Imagine: I recommend reading a book by the guy who gave us “death tax,” “energy exploration” and the Contract with America.

Frank Luntz helps Republicans choose words that resonate with Independents. I bought his book, Words That Work, hoping to learn the devil’s secrets so I could twist them to good use. I did learn a lot, including that I share many of Luntz’ opinions on words — especially his belief that the word “imagine” is the most powerful. “The word imagine … allows individuals to picture whatever personal vision is in their hearts and minds.”

Big idea
I’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.
Best quote
“Once the words leave your lips, they no longer belong to you. … When we open our mouths, we are sharing with the world—and the world inevitably interprets, indeed sometimes shifts and distorts, our original meaning.”
Also interesting
Luntz includes “patient-centered” among his words that work — validation for a term we use a lot at Kaiser Permanente. In fact, Luntz uses the Kaiser Permanente website as an exemplar of patient-centered language and imagery.

I was fascinated by the “dial sessions” Luntz uses in his research. Subjects hold dials that they turn to reflect their positive and negative reactions to speeches or ads. The result is wavy lines that help ferret out the precise words and phrases that work.

His research leads him to a few points that struck me:

When we in organizational communication construct an internal message, we routinely check off the “what,” the “so what” and “now what.” Luntz recommends we put the “so what” — the context and relevance — first. “You have to give people the “why” of a message before you tell them the “therefore” and the “so that.'”

When trying to demonstrate the concept of “value,” focus on the result rather than the process. For example, Luntz’ research shows taxpayers are moved to “reduce crime” (result) more than to support “law enforcement” (process). Additionally, “VALUE” = price + convenience + reliability.

Women respond more to stories and men more to facts. Men want to speak and women want to be heard.

“Respect” is “the most important word related to how employees perceive their treatment and what they think of their employer.”

“In my research into the effectiveness of direct mail, the single most-read portion after the opening paragraph is the postscript.”

There isn’t much that separates what Luntz does and what I do. We both use language to advocate for a cause. And despite my lead-in to this post, I don’t think he is evil. To me, his “death tax” is not so much inaccurate as maddeningly brilliant. I would call it the “Paris Hilton tax” and would be equally accurate (though less brilliant).

I think he crosses the line, though, when he dispassionately compares John Kerry’s weak words to the Swiftboat Veterans’ powerful ones. “Betrayal” is an appropriate attack word if the veteran is quarreling with Kerry’s opposition to the war he fought in, but not if the veteran is lying about Kerry’s war record.

I’m all for making words work. I’m against making them lie.

Words that Work coverSome of Luntz’ words that work:

“Results” and the “Can-do-spirit”
“Renew, Revitalize, Rejuvenate, Restore, Rekindle, Reinvent”
“Efficient” and “Efficiency”
“Casual Elegance”
“Peace of Mind”

Here’s the Colbert Report bit with Luntz that lured me into buying his book.

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