Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hearby Frank Luntz, L. J. Ganser (Read by)
The nation's premier communications expert shares his wisdom on how the words we choose can change the course of business, of politics, and of life in this country
In Words That Work, Luntz offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the tactical use of words and phrases affects what we buy, who we vote for, and even what we believe in. With chapters/b>/b>
The nation's premier communications expert shares his wisdom on how the words we choose can change the course of business, of politics, and of life in this country
In Words That Work, Luntz offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the tactical use of words and phrases affects what we buy, who we vote for, and even what we believe in. With chapters like "The Ten Rules of Successful Communication" and "The 21 Words and Phrases for the 21st Century," he examines how choosing the right words is essential.
Nobody is in a better position to explain than Frank Luntz: He has used his knowledge of words to help more than two dozen Fortune 500 companies grow. Hell tell us why Rupert Murdoch's six-billion-dollar decision to buy DirectTV was smart because satellite was more cutting edge than "digital cable," and why pharmaceutical companies transitioned their message from "treatment" to "prevention" and "wellness."
If you ever wanted to learn how to talk your way out of a traffic ticket or talk your way into a raise, this book's for you.
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Twenty-one Words and Phrases for the Twenty-first Century
“I hope our leaders don’t feel like they have to talk to us in monosyllables or break it down to easy-to-understand things. You know, we get smarter by people treating us smarter....You want to be lifted up and told to lead.”
This book has examined the development and application of words that work. Now it’s time to look ahead to the twenty-one words and phrases that you will be hearing often as we move through these early years of the twenty-first century. Some apply to business, others to politics, but they all define the new American lexicon. I choose these words because I believe they will withstand the test of time.
Based on hundreds of thousands of telephone interviews, hundreds of dial sessions and focus groups, and literally a million research hours, I contend that the words and concepts in this chapter will be as essential and powerful tomorrow as they are today. The words that follow are not superficial, timely, or contingent on the ephemeral circumstances of the moment. These words cut to the heart of Americans’ most fundamental beliefs and right to the core values that do not change no matter how we vote or shop, or what delivery devices we use to play music, in the year 2020.
The words in this chapter have eminently practical applications. Consider the following example:
VERIZON BUSINESS: THE PERFECT AD COPY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
(key words in bold)
“What if you attached an innovative wing structure to some bicycle machinery and launched it from a sand dune? (Black-and-white visuals of early airplane flights)
What if you created a thin piece of plastic that could easily be used just like money—anywhere in the world? (Artistically colorized visuals of money morphing into credit cards)
Suppose we created an IP network so far-reaching and expansive, it can make doing business more efficient around the globe. (Visuals of postmodern buildings interspersed with people working at computers)
Suppose we put your global business network in the hands of world-class professionals. People who know it end-to-end. (Visuals of multi-ethnic business professionals with confident appearances)
Verizon has joined with MCI to form Verizon Business, where global capability meets personal accountability—to make your business more successful—and your life a little easier. (A father showing his young daughter pictures of herself on his computer)
Introducing Verizon Business.
In a single sixty-second spot, Verizon Business managed to incorporate three of the words in this chapter: innovative, efficient, and accountability. These are the words that will sell products and win votes. They will redefine perceptions that need changing and confirm existing ideas that need reinforcing. I have used these words to help more than two dozen Fortune 500 companies grow and thrive, and to aid more than two hundred elected officials in winning or keeping their jobs. These are words that work and that will continue to work. They are the language of America.
WORDS AND PHRASES FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
“Imagine” is one of the most powerful words in the English language. It evokes something different to each person that hears it. Every person has a unique definition of the American Dream that they imagine and someday hope to achieve. The point is that “imagine” leads to 300 million different, personal definitions—and that’s just in the United States alone.
No matter what your company’s product or service, the word “imagine” has the potential to create and personalize an appeal that is individualized based on the dreams and desires of the person who hears or reads it. The word “imagine” is an open, nonrestrictive command—almost an invitation. Its power is derived from the simple fact that it can conjure up anything in the mind of the one doing the imagining. What can be imagined is therefore endlessly personal and targeted in a way that no canned marketing campaign could ever hope to be. When a potential consumer imagines, she’s the one doing the most important work, investing her own mental energies to create something new where before there was nothing. You don’t have to tell people what to imagine, just encourage them to do so.
The clearest illustration of this process is reading. When you read, you translate the black-and-white symbols on the page into vivid, Technicolor pictures in your mind—but everybody’s mental pictures are different. This makes each reader a collaborator with the author in the creation of his or her own entertainment.
Film, for all its wonders, is an infinitely more passive medium for just this reason—and it undermines rather than enhances imagination. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is one of the most read and applauded novels about business and greed ever written because of its visionary and descriptive prose, but the movie was a bust. Even good films suffer in comparison to what we imagine from the pages of a book. The Natural is considered by many to be one of the best baseball films of all time—but those same people will assert that the book was better. Same with Lord of the Rings.
When an advertisement asks the audience to “imagine,” it’s inviting them to take ownership of the product or service being sold—to make it their own. But if the ad says too much or shows too much, it undermines the process of imagination that the advertiser is trying to stoke. Conversely, if you show too little, as Infiniti automobiles did when they launched the new brand in 1989, you don’t give people the tools they need to create their own images. By not showing the car, they didn’t create anticipation or imagination. They created annoyance.
Similarly, AT&T Wireless wanted Americans to imagine (and get) an mLife, digital-speak for mobile life, when it launched a multimillion-dollar branding campaign just before the 2002 Super Bowl. They thought teaser ads asking “What is mLife” would “intrigue” consumers and pique interest. Like Infiniti, the mLife promotion did become a hot topic of discussion—and debate—and it generated considerable Web traffic, but in this case the product reveal did not live up to the hype, and AT&T Wireless dropped the campaign. If you ask people to imagine the best, you had better deliver the best.
The boundless world of imagination has found an equally boundless partner in the Internet. Samsung, a company that makes everything from microwave ovens to MP3 players, has launched an “imagine” inspired campaign, asking its customers to “become captivated by functions and conveniences you never dreamed possible.” This challenge to consumers to push the boundaries of their own minds is accompanied by an image- and sound-laden Web site that creates an environment in which the versatility and variety of Samsung’s products are highlighted.
The concept of imagination also has great salience within companies. It’s no accident that the designers and builders of the Disney theme parks took for themselves the name “Imagineers,” a combination of “imagine” and “engineer.”1 Every worker wants to feel that he or she is more than just a generic and replaceable cog in a machine. When a company asks its employees to “imagine,” it’s asking them to forget, at least for a moment, about bureaucratic organizational charts, stodgy bosses, departmental budgets, the established way of doing things, and all the other everyday restrictions that infringe on their work. Asking your employees to “imagine” is asking them to contribute a piece of themselves to the enterprise. It can do wonders for morale, of course—but it can also lead to some incredibly innovative ideas.
As in the corporate sphere, “imagine” is one of the most powerful words in politics. A political idea is just an idea—but when someone captures your imagination, he or she goes from being a “politician” (negative, disreputable, boring) to being a “leader” (visionary, statesmanlike, inspiring). The most successful political leaders are those who find a way to inspire. They manifest their own imaginative powers, but, even more importantly, they stimulate the imaginations of their fellow citizens.
Edmund Burke, decrying the onset of the French Revolution, described its cold rationalism this way: “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded.”2 Great political leaders don’t come across as human calculators. They exhibit passion, sympathy, and an unbridled belief in a better future. President Kennedy didn’t inspire thousands of young Americans to join the Peace Corps by presenting a really persuasive cost-benefit analysis. He appealed to something far greater in our hearts. Imagination, passion, even a touch of poetry—these are the qualities that speed the pulse.
The use of imagination to induce imagery is particularly helpful when talking about a complex subject to a large and diverse audience. In early 2005, when President George W. Bush was attempting the seemingly impossible task of reforming Social Security, he challenged the Congress and the American people to imagine the future for the next generation if the looming threat of Social Security bankruptcy was not properly addressed. In a speech at the University of Notre Dame, Bush explicitly asked the audience to “imagine if this government of ours does nothing at this point in Social Security, and you’ve got a five-year-old child.” By doing this the President was not simply asking the audience to think about the future. He was placing every member of the audience in the role of a parent struggling to raise kids and put away enough money for retirement. Bush understood that the combination of the “imagine” framework and the intergenerational impact of Social Security would pack a powerful punch. Yet he still failed because the imagination of seniors losing their Social Security in a stock market crash was even more powerful than the dream of their grandchildren getting control of their Social Security savings. Big dreams—or horrific nightmares—are not born from facts and figures. The real emotional impact requires a real imagination—and an appeal to use it.
The idea that we, as consumers, should not have to think about how we buy a product (quickly), use a product (immediately), or fix a product (easily) has become deeply ingrained in us. And when it comes to how we interact with products, services, and people, “hassle-free” is a top priority. In fact, Americans prefer a “hassle-free” product to a “less expensive” one by an impressive 62 percent to 38 percent. We prize ease of use and convenience to such an extent that we are genuinely willing to pay for it—and it’s worth at least another 10 percent and as much as 20 percent on top of the sticker price if the promise is delivered on.
Like “imagine,” “hassle-free” is in the eyes of the consumer, but there are specific examples that transcend all populations.
In terms of purchasing, haggling with the car dealer is the single best example of a hassle Americans want eliminated (“Imagine a hassle-free car buying experience” would be my tagline for any car dealer who asked). CarMax, which famously does not permit haggling over prices on its used cars, is succeeding exactly because they have listened to the consumer, and their tagline says it all: “The way car buying should be.”
Standing in line waiting at the grocery store after already spending time walking up and down the aisles searching for specific items is a guaranteed hassle producer (“Easy in, easy out” best communicates a hassle-free supermarket experience, along with “the five minute guarantee” if you’re willing to open up more checkout stands).
Actual product use now needs to be hassle-free as well. Start with the packaging. Too many products are encased so tightly in hard plastic that it seems we have to beat it against the wall and then drop it off a thirty-story building to pop it open or use a chain saw to cut it free from the packaging. We are tired of scraping with our fingernails trying to get the plastic off our CDs and DVDs. We are annoyed when “batteries [are] not included.” And the solid plastic packaging that encases a new pair of scissors when you buy them? You need scissors to get the scissors open. Pity the people who are buying their very first pair. Companies should stop wrapping and start prepping their products so we can actually get at them when we want to. The value to consumers is immeasurable.
When we take our new laptop out of the box, we want to turn it on and have it work immediately. (My message recommendation to the first manufacturer who produces a truly hassle-free computer: “Plug it in. Turn it on. Go.” ) We are livid when the instructions for setting up our audio system read like the disarmament codes for a North Korean nuclear bomb and are seemingly translated by someone who counted English as their third language. We don’t appreciate being switched to a call center in India when our appliance breaks down and someone named “Bob” can’t explain how to fix it.
It’s often enlightening to look at the etymologies of words and see where they came from. “Hassle” originally meant “to hack or saw at.” I’d say that sums it up nicely. We don’t want to have to hack and saw away at things—we want them to be like butter under a hot knife.
We don’t want to think about it. We want it to work—not now, but five minutes ago, dammit! We want the products we use to work as reliably and as instantly as the light does when we flip the switch. Have you tried opening a bottle of medicine lately? The caps are more secure than King Tut’s tomb. If it’s a prescription for arthritis, you’re out of luck—you’ll do more damage to your joints trying to get the damned thing open than the medicine will ever be able to alleviate.
“Lifestyle” is an example of terminology that was adopted by consumers even before the marketing community. “Lifestyle,” like “imagine” and the “American Dream,” is incredibly powerful because it is at the same time self-defined and aspirational—everyone defines and aspires to his or her own unique lifestyle.
But unlike the “American Dream,” the concept of “lifestyle” is a relatively new term. The compound word was created in 1929 by Alfred Adler, an Austrian scientist, but today’s definition of the word wasn’t applied until the 1960s.3 The word “lifestyle” both creates and exemplifies a Weltanschauung or worldview (speaking of German-derived compound words)4—one that is individualistic rather than community-oriented, personalized rather than generic, and forward-looking rather than nostalgic or tethered to tradition. The very notion of styling one’s life—and that there are many different styles of the good life from which to choose—would have seemed a foreign and bizarre concept to our great-grandparents. Yet “lifestyle” is a concept that is essential to understanding our more secular, individualist age.
“Lifestyle” implies that there is more than one model of “the good life,” and all we have to do is choose. This may be relativistic or self-centered, but we live in an era of individuality, and choosing a lifestyle is a crucial component of defining who we are.
Today, “lifestyle” has special currency among young people, who use it to describe what they like, what they believe, and what they want to do. It’s a catch-all term. Instead of talking about how they eat, what they do for exercise, or how much they work, they talk about their “lifestyle” as a whole. All the various facets, instead of being examined individually, are subsumed into the larger “lifestyle” context. It’s no longer a question of what I want for a career or where I want to live or what I do for fun—that’s just a subset of the larger question: What lifestyle do I want to make for myself?
“Accountability” is one of the qualities that Americans most want from their political leaders and governing institutions. Yet Americans also think of “accountability” as one of the qualities their elected officials and the appointed bureaucrats most lack. Just as Americans don’t trust big business and other large institutions, they also don’t trust government agencies and systems because they perceive that such large entities are out of control and answerable to no one. The federal bureaucracy has become the world’s first genuine perpetual motion machine. It’s like a runaway stagecoach in an old Western, its riderless horses racing pell-mell toward a cliff...with all of us, the average citizens, as passengers sitting trembling inside. We expect our political leaders to be the heroes on horseback, cutting off the coach before it reaches the precipice and bringing the horses under control before the whole lot of us go tumbling over the edge.
Americans will no longer consent to ride along placidly; we want to know that there’s somebody in the saddle. We want “accountability.” Consider, for instance, the Contract with America; its specific provisions were popular, but the real kicker was the pledge of “accountability” that I personally added at the very end of the document. It contained a political first, an accountability and enforcement clause: “If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it.” Never before had a group of elected officials been so bold as to suggest to the voters that they ought to even consider not returning them to office. And there it was, in writing. That pledge of “accountability,” more than any policy detail or ideological argument, is what made possible the Republican takeover of 1994. It’s a lesson that Democrats and Republicans alike would do well to remember.
One Democrat who learned that lesson and rode it to the governor’s mansion in New Jersey is Jon Corzine. He sought to fill the void of a previous governor who had been forced to resign in disgrace because of scandal and mismanagement, and a temporary placeholder who had been roundly criticized for doing nothing to clean up the political mess. Corzine understood early in the campaign that for voters to trust another Democrat, he needed to prove that he would bring a level of integrity back to the office—and he used an explicit pledge of “accountability” to achieve it. Corzine would reiterate his commitment to “strengthen accountability” at every speech and public appearance, stressing that increased “accountability” and “transparency” were essential in restoring the people’s trust in state government. It worked. As angry as voters were, Corzine successfully inoculated himself against Republican attacks that he was just as corrupt and unethical as those who came before him.
On Election Day, people invest their trust in democratic institutions and the people who run them, and they expect and demand a return that is worthy of that investment. “Accountability” is that return.
Even though you’ll hear “accountability” talked about in a political context, it’s not primarily a political term. The American people universally want corporations held “accountable” for their actions as well as their products and how they treat their customers, their employees, and their shareholders. Accountability moved into the corporate lexicon right around the time Enron collapsed.
When it comes to how corporations sell their products, you might think that the word “accountability” represents an unambiguously good thing. Not always. A company that tells its customers that it will “hold ourselves accountable” for the products and/or services it produces is actually likely to get a horrified response from the people who hear that message. It begs the question: “Accountable for what?” It actually implies that something is going to go wrong to justify that accountability. The most subtle suggestion of a need for accountability scares us off. People may demand that companies take responsibility, but they don’t want the companies themselves talking about it. By doing so, a company has already conceded too much...and has begun to confirm the public’s worst fears.
Instead, if you want to profess your “accountability” as a company, try a simple, declarative, strong alternative such as “We deliver.” It says you provide what you promise, and it does not allude to the times when you don’t.
5. “Results” and the “Can-Do Spirit”
We Americans are a practical people. We want to understand the bottom line. Theory, abstractions, good intentions—all these are well and good, but in the final analysis, we want to know how many dollar bills we’re going to have to peel out of our wallets, whether the on/off button is going to work when we push it, and whether we got a fair shake overall. When we buy something, we want to know that it’s going to provide a tangible benefit—something that we can see, hear, feel, or otherwise quantify. We have little patience for “ifs,” “ands,” “buts,” or excuses. Forget about nuances, niceties, or shades of gray. We don’t care about the process. We care about “results.”*
In the realms of our personal, family and spiritual lives, we may believe nice ideas such as that “the journey is more important than the destination,” but don’t dream of trying to tell that to one of your customers. When we’re shelling out our hard-earned money, we become single-minded, ruthless, and uncompromising.
A perfect example of where “results” and “can-do” spirit matter is in the fitness industry. In today’s world of fad diets and high obesity rates, Americans are looking for realistic options to get in shape and see results. “Results, The Gym,” a Washington, D.C.–based fitness center, has embraced the idea of a results-oriented business so much that it named the company after the concept that guides it. It was started in 1994 as a personal training service called “Training for Results,” and its current motto, “Reach your goals, get results,” serves as both a motivator and a potential solution for consumers looking to get fit. This exemplifies the bottom line of what potential customers are looking for, and what they expect out of a gym.
As in corporate communications, political messages should emphasize bottom-line “results,” not process. Americans care where a politician ends up much more than where he or she began, and what he or she does more than what he or she says. They will support policies that produce tangible, concrete, quantifiable benefits. Like Vince Lombardi, we don’t believe winning is the most important thing—it’s the only thing. When it comes to evaluating the performance of Washington politicians, there’s no more room for excuses. We don’t want to hear about the difficulties of the markup process or the intricacies of the Rules Committee. The procedural details are irrelevant. Just “get it done” (the best articulation of “results”) or we’ll find someone who will. The “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1948 had its reasons for resisting Harry Truman’s program, but they’ve been forgotten by history; we remember only Truman’s denunciation of it. On the eve of the Civil War, President Buchanan faced staggering difficulties and mind-numbing complications—but historians remember only the “results” of his presidency and deem him a failure, pure and simple. We Americans are interested in serving no theory, advancing no agenda—we just want our leaders to do what works, we want them to get it done—and we know they can succeed if they put in the effort.
If results are the goal, the “can-do spirit” is the effort. Early in 2006 we asked 1,000 adults what phrase best described what Americans were all about. Finishing first: the “can-do spirit” (32 percent), followed by “strong and tough” (22 percent) and “self-reliant” (14 percent). It’s one reason why we root for the underdog and appreciate the human interest stories of people who have triumphed over great adversity and eventually succeed after years of failure. A “can-do” attitude is uncomplaining, stoic, no-nonsense—all powerful but sadly old-fashioned virtues most often associated with the Greatest Generation. Even though you don’t hear the words spoken too often, the term is due for a revival.
For the last seventy-five years, the cinema has been the most common source of can-do pop culture. For much of their careers, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda played characters that were down and out but struggled and eventually succeeded against tremendous odds and tough opponents. Some of the most successful films of the past decade were specifically fashioned around the can-do culture, from the animated blockbuster Finding Nemo about a clownfish in search of his father, to Tom Hanks in the Academy Award–winning Castaway, which tells a powerful story about the will to survive.
“Innovation” immediately calls to mind pictures of the future. It’s the corporate technology version of “imagine,” evoking 300 million different, individual definitions. “Innovation” leads to products that are smaller or lighter or faster or cheaper...or bigger, more resilient, stronger, longer lasting. It’s the road that leads to a laptop battery that will last for twenty-four hours—without causing your keyboard to melt or the fan to whirr so loudly that it distracts you from your work. “Innovation” means tourist flights that escape the Earth’s orbit and nanotechnology marvels so small that they strain the ability of our comprehension.
Describing your company and products as “innovative” is far better than saying they’re “new and improved.” “Innovative,” on the other hand, is bold and forward-looking, progressive (in a nonpolitical sense), confident, and energetic. It’s a natural continuation and elaboration of the pioneer spirit that built this country. “Innovation” is also entrepreneurial and self-reliant; it suggests initiative, ingenuity, and even passion.
“Innovation” can also be used as a call to action. General Electric, citing a study that stated only 9 percent of college students felt the United States was doing enough to foster innovation among young people, launched an “Innovation Tour” in 2003. This tour visited campuses across the country, addressing “college students’ concerns, feelings, and aspirations relating to innovation and imagination.” By actively seeking youth input—often the engine of innovation—GE has been in a better position to hire the next generation of scientists, engineers, technicians, and the other occupations that will drive the twenty-first-century economy.
In our language work for the manufacturing industry, the only other word that is as valued by the American people as “innovation” is “technology.” And with everything becoming more technological, the awareness of technology itself will eventually disappear even as our acceptance and appreciation for what it does in our lives increases—including, among many other outcomes, fostering innovation itself.
7. “Renew, Revitalize, Rejuvenate, Restore, Rekindle, Reinvent”
These are the so-called “re” words, and they are incredibly powerful because they take the best elements or ideas from the past and apply them to the present and the future. “Nostalgia” alone has a limited appeal. “Retro” may fascinate, but it doesn’t necessarily move stuff off the shelves. Younger customers want to buy from companies that are new and fresh and hip. Chances are, a company launching a retro ad campaign is a company whose well of new ideas has run dry.
Instead, take the old and make it new again by putting a fresh spin on it with one or multiple “re” words. To “renew” is to take an important product or corporate commitment and reassert it. To “revitalize” is to take something that is deteriorating and inject new life into it. To “rejuvenate” is to take something old and bring it up-to-date with a more youthful feel. To “restore” is to take something old and return it to its original luster. To “rekindle” is to inject emotion or passion into something tired and staid.
Olay Products, a cosmetics company, is in the business of breathing new life and a sense of restoration into the self-image of its customers. As part of their “Age Defying Series,” Olay offers “renewal creams and lotions” and “revitalizing eye gels.” While not directly guaranteeing it, Olay understands that its consumers are looking for the fountain of youth. Words such as “restore” and “rejuvenate” offer customers a chance to reach back in time to when they had smoother skin and younger-looking eyes.
So mix and match the words and definitions. Apply them liberally. The “re” words imply action, movement, progress, and improvement—all essential attributes in the twenty-first-century economy. “You can’t stay who you are,” says Steve Wynn, who revitalized Vegas with his Mirage Resort in 1989, rejuvenated Vegas with his youth-themed Treasure Island in 1993, reinvented Vegas with his world-renowned luxurious Bellagio resort in 1998, and renewed his position as the great creator of lavish resorts with Wynn Las Vegas in 2005. “If you don’t reinvent, you die.”
As in corporate communications, the “re-” words should be applied to politics as well. Better to have programs and policies grounded in tradition, or experience, than launch something that’s brand-new. The new Medicare prescription drug program is a case in point. Seniors have been reluctant to enroll in it, unsure about the new rules, resistant to change—this despite the fact that they’re unsatisfied with the status quo. The most effective way of saying “new and improved” from a political standpoint is to employ one of the “re-” words.
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Meet the Author
Frank Luntz is one of the most respected communication professionals in America today. He has written, supervised, and conducted more than a thousand surveys and focus groups for corporate and public affairs clients here and abroad. He has developed campaigns for Merrill Lynch, Federal Express, AT&T, Pfizer, and McDonalds. Currently the host of America's Voices on MSNBC, Dr. Luntz is the first resource media outlets turn to when they want to understand American voters. His recurring segments on MSNBC/CNBC during the 2002 election cycle won an Emmy. He lives in Alexandria, VA.
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