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Wordsmithing for Success and Profit:

Words That Work by Dr. Frank Luntz

I first encountered Frank Luntz, to my conscious knowledge, when I attended a local writers’ panel on the topic “The Age of Spin: Controlling the Message” in April of this year. He was the only Republican Party spin-master on a panel of otherwise Democratic/progressive-oriented persuasion mavens affiliated with Newsweek, Mother Jones, the Nation, the online magazine Slate and NPR’s Fresh Air.

I learned during the course of the presentation and afterward that, while I had not known Luntz’s name, I knew of his work – he’s the man who sold Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994; he’s the one who decided to call estate taxes “death taxes” in the effort to repeal or limit them.

But the panel I attended was not an argument of ideology, but a discussion of communication as a process: “spin” – how best and most effectively to convey or promote an ideology, or a specific program. And Luntz’s contributions to that essentially non-partisan “process” discussion made me want to read his new book, Words That Work – It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.

Frank Luntz (the “Dr.” is an academic degree from Oxford) is a pollster and language consultant to mostly Republican politicians and a market researcher and PR advisor to companies with something to sell. As he explains in his book, the process is pretty much the same, whether selling ideas or products. His forte is choosing the right words to convey the message.

From the 10 Rules of Effective Language outlined in the book (Use Small Words, Consistency Matters and Speak Aspirationally, among others) to the importance of keeping current (“secretary” is now “administrative assistant,” “housewife” is “stay-at-home mom” and “waiter/waitress” is “server”), Luntz advises political and corporate America on how to speak. Don’t say “oil drilling” – say “energy exploration” – that sort of thing.

His message is at times depressing, particularly to the sort of person who would pick up a book about the use of language. Among his 10 Great Myths About Americans are that Americans are educated, they read and they vote according to a candidate’s stand on issues. (Luntz likes the number 10; the “Contract with America” had 10 points.) “George Will may bemoan the dumbing down of America,” he writes, “but our frame of reference and common bond as Americans has become pop culture, not the classics.”

On the subject of newspapers, Luntz reports, “If their current decline in readership continues along the recent trend lines, the last daily newspaper reader in America will disappear in October 2044, according to University of North Carolina Professor Philip Meyer.”

In the process of discussing modern communication techniques, Luntz also recounts the history of words that have worked in our society. From 20th century history (Douglas MacArthur’s “I shall return”) to popular movie culture (“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” from Cool Hand Luke, Luntz’s favorite movie quote) to advertising slogans (“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is,” which will not be forgotten by those who are old enough to remember it). And words that have not worked – George W. Bush, for example, saying, “Bring it on,” regarding terrorists.

(Did you know that the phrase “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” was a Listerine commercial line from 1923? – so Luntz reports.)

It is interesting that Luntz quotes George Orwell in the Introduction to Words That Work to the effect that, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way,” while many liberal bloggers have compared conservative Luntz’s work in a negative way to the “Newspeak” found in Orwell’s 1984. But then Luntz, who crafts messages for a living, might respond that on this score he is only the messenger.

Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear (Hyperion, New York, 2007).

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