Review: Words That Work

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

words that workSome of you might be surprised that I would choose this book to discuss as a personal development book, but in my eyes, it’s a vital follow-up to other books on communication like How to Win Friends and Influence People and Never Eat Alone.

Words That Work is subtitled “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” and it’s written by Dr. Frank Luntz (here’s a rather biased profile of him on Wikipedia). Luntz is a very well known political consultant who has helped many politicians craft language with which to frame an issue. For example, Luntz’s work was responsible for reframing the phrase “estate tax” into “death tax.” Both terms describe the same thing, but the “death tax” phrase creates a negative spin on it. Different political groups have hired Luntz to develop terminology for specific issues along these lines.

So why is this book important for personal development? This book does an exceptional job of exposing the power of subtlety in language – it helps one to identify it and also to use it. Regardless of one’s opinion of Luntz (my personal feelings are mixed), this book is well worth reading for anyone who uses communication in their day-to-day lives – in essence, everyone. For me, it was basically Fast Food Nation for language – a study of the processes behind something that, when exposed, is simultaneously disturbing and yet somehow impressive.

Let’s walk through the book and see what we can learn about the language we all use.

Walking Through Words That Work

I. The Ten Rules Of Effective Language
Here are the ten rules:

1. Simplicity: Use Small Words Try to avoid using words that will cause people to reach for the dictionary, because most people won’t and thus your idea isn’t passed on to them.
2. Brevity: Use Short Sentences When you write a sentence, look and see if you can trim words from it. The shorter the sentence, the more forceful it becomes.
3. Credibility Is As Important As Philosophy The words you use become you, and you become the words you use. Thus, if you’re credible, your words become credible.
4. Consistency Matters Stick with the same ideas and talking points and repeat them over and over. This way, the key points you want associated with you are highly likely to come through.
5. Novelty: Offer Something New Work on developing a new take on your old ideas. This will bring attention to those old ideas again, which again reinforces the message.
6. Sound and Texture Matter Words that describe sound and texture stand out and are memorable – think “Snap Crackle Pop” or “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz.” By doing this, you’re touching upon mental patterns in the reader/listener that are outside the usual ones used when listening or reading.
7. Speak Aspirationally Frame your message as though it is a higher or nobler goal to achieve. I do this myself when talking about the sheer relief that freedom from debt can bring – I aspire to be debt free.
8. Visualize Describe in detail the outcome of the idea and make it seem as real as possible. Flesh out this positive result and add a few brush strokes of the road to get there and people will want to follow the path.
9. Ask a Question More specifically, a rhetorical question. For example, asking an investor if they’re better off now than when they started investing is a pretty compelling case to convince someone to invest. In 1980, Ronald Reagan rode to the White House on the back of the question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
10. Provide Context and Explain Relevance Look at the messages competing with your own and figure out how you can set yourself apart. For example, Burger King does just that with the “Have it your way” slogan – it uses the idea that competitors don’t provide much choice in their sandwiches. Using the context of the fast food wars, Burger King sets themselves apart with it.

As I was reading every rule, it was pretty easy of me to think of examples for each one. Some of the ones above are from the book, but most of them are not – this opening chapter really got my juices flowing and got me thinking about how these rules are used when people communicate with me. I hoped that the remainder of the book would help with using them to communicate with people.

II. Preventing Message Mistakes
One big problem that people have when communicating is that they lose the person they’re talking to along the way. When I first started out studying personal finance, I felt exactly this way – I felt like much of the material was simply over my head and thus I didn’t really get the message. With some investment topics, I still feel that way.

It’s not that the concepts are too hard, it’s that the people trying to explain them are making a number of mistakes and causing the message to be lost. This chapter outlines a bunch of these mistakes. The two that really stood out to me were don’t assume knowledge or awareness (something I keep very close to my heart – I’d rather be accused of writing too simply than writing over someone’s head) and getting the order right (no matter how good an idea is, if you present the final step before the first one, you’ll lose people).

My biggest mistakes as a writer on this blog have been as a result of those two errors.

III. Old Words, New Meaning
First, Luntz points out Orwell’s amazing essay Politics And The English Language (which you can read for free here), but he also provides a ton of examples of how the meaning of specific words has changed over time – for example, the history of the transition of the word “gay” from meaning happy to referring to a homosexual. Why is this important? It shows the fluidity of language and that the word choices of individual people can, over time, change the meaning of words.

IV. How “Words That Work” Are Created
This was perhaps the least interesting chapter to me as it focused on the internal workings of polling groups. For example, one might ask the exact same question but word it two different ways and get vastly different results – for example, asking someone if they are pro-life will get a certain number of positive responses, but a much different number will be against abortion. The question is the same, but the word choice is different – pro-life sounds much more pleasant than the paring of two antagonistic words – against abortion. Pro-life sounds peaceful; against abortion sounds more antagonistic. Guess which label works better?

V. Be The Message
In order to have a successful message, you need to go beyond the mere words you’re saying. Your audience listens to the message – but they also listen to you. In order to deliver a message well, you have to embody the message.

Here’s a clear cut example from The Simple Dollar. I tend to have my greatest successes when I talk about debt elimination, personal growth, and frugal living because that’s what I’ve lived through. I have walked the path of nearly drowning in debt and I’ve been there, thus I can speak with authority about it. My greatest failures on The Simple Dollar usually relate to investing, something that I’m simply not about. I write about investing occasionally, mostly to outline something I’ve learned (like a book review or a description of a tactic), but it’s far from my strong suit and this is pretty apparent to regular readers.

VI. Words We Remember
The crux of this chapter is that most ideas we present boil down to a short phrase or moment that we remember, and quite often the entire argument is remembered by that one little piece. He uses the brilliant example of the Howard Dean campaign. After all the hope and anxiety and change represented by the Dean campaign in 2004, what do most Americans remember about it? The scream. Those ten seconds in Iowa where he let his emotions overflow.

When you’re preparing something that contains an idea that you want people to remember, try to boil it down to a single phrase or idea for remembrance and digestion. A good example of an early attempt at this by me was the ten second rule – the crux of the whole idea is boiled down to three words. After you read the post, the phrase “ten second rule,” when mentioned later, is likely to remind you of that little useful technique to curb your spending.

VII. Corporate Case Studies and VIII. Political Case Studies
These two chapters simply provide a huge assortment of real-world examples of the ideas explained earlier. Here are two that stood out for me.

“Liquor” versus “spirits” Liquor is a word that contains a number of negative connotations – liquoring it up and so on – so beverage companies have basically abandoned the term for the word “spirits.” Why? Spirits has a lot of positive connotations to it – clinking glasses, being in high spirits with company, and so on. Liquor also is often associated with a much more limited selection of beverages than spirits – abandoning the old, negative word made it easier for companies to introduce new beverages under the heading “spirits” without the negative and limiting connotations of “liquor.”

The Contract With America This was an amazingly crafted document that the Republican Party used to win the 1994 mid-term elections in a landslide and take control of Congress. Reading it now is almost painful because of the light of history, but that document absolutely glows with promise. How? It basically uses every single one of Luntz’s ten rules of communication from the first chapter of this book. I read through this document and was able to see over and over again the ten rules at work, yet when I step back, the document just glows. I would love to someday write something that powerful.

IX. Myths And Realities About Language And People
This chapter attempts to create the model of the “average American,” and by creating that model and fully fleshing it out, it becomes apparent why these techniques work. For example, very few Americans today are well-read in the traditional sense of the word – how many of you have actually read Plato’s Republic? I have, but I literally am the only person I know who has. Readership is also in decline – that’s why publishing houses are in trouble. The result? To make your idea attractive to a broad audience, it has to be prepared to be quickly digested.

Let’s take Dennis Kucinich, for example. He has a lot of interesting ideas and can express them at length. The problem is that to appreciate his policies (whether you agree or not), you have to be willing to pay attention for a bit and absorb some nuances. The average American has no time for nuance, so his ideas will have a very hard time spreading. Rudy Giuliani, on the other hand, can express his ideas in very quick bites – they require very little nuance to absorb. Guess who would win in a presidential election?

X. What We REALLY Care About
This chapter focuses on tying an idea to a greater ideal. In general, people want to be told optimistic things – respect, fair play, honesty, accountability, and so on. If you can identify an ideal that a large group of people agree on and you can tie your idea to that ideal, then people will be much more open to buying into your ideas. In fact, didn’t you immediately think of politicians when you read that list of words? Why? If you strip the politics away from those words, those are ideals we all want – it’s the gloss of overuse by politicians that begins to taint the value of those words. Accountability as a distinct concept is something we all want – accountability when tied to something negative drags down the concept.

So what can you do? Find a goal or a value you share with the people you’re talking to, and tie the ideas you want to share to that goal or value. If someone inspires you to take action, they’re likely doing this – they’re appealing to your sense of greater good and tying their plan to this appeal.

XI. Personal Language For Personal Scenarios
I thought this chapter was very interesting for the individual person, as it takes the lessons of the book and applies them to day-to-day situations we all face.

Here’s an example: let’s say you want a raise. When you go to pitch for it, tell your boss “Imagine if I had not been here to work on that project” or “Imagine if the product hadn’t shipped last week.” What you’re effectively doing with the imagine if line is intrinsically tying yourself to successes in your workplace. Let your boss imagine the workplace without the successes of your work output.

XII. Twenty-One Words And Phrases For The Twenty-First Century
The book concludes with an overview of some potential changes in language based on the changes in the world over the last decade or so. While interesting, it’s basically speculation about the future – an interesting look at some possible wide-scale applications of the ideas in this book for the coming years.

Buy or Don’t Buy?
The real application of this book is in the first and eleventh chapters. In fact, if you are willing to just assume that these principles are true and aren’t interested in background and application, you can probably skip the rest (even though they’re interesting reading). Take the first and eleventh chapters and try applying them to what you say, especially in terms of writing. You’ll find that the product is much more likely to engage your readers and pass your ideas along to them.

If you want to take it to the next level and see how word choice really works and is constantly applied in life to affect you, though, I really recommend reading this entire book and even spending some time really looking at the examples, like the “Contract With America” that I mentioned above. When you see these principles at work and really understand them, it’s almost amazing to see how often these techniques are used in almost every aspect of modern life. It’s an incredible eye-opener – I realized that manipulative language was used before I read this book, but the subtleties and pervasiveness of it is just amazing.

If you do any sort of persuasion in your work, this book is a must-read. Even if you don’t, this book is worth reading just to understand the techniques of modern persuasion.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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