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Book Review: Words That Work by Dr. Frank Luntz

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"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.")

Enhancing its implicit claim of accurately assessing what we might call the "sense of the American people" is the book's extreme currency – it's aware of the recent Democratic takeover of Congress, for example. Its chapter on "Old Words, New Meaning" notes that since a culture's use of language is always changing, a language pollster's work is never done, a point borne out by the fact that Luntz's discussion of the term "bipartisan" has missed out on Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent coining of the term "post-partisanship." Given a few more weeks before publication, I expect Luntz would have been all over that – approvingly.

Maybe because of being so up-to-date, the book suffers from two flaws suggesting a rush to print. First, it is repetitious, making some of the same points and using the same examples — in the same words — in different chapters. Second, it suffers from far too many misprints and grammatical errors for a book about language. In the early going, these have the effect of blunting the message.

Now for that added benefit. Most of us aren't policymakers or business leaders, but plain citizens. As voters and consumers we are the intended targets of the "words that work" which marketers like Dr. Luntz use. To put it cynically, we are the "manipulatees." And with this book Luntz has exposed the magician's secrets. Read it and you'll be better able to pick out the marketing-speak all around you, and observe — and quite likely mitigate — its effects on your own mind. And really, it's everywhere. Seeing the Jackson Hewitt tax preparation chain's slogan, "Hassle Free Service," I would never have picked out "hassle-free" as a carefully selected phrase. But lo and behold, here's "hassle-free" coming in at number two on Luntz's list of "Twenty-one Words and Phrases for the Twenty-first Century." According to the book, Americans prefer a product that's "hassle-free" by a whopping 62 to 38 percent over one that's "less expensive." Facts like that abound in this uneven but valuable and fascinating book.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://sayitbetter.typepad.com/say_it_better Kare Anderson

    Best review I’ve seen of his book; especially agree with “”It’s not what you say, it’s precisely how you say it”

    For understanding how we are influenced so we can make better choices – and can be clear and memorable abut what we say turn to Ideas That Stick, (the classic), Smaart Choices and The Paradox of Choice