A Word To The Wise
When public perception matters — and when doesn’t it? — the words you choose and the tone you use can be more important than the truth you’re speaking.
A blog post from The Rowan Report (a now-defunct blog by Colin Rowan) described the 10 key points from Frank Luntz’s book, Words that Work. For those who don’t know him, Luntz was the mastermind behind the conservative Republicans’ rejection of global warming, based on a supposed lack of scientific proof. He also famously renamed the estate tax the “death tax” in an effort to lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans.
In spite of his dubious approaches and causes, however, Luntz is a genius with words. Most importantly, he understands a very basic fact of human nature, as pointed out in The Rowan Report: “It doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what they hear.” For animal advocates, this is only just starting to sink in, and we still spend too much of our time speaking the truth without much caring how the message comes across.
But there is a better way. Call it framing; call it appealing to core values; or call it “not thinking of an elephant.” It doesn’t matter. But to address the gap between truth and public perception, advocates must focus on what is being heard rather than what is being said. The Rowan Report summarized the 10 key points in Luntz’s book as below, along with some notes from Colin.
1. Simplicity – Use small words. You’re trying to connect with your audiences, not impress them with your vocabulary. If you use a word they don’t understand, they will stop listening AND think that you’re pretentious.
2. Brevity – Use short sentences. If you can’t say it in a breath, folks won’t understand it. You may be willing to re-read your sentences to make sure you get the point, but your audience won’t.
3. Credibility Matters – as much as if not more than philosophy. I call this believability. Stephen Colbert calls it “truthiness.” It doesn’t matter if your message is true. If it sounds “unbelievable,” it won’t be believed.
4. Repetition – Consistency Matters. You will have to hammer home your message over and over before it sticks. So it better roll off your tongue (see #1 and #2).
5. Novelty – Offer something new. In product marketing, we call this “differentiation.” In politics, it’s the reason to NOT vote for the other guy. Within the non-profit world, it’s the reason someone should bother listening to you.
6. Sound – Good words sound good. I often tell clients to read their messages aloud. If they sound boring, they are. Luntz cites a lot of tag lines and product ad copy to prove his point (M&Ms melt in your mouth, quicker picker upper, etc.) But I think this makes sense for all messages. Use alliteration. Create an appealing cadence for your messages. Treat your OpEds like they are speeches.
7. Speak Aspirationally. No one likes a downer. (Read that again.) Aspiration is more attractive and memorable. It inspires. Focus on the promise of what could be, not how bad things are. In fact, check out a few Obama speeches. He clearly rips the current state of things, but he offers hope, promise, etc.
8. Visualize – Make them see it. Use language that conjures up mental images. One of Luntz’s favorite words is “imagine.” Tell a person to imagine something, and he will – using his favorite images and his favorite memories.
9. Ask a question. Sounds corny, but it works. It immediately engages people in a conversation whether they want to be included or not. State a fact and they look at you with a blank stare. Ask a question and people answer it.
10. Provide Context and Explain Relevance. Finally, a point I can argue with Luntz. “Relevance” is one of my Top 5 message rules, and I think that if you have to explain it, you’ve already lost the audience. The best messages are INSTANTLY relevant to audiences. If you have to explain a punch line, the joke isn’t funny. If you have to explain a message, it’s not as strong as it needs to be.