Which statement appears more frightening? “Social Security will run out of money in 2017″ or “Social Security will run out of money in 10 years.” Both statements reveal identical information; however, most people polled say that 2017 seems far more in the distant future than 10 years from now.
This is an example of the varying rhetoric presented in Words That Work by well known Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has spent his career teaching others how to carefully select words and phrases that can steer listeners to hear what one wants them to hear. Luntz is famous for helping to write and present Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America. He has also promoted the expressions “exploring for energy” to describe oil-drilling, “death tax” to refer to the estate tax and “climate change” to describe global warming.
In his new book, Luntz attempts to leave politics behind and present his ideas on how readers can be more persuasive by choosing certain words. Luntz comes up with phrases via focus groups, interviews, online polling and his favorite — dial sessions — where participants hold small wireless devices that have computerized numerical displays that range from 0 to 100. If the reaction to a phrase is positive, they move it to 100, and negative, to 0. “The value of a dial session is often measured in the number of bad words discovered and avoided rather than in the volume of good language created,” he writes.
Luntz details instances when corporations have not taken a proactive approach in communicating with customers. For years Wal-Mart didn’t respond to community and legal challenges, and as a result, found itself on the defensive in neighborhoods where it wanted to locate or expand. On the other hand, when communication is the key approach, positive things can happen. The gambling industry, for instance, proactively re-branded itself into the “gaming” industry and contributed to a fundamental change in how Americans perceive the gambling industry. “All of the old, unsavory associations (e.g. organized crime, pawnshops, addiction, foolishly losing one’s fortune, gave way to a lighter, brighter image of good clean fun,” writes Luntz.
Luntz replaced the elitist-sounding “estate tax” from the political lexicon, substituting the more emotional, more personal “death tax.” “A clear but somewhat narrow majority of Americans today support eliminating the so-called ‘estate tax,’ and a slightly higher percentage would back the elimination of the ‘inheritance tax,’ but more than 70 percent would abolish the ‘death tax.’” Why the difference? “Estate” and “inheritance” conjure up images of J.R. Ewing and Donald Trump with vast amounts of wealth. The term “death tax,” however, conjures up images of the mom-and-pop hardware store owner hoping to pass on to his children the savings he has wrung from a lifetime of toil, according to Luntz.
Luntz provides detailed lists that simplify some of the book’s message, such as “Ten Rules of Effective Language,” and “Twenty-One Words for the Twenty First Century.” He writes that based on “hundreds of thousands of telephone interviews and literally a million research hours, I contend that these words and concepts will be as powerful tomorrow as they are today.” Some of those included are imagine (an open, non-restrictive command); hassle-free (consumers shouldn’t have to think about how we buy, use or fix a product); accountability (Americans want corporations held accountable for their actions, particularly post-Enron); investment (investing in your future is one of the strongest motivations for making long-term purchases. Buying is for now; investing is forever); and financial security (a greater priority and more attainable than “financial freedom”).
Critics consider Luntz’s approach to language misleading, even manipulative. Whether you agree or disagree with Luntz’s tactics or politics, it’s apparent that this type of selective word-choice to better convey what one wants the listener to hear is definitely a part of our present, and undoubtedly a part of our future. Readers may also develop more of an awareness of when they are being swayed by savvy talkers.
Mary Scott is the co-author of Companies with a Conscience and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.