Words that Work

As writers, or even as human beings, we all want our words to work for us. We want to communicate, to persuade, to amuse our listeners.

cover image of Words that WorkFrank Luntz’s Words that Work is an engrossing read of words that do work, whether in politics, business or just everyday life. He doesn’t just give his opinions. Rather, they are backed up with extensive focus group and other research.

Luntz summarizes his book in just one sentence: It’s not what you say, but what you hear. Using case studies and examples, he demonstrates just how easy it is to think you are saying one thing but your audience hears another.

He sets up ten rules for effective communication:

1. Simplicity: Use small words
2. Brevity: Use short sentences
3. Credibility is as important as philosophy
4. Consistency matters
5. Novelty: Offer something new
6. Sound and texture matter
7. Speak aspirationally
8. Visualize
9. Ask a question
10. Provide context and explain relevance

Throughout the book, as he shares anecdotes of companies and politicians who communicated well (or not so well), he explains which of the rules were followed and which were broken. This made it very clear just how powerful the right words can be, and how deadly the wrong ones are.

Astounding to me were the examples from politics and commerce of people or companies who needed desperately to communicate with the public and either completely failed to do so, or used silence as their communication strategy. Luntz suggests other ways they could have shared their message, potentially avoiding the disaster that happened.

One chapter lists 21 words or phrases that will work in 21st century communications, with sometimes lengthy explanations why. It’s interesting, just coming off the 2012 elections, to note the politicians who used these in their campaigns, and the ones who did not.

Some reviewers gave Words that Work a one star rating, largely because they took exception to Dr. Luntz’s political views. Those ratings do not do justice to the research and analysis that went into the conclusions of the book. The political bent of the author is irrelevant to the worth of his findings.

I was interested in this book primarily as a writer (although I found the entire thing fascinating). Much of what I learned will be helpful as I write website copy, the copy for the back covers of my books, and any other advertising copy I’ll need. For me, learning to follow Rule #2 (short sentences) will be a challenge.

Overall, Words that Work is a useful read for anyone who uses words for a living and wants to harness their power effectively.

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