studio tapings watch the actual performance, while their younger compatriots watch through the television monitors. Luntz has certainly amassed a wealth of information in his years of studying the American public.
Some of the conclusions he draws from his research are less obvious and more interesting. The denizens of "exurbia" have acquired great political importance. American consumers don't respond well to patriotic messages. (And I thought that was just here in the city-state of New York.) Perhaps most interesting, "the vast majority of Americans don't vote based on particular issues at all." Sure, we have a vague sense that a politician's personality and character matter, but probably only the most cynical of us will be unsurprised at, for example, the large degree to which success in a national election depends upon a candidate's optimistic outlook.
Some view Luntz's product as callous and cynical manipulation – "spinning lies into truth," as Daily Kos has put it. Others may take him at face value when he writes that his "language eschews overt partisanship and aims to find common ground." But either way, the process of developing "words that work" is fascinating, as described by the author in a brief chapter about how focus groups and dial sessions work. (As one who has lived in both Boston and New York I was particularly interested to read that "New York City sessions are notable for their uncontrollable chaos and the frequent use of profanity. New Yorkers like nothing and hate everything," whereas "trying to get people from New England to say anything beyond a simple yes or no is virtually impossible.")