March 4, 2007
BOOK REVIEW: ‘Words That Work’ Will Enrage Many, Encourage Others, Enlighten Just About Everybody…If They Give It a Chance
By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic
“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” is the mantra of Frank Luntz’s new book “Words That Work” (Hyperion, 350 pages, $24.95), an often brilliant, sometimes pedestrian, mostly useful book for anyone interested in how people perceive pronouncements from politicians and corporations.
Luntz, 45, has impeccable academic credentials, earning degrees at the University of Pennsylvania (B.A.) and Oxford University in England (Ph.D, at the age of 25). He’s the man who coined the term “death tax” to describe the “estate tax.” He’s worked as a pollster/political advisor to people as varied at H. Ross Perot and Rudy Giuliani – and even appeared at the Los Angeles mansion of conservative turned ultra liberal Arianna Huffington in September 2004 to advise Democrats on words that would work to elect the Kerry-Edwards team.
He’s like the Richard Boone character in the classic TV show “Have Gun, Will Travel,” and in fact wanted to title the present book “Killer Words.” He relates how his editor at Hyperion talked him out of this. Sometimes the guy who uses the phrase “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” as the book’s subtitle has to listen to someone else tell him that!
I especially liked the Luntz reference to George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” and how Luntz, born at the tail-end of the Baby Boom generation, has brilliantly mastered public relations, marketing – yes, even propaganda -- in its useful sense (according to one of my dictionaries): “Information or ideas methodically spread to promote or injure a cause, movement, nation, etc.”
Luntz’s drafting of the ballot language for the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, which he deals with extensively in “Words That Work,” certainly meets that definition of propaganda. The 500 words resulted in the first recall ever of a governor in the Golden State.
Much of the book is devoted to words to use and words to avoid, including avoiding “drilling for oil” in preference to “exploration for energy.” Cynics on the left have taken his “death tax” wording and created “birth tax” to describe the national debt every newborn American faces.
In the manner of business self-help instruction manuals – and “Words That Work” fits this category since many of the clients of Luntz’s firm, Luntz Maslansky Strategic Research, are Fortune 500 businesses – Luntz lists “The Ten Rules of Effective Language, starting off with the obvious one of using small words and continuing with using short sentences, being credible, being consistent, etc. The begin at the beginning, after the introduction that relates the Huffington meeting and other matters.
Rule Seven, “speak aspirationally” is especially important in Luntz’s view, and he notes: “The key to successful aspirational language for products or politics is to personalize and humanize the message to trigger an emotional remembrance.”
Luntz then goes on to cite actor Warren Beatty -- “perhaps the best student of the human condition in Hollywood” -- who told Luntz “people will forget what you say but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
I recently viewed – after an absence of many years -- Beatty’s magnificent film “Reds”, a 1981 movie that I recommend to all those who will read Luntz’s book and all those who study Orwell, S.I. Hayakawa, Marshall McLuhan and other masters of language. “Reds” tells the story of journalist John Reed (Beatty), his love affair with Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton), and their relationship with the Socialist anti-war forces during and after the period when Woodrow Wilson took the nation into what later was called World War I.
One of the best parts of the movie – which in my view is strongly aspirational – are the interviews with “witnesses,” including Roger Baldwin who organized the American Civil Liberties Union in response to the violations of civil rights during the second Wilson administration. Beatty may be a “Hollywood Liberal” but he portrayed the inequities of Democratic icon Wilson and his attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer faithfully in “Reds.”
On page 178, Luntz tells us that in 1993, while he was working for Rudy Giuliani in his first successful campaign for mayor of New York City, he urged the candidate to talk about “public safety” rather than “crime” and “criminals.” Luntz relates that in the polling he did with the voters of New York, he discovered “that the public placed a higher priority on ‘personal and public safety’ than on ‘fighting crime’ or even ‘getting tough on criminals.’”
Luntz says that these distinctions may sound like nit-picking, but terms like “safety” are “definitely personal, and most of all aspirational – the ultimate value and the desired result of an effort to fight crime.”
Remember, Luntz, born in February 1962, was only 31 when he advised the pre-boomer (born in 1944) Giuliani to think aspirationally. I’m pretty certain that 2008 GOP Presidential hopeful Giuliani will return once more to the Frank Luntz fountain of information – and drink deeply thereof!
In what seems to be an attempt to pad out the book, to give it more heft, Luntz includes a section on how to make words work in talking yourself out of a traffic ticket and how to ask for a raise or promotion. Luntz titles this chapter “Personal Language for Personal Scenarios” and while it’s somewhat entertaining, I found it out of place. Others may disagree; after all, this is a self-help book as well as a treatise on effective communication.
To sum up, I found “Words That Work” enlightening and helpful. If I were teaching a journalism course, for instance, I’d have this book on my reading list and might even use it as a textbook.
Publisher’s web site: www.HyperionBooks.com
Author’s web site: www.luntz.com