It’s Not What You Say; It’s What People Hear

Frank Luntz, author of Words That Work“, knows better than most the gravity of that sentence. The subtitle of the brilliant political operative’s 2007 best seller is the result of remarkable lessons his research company learned from years of listening to people, from politicians to peasants – and learning how we respond to words.

Everything we hear, read and watch is viewed through our unique prism, formed by a lifetime of experiences, values and beliefs. Opine to a large group of people about religion, politics or current affairs, and you’re likely to hear a cacophony of individual reactions to the words you used.

With tens of millions of mobile devices “in the field”, almost everyone now possesses a set of extra eyes that can watch and record events, as they happen. It’s a proxy for everyone in the world with an Internet connection. It would be a stretch to call us all “journalists”, but I won’t be elitist about the moniker. The crowd can beat traditional media to the story every time. Someone is almost always present when a car crashes, a modest street fight erupts into a riot, or when an absent-minded politician whispers obscenities into an open microphone at a podium, pre-rally. Twitter knows all, and sees all, for us.

We’ve become wise to hyperbole, blather, patter, jive and talking points.

Or have we?

Frank Luntz writes, ”It’s that rare combination of words, thoughts and emotion that becomes an intrinsic part of the American idiom. And each of them abides by multiple rules of effective language.”

I would submit it’s ALL about the correct talking points, resoundingly echoed by a chorus of spokesholes and strategists and credible pundits that move messages most effectively. Republicans have traditionally been far better at staying on message (even if it is deeply flawed or an outright fib) than their friends on the other side of the aisle. Former “Saturday Night Live” cast member turned Senator Al Franken (D-MN) remarked earlier this year (about health care reform), The opponents of reform have found their bumper sticker, their slogan, their rallying cry, it’s one word:


You can read that on a bumper. “Our bumper sticker has –  it’s just way too many words. And it says, ‘Continued on next bumper sticker.'”

When a company is responding to a crisis, the right words can make the difference between public understanding and empathy, or disaster. BP CEO and master gaffeologist Tony Hayward’s lament on the massive inconvenience the oil spill has caused HIM, and the statement that workers who touched the oily goo and got sick were possible victims of food poisoning, strongly demonstrates that he and his staff of wordsmiths were fast asleep at the keyboard.

When you are crafting words for your employees, for your stakeholders, or for constituents, what you say has always mattered. What’s different is that almost all of us now have a technological filter to interpret what you say. It’s possible to be honest without admitting culpability, to be forceful without being adversarial, and to be compassionate without looking weak.

The Internal Communications /PR genius knows this. If this person isn’t at the BIG table with all the major players in your organizations’ conference room, they should be. They should be the person that stands at the desk of the boss and doesn’t act the role of contrarian, but explains how it’s going to be received on the street, and in the hallways; the Real Deal.

One can move mountains with words. One can also change shifts in perception, and prevent misfortunes from turning into mammoth headaches.

As Frank Luntz points out in his book, isn’t “energy exploration” a heck of a lot nicer than “oil drilling”?

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