Words Matter

These two words have stuck in my brain for years. I post them frequently; I badger my students and clients with them. I’ve written several zillion blog posts about them.  I pummel them into the noggins of anyone who dares to engage me on the subject.

I use them as if they are my own, but I actually stole them from Frank Luntz, author of the best seller Words that WorkLuntz is a political mastermind, working (mostly) with Republicans but having also toiled for some Democrats during his career. Luntz was the guy who came up with the phrasings used in the GOP’s Contract with America, the piece of paper that Newt Gingrich and his party used to wrest control of a corrupt, entrenched US House of Representatives in 1994.

I admire Luntz like I admire few people. My respect for him comes not from any perception (real or imagined) of his personal politics, but his  keen understanding of language in rhetoric. Frank Luntz understands how people hear words.

His secondary mantra is, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”.

We are bombarded by immense noise every day; chatter, blather, hue and cry. From perky morning TV weather folks to corporate spokesholes, from talking heads to talk radio, the din is so unremarkable it all begins to sound like…nothing.  It’s very easy to tune out messaging, because the words are largely predictable- especially from politicians.  This is a fairly recent phenomenon; for most of human history we have not had at our disposal the extraordinary power of social and broadcast media.

I laugh every time the GOP stings the other side of the aisle with  beautiful, elegant, simple responses to the often convoluted, smarty-pants sass from the left.  I can see this coming a mile away! The Democrats so frequently set the ball so a Republican can spike it. What Luntz preaches to his clients is not some secret Holy Grail of word knowledge; he advises them to THINK. What sounds cleaner, “oil drilling” or “energy exploration”?

I wonder if Sarah Palin, at the podium during the 2008 GOP convention had implored the delegates to chant “EXPLORE! EXPLORE!” instead of “DRILL BABY DRILL!” ?

Who doesn’t find the notion of exploration heroic?

When you use the right words, people respond, and they respond more often than not, the way you want them to.

Last week  maniacal TV chatterbox Chris Matthews got tangled up in one of these frequent  “Talk show host bashes another talk show host” mudslinging adventures. Conservative blabber Rush Limbaugh recently said this on his radio show about Democrats and abortion:

 “Could it be that Democrats fear kids?”  “I mean, they are aborting their own people. The vast majority of people having abortions are Democrat voters.”

During his MSNBC show last Wednesday, Matthews bellowed that Limbaugh’s comments were “an astounding assault on women’s rights”  and that Limbaugh most certainly possesses a  ” hatred of women.”

There’s your set. Here comes the spike, from one of Limbaugh’ handlers (paraphrased):

“Rush Limbaugh wants more women to be born”.


I’m all the way to the left on the issue of abortion, but I couldn’t help but admire the elegant, populist simplicity of that response.

When you’re talking to a big bloc of voters, voters that largely aren’t earnest or engaged, simple speech resonates. Words matter.

In the 2008 Presidential campaign, when faced with the choice of (Obama) hope and (McCain) reinvention-on-the-fly, who couldn’t resist a shot at a little hope? That one word, mocked by a cynical few, resonated with tens of millions.

Words on a resume, words in a memo, words in a love letter, and words to the cop who is trying to give you a speeding ticket…matter.

They don’t (and shouldn’t actually) be fancy. The right words convey ideas that cut through the noise.

If you were in HR at a previous job, did you lay people off, or did you give employees a helping hand in their transition?

Click on your resume this weekend. I think you might have some editing to do.

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