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The Best Messages Make Us Feel

I love this quote by Frank Luntz. Luntz is a Republican pollster and has been the brains behind many of the party’s most successful slogans and messages. He is the author of the book “Words That Work” and if you don’t have this book in your library, you should, regardless of your political leanings.

Luntz makes a solid case for the idea that language is a powerful influencer of behavior and sets out some examples of what he means both from politics and business. Words should work — hard. The following examples are from politics:

tax cuts v. tax relief
drilling for oil
v. energy exploration
the estate tax
v. the death tax

Let’s take them one-by-one.

Tax cuts is an old phrase politicians have been batting around for so long that it now sounds boilerplate. Substitute relief for cuts, and suddenly the phrase has a completely different ring: Paying taxes is painful, someone causes the pain and someone else alleviates it — provides relief. Just one, simple word change and an entirely new story emerges, a story with villains and heroes and the potential for happy endings.

The phrase drilling for oil has evolved to an extent that it now creates unpleasant images for most people. Energy exploration in our current energy-hungry world, however, is something we can all get behind!

When we think of the estate tax, we think of — well — estates, big ones with mansions and acreage and second homes in Gstaad.  But the phrase death tax implies that in addition to the taxes we pay when we are alive, we must also pay when we die. Our indignation is awakened.

In each case, a common, widely accepted phrase has been revised or completely replaced with words that tell a story from a particular point of view and generate feelings. This is known as a “frame” and is what developing the right message is all about.

Business Words That Work

Businesses are no strangers to message development. Just ask their ad agencies. The right descriptive words or slogans can be worth millions or even billions in sales. Look at the following:

gambling v. gaming
coffee server v. barista
fast food
v. quick service food

Gambling is reckless.  Gaming is a fun, leisure activity.

A coffee server sounds bland and so is the coffee. A barista is exotic and the coffee delicious.

Fast food is junk food. Quick service food implies quality and convenience.

And my personal favorite, courtesy (again) of the marketing geniuses at Starbucks,

small, medium or large (yawn) or tall, grande and venti (yum).

You get the idea.

How It’s Done

It is extraordinarily difficult to develop messages and talking points that move people in the right direction but it can be done if we just follow a few simple linguistic rules. Frank Luntz mentions 10, but I’m going to focus on three that I think are the most important.

Be Brief – Use short sentences or phrases whenever possible. Think Breakfast of Champions,  Don’t leave home without it, or Finger-lickin’ good. The briefer the statement, the more memorable it is. It should also be easy to say, so avoid words that are awkward together.

Speak Aspirationally – This cannot be overstated. People will always gravitate toward products or services that they imagine will take them up a notch. That might mean making their lives easier, promising romance or helping them to be more successful. Think You’re in good hands with AllstateA diamond is forever, or Be all that you can be.

Master Message Discipline – Once you settle on words that work, the discipline begins. This means repeating the message and persisting until it sticks. This can be the most difficult part because we tend to get bored with the repetition and if the message doesn’t take quickly, we begin to doubt its effectiveness. Keep the faith, though, and keep at it because it’s a very effective technique.

Making Words Work for You

Politicians and advertisers are not the only ones who need “words that work.” We all do. Everyone is in the persuasion business, whether you’re trying to land a new client or collaborate with colleagues on a project.

In my own case, I have recently begun to call what I do “High-Stakes Communication.” It certainly follows two of the three rules above. Now, to fulfill the third, I am applying it to my branding strategy.

This presidential election season is an ideal time to think about message strategy. We are provided with many opportunities to see words that work — or don’t work — in action. The next time you hear a phrase or slogan from a political candidate that resonates with you, take a few minutes to analyze why. Not only will it help you fine-tune your own message, which will lead to more success, you may also be better able to make an informed choice when it comes to selecting the next leader of the free world.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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