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“Words that Work: It’s not what you say, It’s what people hear”, Frank Luntz

June 29th, 2009 · No Comments · Politics

wordsthatworkSynopsis: Politics is about voters, not politicians. It’s not what politicians say, it’s what voters hear.

My Take: Frank Luntz has an impressive CV. An Oxford University PHD, Luntz rose to prominence as the chief pollster for Ross Perot’s outsider presidential bid in 1992. After providing polling for Rudy Giuliani’s successful NYC mayoral campaign, Luntz then achieved his greatest success as the father of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. Since then he’s largely been a freelancer, offering consultancy services to the highest bidder (including a series of media outlets). Say what you want about his morals – he’s a smart guy.

As the man that brought the world the “death tax” (as opposed to the estate tax), “exploring for energy” (rather than “drilling for oil”) and perhaps most famously, “climate change” (as opposed to the previously popular “global warming”), Luntz evokes some strong opinions on the left. He’s often caricatured as a Machiavellian operator, manipulating voters into acting against their own interests with clever but deceptive language.

We could get into a long discussion about the left’s ongoing conflation of the normative value of just ends with just means in politics, but I’ll save that for another time; you needn’t have a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to politics to appreciate the value of Luntz’s work. The fact that, as Luntz puts it “It’s not about what you say, it’s about what people hear” means that political actors don’t get to opt out of being language literate. The action in political communication is in the audience’s minds, not politicians. The role of language in political communication is really beyond the control of political actors. Given that politicians can’t change the way audiences process political communications, they should at least be aware of how this process works in order to avoid what Luntz describes as “the self-sabotage of clumsy phrasing and dubious delivery.” If language has this great an influence, those in the business of persuasion have an obligation to understand it. Whether you use that information to illuminate or obfuscate is a whole other matter.

In this sense, the scariest part of Luntz’s work is the way he shows how language can trump rational argument. The following account from a Luntz run focus group (from a New Yorker profile piece) is illustrative:

He asked people what they would most want to eliminate: an estate tax, an inheritance tax, or a death tax. Death tax won big. They vented for a while about how deeply unfair it was: you work hard your whole life and the government takes it all away at the end. Then asked them how much they thought you were allowed to pass on after your death without incurring a tax. All the non-accountants guessed way too low. He told them that the actual figure was six hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. “Now that you know that,” said, “would anyone not want to abolish the tax?” Nobody raised a hand.

The point here was that if you introduce a subject using language that will produce a strong opinion no subsequent information will get people to change their minds.

By way of delivering the coup de grace, said, “Bill Gates-his children. Billions! Tens of billions if we abolish this tax! Ross Perot. Should they have to pay a death tax?” Only one vote changed.

While Luntz is at pains to emphasise that there are limits to language; that “Some policies and ideas really are more popular than others no matter how they are articulated” (ie you can’t sell a shit sandwich), you can’t help but come away from this book with the impression that language can sell some awfully unpalatable policies. Similarly, I suspect that some awfully good policies wrapped in decidedly mediocre language will also be likely to fail.

Given the egos and self-indulgence of most political actors, the message that “it’s not about you” can be a tough one to digest. It’s made even tougher by Luntz’s observation that most political actors don’t understand who their audience is with much sophistication. In America (as in Australia), the voters are generally less engaged in the day to day battles of politics than most people working in politics assume. So in order to understand what you’re audience might be hearing, you first need to understand who they are.

This of course is where consultants like Luntz come in. Luntz’s trademark is not opinion polling, but rather qualitative focus groups. As running a focus group is as much an art as a science it’s hard to empirically test his methods, but his conclusions sound fair enough to me. Given his focus on the audience, Luntz is explicit that his work is not about soaring rhetoric, it’s about words that work; “language of everyday utility, language that generates results.” Language is means to an end; namely influencing voters. This strongly utilitarian bent is clear from the Ten Rules of Successful Communication Luntz has developed from his focus group work:

  1. Simplicity: Use Small Words.
  2. Brevity: Use Short Sentences.
  3. Credibility is as Important as Philosophy (Be honest about what you can deliver).
  4. Consistency Matters (Don’t just say it once, say it a thousand times).
  5. Novelty: Offer Something New (Avoid clichés and dead language).
  6. Sound and Texture Matter (Rhyme, Cadence, Assonance, Alliteration – they all improve the memorability of your message).
  7. Speak Aspirationally (Speak to your audience’s emotional desires).
  8. Paint a Vivid Picture (Use language that lets your listeners visualise what you’re saying).
  9. Ask a Question. (People react best to language that is participatory).
  10. Provide Context and Explain Relevance (Tell people the ‘why’ before you tell them the ‘what’).

The value of most of these rules is obvious, but if you’re at all interested in political communication I highly recommend that you grab a copy of the book and have read of Luntz’s detailed explanations for yourself.

Beyond Luntz’s Ten Commandments, there were also a few other lessons in Luntz’s book that jumped out at me:

  • Women hate sports metaphors.
  • Show, Don’t Tell: Don’t say you’re an average joe, get down to the footy on the weekends. Don’t say you’re a strong leader, talk like a strong leader.
  • Pay attention to detail: Words with very similar meanings can send very different messages to voters. A few examples:
    • Facts are indisputable. Evidence is open to interpretation”.
    • “‘Accurate’ data is more important than honest, credible , or truthful data because it is a statement of fact rather than someone’s explanation.”

Ultimately, there’s a lot of value in this book. In many respects, I don’t think the book much different to George Orwell’s seminal Politics and the English Language essay. While I certainly disagree with his politics, Luntz’s objective is not to use language to hide or distort meaning. Instead, I think his objective is to ensure that the speaker’s intended message and interpretation of the facts hits home with the audience as clearly as possible. However, there’s nothing to stop voters from rejecting that interpretation; especially if they are also hearing a competing interpretation. If both sides of politics are clearly communicating different, but well understood messages, it will ultimately be up to the voter to determine which is more persuasive. At the end of the day, that’s what democracy is all about.

Highlight:

A participant in a Giuliani focus group stating, with apparent seriousness:

“When the chips were down, Mayor Giuliani stood up to the EPA and let the Ghostbusters do their job. I really liked that about him”

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