Short book review: Words that Work by Frank Luntz

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Words that Work by Frank LuntzWhat can infamous Republican word-smith and pollster Frank Luntz tell progressives about effective communication?

As it turns out, quite a bit. In Words that Work, Luntz reveals his magic tricks and secret messaging memos, and (for a book written before the 2008 US presidential election) makes some predictions about the future of American politics.

For progressives interested in effective communications, writing, messaging, campaigning and media management, this book should be essential reading. While Luntz and the messages he crafts are conservative, the tools he uses are not political – and in fact should be a part of the progressive arsenal. Luntz’s reputation speaks for itself. He invented the term “death tax” (to replace inheritance or estate tax) and “climate change” (to take the heat out of global warming). He was the mastermind of Newt Gingrich’s successful “Contract with America” during the Clinton years.

The key take-away for Luntz is “it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear”. This mantra is repeated time and time again – and what it means is that effective communication is about how your audience understands your message, not the precise words you say. Some words, phrases and terms can mean different things to what you intend. As Luntz says: “It’s not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant.” This is something that progressive causes can still improve on.

Luntz goes into how he determines for his clients what words to work – and what people hear, and if you’re interested in polling and focus groups, this is fairly meaty stuff.

For progressive campaigners who are interested in how they can improve their, Luntz goes through his ten rules for effective language:

1. Simplicity: Use Small Words
2. Brevity: Use Short Sentences
3. Credibility is As Important As Philosophy
4. Consistency Matters
5. Novelty: Offer Something New
6. Sound and Texture Matter
7. Speak Aspirationally
8. Visualize
9. Ask a Question
10. Provide Context and Explain Relevance

Most of these speak for themselves – and if you want to read more, the Amazon preview lets you read most of the chapter where Luntz goes through his rules in detail, and with lots of examples. Seen in context with George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, Luntz turns Lakoff’s “framing” into practical, effective guidelines that can be referred to on a daily basis. Most of this advice is also a more down to earth version that can be found in the entertaining Made to Stick that I reviewed earlier.

For an Australian context, a lot of this book is not relevant. Most of the “words that work” – where Luntz provides some words and phrases that he says are very powerful and effective in a political and business context – are very American specific. Despite this limitation, the half or two-thirds of the remainder of Words That Work is worth a read if effective communications is your deal.

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