Leadership: “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” – Frank Luntz

I’m in the middle of reading a fabulous book, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by Frank Luntz. Luntz has made his fortune advising Republican politicians on communication strategy and crafting their messages.


I’m in the middle of reading a fabulous book, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by Frank Luntz. Luntz has made his fortune advising Republican politicians on communication strategy and crafting their messages. Luntz is responsible for converting “estate tax” to “death tax,” and “drilling for oil” to “energy exploration.” His handiwork teaches important lessons about the power of language to motivate and persuade.


If you are in the business of persuasion (and if you aren’t, you are not really in business), you MUST read this book. If your politics lean more leftward, don’t let it stop you. Luntz is a master and he lets us in on his many secrets here.

What Luntz writes about so knowledgeably is that to persuade, a number of linguistic issues must be considered. He mentions 10 “musts,” but I’m going to focus on the four that I think are the most important.

Brevity – Reduce your thoughts to the least number of words that work. Think about a few of the most memorable and effective advertising slogans: Got Milk? I’m Lovin’ It, They’re Greeeeaaaattt! Also, think visually and I’m not talking about loading up your PowerPoint with everything you’ve ever thought on a topic. Keep visuals simple and impactful. (For more on this, read my FC blog post Death to PowerPoint!)

Credibility – How many times have you seen the words “new and improved” and know it’s nonsense? We have to make sure our messages are backed up by our product or service. People see through it, otherwise, and faster than you might think. And recovering from this type of mistake is difficult. Once people are made to feel foolish, it’s very difficult to undo the damage and bring them back into the fold.


Consistency – I call this message discipline and without it, we’re doomed as communicators and business people. The best at this skill develop phrases and messages that work and then repeat, repeat, repeat. Ad nauseum. While in certain communications the same, exact words don’t have to be used each and every time, any variations should be very sight and really, it’s safer to stick with the original words. Boring? Yes (to the speaker). But very effective. Sticking with a good message takes determination and, as I mentioned above, discipline.

Speak Aspirationally – This cannot be overstated. Language that gives people a reason to act is the best kind. Think I have a dream or A diamond is forever. It doesn’t have to be positive or flowery language, either.

An example of how to convert a ho-hum message to language that conforms to 3 of 4 of Luntz’s rules follows:

Hillary Clinton recently started delivering a new stump speech. In it, she used the following language:

“Restore America’s standing in the world.”
“Rebuild America’s middle class and the economy to support it.”
“Reform our government.”
“Reclaim the future for our children.”


This language follows a number of rhetorical principles: active verbs, parallel language and alliteration. Restore is a good word implying that something has been destroyed. Rebuild implies something similar. Reform brings change to mind. Reclaim is the best word because it implies that something has been wrongly taken away—even stolen—by someone (guess who?). Reclaim gets the nervous system firing. It’s a rich and motivational word could be used for all four of those statements:

“Reclaim America’s standing in the world.”
“Reclaim America for the middle class.”
“Reclaim our government.”
“Reclaim the future for our children.”

Brief, consistent and aspirational. (Credibility, in this case, rests with the speaker and that is a judgment best left to each reader.)

By changing just one word (and a little wordsmithing for the second statement), this message morphs from something that’s not very inspirational and, frankly, forgettable, into a memorable series of statements that builds in impact and pushes all the right emotional buttons. In fact, if people just remember the word Reclaim and associate it with Hillary Clinton, it will have been a success. Powerful stuff.

I’m only about halfway through Luntz’s book and will write more when I finish it. In the interim, think about your communication. Start by examining the words you use. See if they conform to the rules above. It’s not easy to come up with this material, which is why people like Frank Luntz are able to get rich doing it for others. Buy the book and you’ll have a head start.


Luntz, Frank; Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear; Hyperion, 2007

Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates, LLC • Greenwich, CT •

About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World