Words That Work

By Dr. Frank Luntz

Rating: 10/10

Best Line #1: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

Best Line #2: For most people, language is functional rather than being an end in itself. For me, it’s the people that are the end; language is just a tool to reach them, a means to an end.

How does anyone make a positive impact in the world? It doesn’t happen by mistake. We have to make deliberate choices to that end. We have to fight against the base tendencies within ourselves. We also have to get permission from others.

That part is tricky. Even at the smallest level of, say, a student attending a tutoring session, there is an important thing here about permission: it doesn’t come free. The student arrives with books and paper in hand. They give their presence. They show up. But that’s not permission.

Once these two are together, the tutor has to make a connection. The tutor has to do something to get the student’s attention and draw their interest. They can’t just sit there and go over rote algebra problems. That helps no one. There has to be something more. Camaraderie? A broader context? Something.

In other words, the tutor has to spark the student’s interest in order to create curiosity. That curiosity is permission. It is the student giving the tutor permission to tell them something they don’t know.

Tell me something I don’t know. That’s a very powerful expression.

We have to spark that response from others in order to get their permission. As shown above, it can emerge from a sense of curiosity. It can also come from a place of trust, excitement, hope, fear. A person’s willingness to listen to you can be influenced in many ways. But one thing is clear:

Tell me something I don’t know is nearly synonymous with tell me something I want to hear.

They’re not the same but it’s really close. This is why I’ve dedicated a whole week to studying Dr. Frank Luntz’s book Words That Work. Luntz has a fascinating point of view and a treasure trove of examples of what we should and shouldn’t do. I’ve found many examples of bad mistakes I’ve made according to his framework. And I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything he says. I’ve spent more than a decade working with the public; I wish I would have found his work sooner.  

Here are the articles that coincide with this week’s study. Each highlights a specific lesson that I think is worth considering:

We Are Being Manipulated

Their Language Is Where Your Empathy Starts

Being Right About The Problem Doesn’t Solve It

The Right Words Lead To The Right Actions

Yelling At The Hotel Staff

Given what I already know, here’s the best tactic for effective communication:

If you want people to understand you, just raise your voice.

If they still don’t understand you, yell at them.

If they still don’t understand you, start waving your arms while you yell. Get angry. That’ll help.


At the end of Luntz’s book, he tells a story that I have experienced firsthand. For him, it involved a housekeeper. For me, it involved a hotel staff. In both instances, we witnessed good, decent people trying to communicate with other good, decent people who speak a different language. A comedy of errors ensues. Luntz describes it as follows:

I would wake up every Tuesday morning to hear my mother trying—and inevitably failing—to explain to Maria [the housekeeper] what she wanted cleaned that day. And with each attempt, my mother would grow more frustrated and her voice would get louder and louder.

My case involved a visitor speaking with hotel staff in a large lobby. The visitor was tall, towering over the staff, and spoke loudly. As if from a PA system. They spoke slowly, too. Because loud, slow speech will instantly make someone fluent in your language?

It was hilarious. The words sounded like a chant.

Hotel Visitor: “I … NEED … YOU … TO WASH … THE COM-FOR-TER.”

Hotel Staff: *politely nods head*

Hotel Visitor: “CAN … YOU … WASH … THE … COM-FOR-TER?”

Hotel Staff: *anxiously nods head*

Hotel Visitor: “DO … YOU … UNDER … STAND?”

Just about everyone in the hotel had to turn and see what was going on. A manager had to intervene. He stepped up between the two people and assured the visitor, in a whispered tone, that they would wash the comforter. So long as the visitor stopped yelling.

This is a bit absurd but it’s a perfect example that proves our author’s thesis: the words we use matter more than we realize. To make a connection and build understanding, we have to use the audience’s words. Not ours. Obviously, if the hotel visitor and hotel staff spoke the same language, there would be no yelling or weird cadences.

The words that work are basically the words that compose our shared language. This is specifically-geared towards the American sentiment but I think there’s broader application. It starts with Luntz’s ten rules of effective language.

The Ten Rules Of Effective Communication

Rule One – Simplicity: Use Small Words

This seems obvious and yet we fail at this much to often. Why? I can only think of one reason: self-indulgence. I am a writer. That means I like words. I like words so much that I could string them together in sentences for a long period of time and thereby demonstrate not only a love but an alacrity with the language that few can match and of which even fewer can care.

That entire sentence should be deleted. I keep it for effect.

Luntz showcases what not to do by citing this sentence fragment, from John Kerry during a 2006 interview. This entire sentence should be deleted, too:

“[America needs] a bold, progressive internationalism that stands in stark contrast to the too often belligerent and myopic unilateralism of the Bush Administration.”

Fancy. And ineffective. I wish we could celebrate a broader, more varied style of speech but that won’t happen anytime soon.

So let’s bemoan the steady erosion of the English language. Let’s decry the slow decay of our florid vocabulary into a crude collection of monosyllabic acronyms. And then, when the venting is done, let’s get back to the straight talk that helps us be understood.

Rule Two – Brevity: Use Short Sentence

Makes sense.

Rule Three – Credibility Is As Important As Philosophy

It’s isn’t about what you say. It is about who you are and what you do.

I have struggled with this particular rule. I’ve wanted to deny its importance on many occasions. Building credibility takes time. It requires you to create a track record.

Or have relationships. Skeptics need someone or something to vouch for you. I often wish that wasn’t the case. I wish we could take ideas and proposals for what they are instead of engaging in some silly courtship. So it goes. This rule has proven itself to me multiple times.

Rule Four – Consistency Matters

There is a terrific entertainer/thinker named John Roderick who once ran for Seattle City Council. He would have been great. I say that because he is an open, honest thinker who wants to consider all angles before voicing an opinion. Unlike many political candidates who run for office, John Roderick sought to understand and adapt his views and positions to respect the best information available.

This meant he never really knew where he stood. Because, frankly, he was intellectually honest.

This also meant no one else knew where he stood.

And so while John Roderick was very consistent at his core, the core was so nebulous (like knowledge itself) that no one could predict what he would do. Without predictability, there can be no consistency. Without consistency, he could persuade many interest groups to vote for him. As a result, he lost his primary and didn’t become a City Councilmember.

I’m still sad about that.

Rule Five – Novelty: Offer Something New

This is a really good rule that I think is completely undervalued. Forget about politics. As a manager or an educator or both (i.e., a parent), there is tremendous power in novelty.

Marketers focus on this quite a bit. When plotting their message for a product, they try to find the “surprising value” that will generate delight from the audience. The key reaction they look for is “I didn’t know that”.

Always find a way to deliver a message with some bit of surprise. A bit of the “I didn’t know that”. This is the seed of curiosity that opens up a person’s mind to more suggestion. I love seeing people react this way. It makes us young.

Rule Six – Sound And Texture Matter

I think this applies more to the messages we convey to broader audiences. However, I’d seen this work in my own dealings on a one-to-one basis. If you can paint a picture, you can generate a lot of interest that parlays the effect of Rule #8. Our author provides an example with the classic jingle: Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is. Just perfect.

It’s a great way to describe how you feel in a given moment. Don’t say “I was hurt by that comment.” Say “You should have just grinded sandpaper on the back of my neck. That’s how that felt.”

Rule Seven – Speak Aspirationally

This one is my favorite. We all want to hear messages that give us a sense of hope and possibility. To borrow from our author:

The key to successful aspirational language for products or politics is to personalize and humanize the message to trigger an emotional remembrance.

If the listener can apply the language to a general situation or human condition, you have achieved humanization. But if the listern can relate that language to his or her own life experiences, that’s personalization.

Metaphor and analogy work very well here. So, too, does the artful connection of a seemingly-small idea to a much large ideal. Brand X toothpaste doesn’t just freshen your breath, it freshens your life.

That makes no sense and yet it sounds nice.

Rule Eight – Visualize

This is where the most powerful two words in the speaker’s repertoire comes into play: “Imagine if …” We studied the application in yesterday’s article. If you want to learn how to ask for a raise or a promotion, check out that article by clicking this link.

Rule Nine – Ask A Question

I do this a lot. Maybe too much. But the Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen said it best when he described questions as such:

Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go.

To ask a question, as a speaker, is to help people open their minds so that your answers can fit.

But this works for rhetorical questions, too. The classic example comes from Ronald Reagan’s powerful challenge offered in 1980 while running against Jimmy Carter:

Are you better off today than you were four years ago?

He didn’t answer the question. He didn’t have to.

Rule Ten – Provide Context and Explain Relevance

In Wednesday’s article, I tried to explain this by way of the pill pocket. Context and relevance are built on a deep understanding of a current situation, the problem it creates, and the subsequent gap between the current situation (today) and the desired outcome (tomorrow). No one cares about your solution until they understand the problems and outcomes that surround it. So with that in mind, I leave the illustration here to reaffirm the idea.


There is a vast amount of terrific insight in this book. And while Luntz uses the political realm as his primary source of case studies, it’s very easy to see how this knowledge transfers to so many other circumstances. I’ve probably covered less than 5% of what this book as to offer. The best parts come later when he discussing the actual words that work and the tactics we can use in common interpersonal situations.

Highly recommended.

In conclusion, if you want to make a difference at any level and in any arena, you eventually have to explain yourself. Trouble is, we think our explanation is enough. It certainly is enough for us! We have good intentions and we have good ideas. But the way we communicate those things to ourselves is is seldom the way others want to hear it. So Dr. Luntz is here to help.     

It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

To further your knowledge and ability in communication, I also recommend the book Difficult Conversations. This is the best book for confronting issues in the most productive way. This week’s book helps at all levels of communication but Difficult Conversations is laser-focused on your dealings in tense environments. This happens to us all. Here’s the link to the review.

The better we can understand communication, the better we can understand each other.

Mental Models and Principles

It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener’s shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their mind and heart.

How a person perceives what you say is even more real, at least in a practical sense, than how you perceive yourself.

Political rhetoric should be interactive, not one-sided. It should speak to the common sense of common people with a moral component, but without being inflammatory, preachy, or divisive.

In a perfect world, political language would favor those with enough respect for people to tell them the truth, and enough intelligence not to do so in a condescending tone.  

There is no difference between language that convinces and language that manipulates. It is only when manipulation is obvious that it’s bad manipulation.

Language is like fire: it can either heat your house or burn it to the ground.

Whether you’re a CEO or a senator, your mission explains what you do, why you do it, and above all, why you care. Your mission is like a window into your brain, your heart, and your soul.

When answering a question that requires genuine knowledge and substance, candidates still need to grab the audience with an opening sound bite, hold their attention with brief policy details, and then close with an applause line. This isn’t dumbing down: brevity, clarity, and simplicity are simply the hallmarks of good communication.

The Ten Rules of Effective Language

Aspirational language must personalize and humanize.

Powerful advertising makes us idealists.

Research suggests that people react best to language and messages that are participatory. Rhetorical questions require responses, and responses by definition are interactive.

Context is the last and most important rule of effective communication. You have to give people the “why” of a message before you tell them the “therefore” and the “so that”.

A + B + C does not necessarily equal C + B + A. The order of presentation determines the reaction. The right order equals the right context.

How you define determines how you are received.

Focus on results, not process.

“Opportunity” is linguistically valuable because it is a principle that Americans want made available to all. It’s expansive and limitless.

“Common sense” is not just the best argument for almost any policy prescription you might propose—it’s essential. If you win and occupy the rhetorical territory owned by “common sense”, your position will be virtually unassailable.

Personalization and individualization are all important elements of convenience.

Americans fundamentally reject the status quo—even in times of peace and prosperity.

A “solution” implies a problem and therefore a need. Compared to dry, concrete, and factual “products” and “services”, the word “solution” is downright propagandistic.

Everyone has a problem. A “service” helps you live with the problem. A “solution” alleviates the problem.    

Everything you need to say should be up front. All that you want to say can come later.

It isn’t enough to have the correct stance on an issue or the correct positioning for a product or a service; you must also offer it up in such a way that the listener or the consumer can relate to, understand, and appreciate it.