Author and political consultant Frank Luntz writes in his book Words That Work
that there is a place for beautiful language – words that are timeless and ideal in some abstract, philosophical sense.
But that’s not the world most of us live in.
For Luntz, “We live in an age when the world is no longer ruled as it once was by the Latin of the elites, but by the common, democratic tongues of the people. And if you want to reach the people, you must first speak their language.”
That’s because what matters in the end is not what you say, but what people hear.
To help make your communication more effective, Luntz offers the following 10 rules:
1. Use small words
Luntz points out that the most memorable catchphrases and brand names often contain one- or at most two-syllable words.
And when they don’t start so simply, we tend to shorten them, so that International Business Machines becomes IBM, Macontish becomes Mac, and Federal Express becomes FedEx.
2. Use short sentences
Luntz advises that you should never use a sentence when a phrase will do, and never use four words when three can say just as much.
“Got Milk?” and Nike’s “Just do it” have been some of the most effective advertising slogans, and their messages would’ve been diluted with more words.
3. Your credibility is as important as your philosophy
Luntz writes that people “have to believe it to buy it.”
He argues that one of the reasons BMW’s assertive tagline “ultimate driving machine” has worked so well is that people perceive the performance of the company’s cars as living up to the hype.
4. Be consistent
Repetition works. As Luntz points out, “Good language is like the Energizer Bunny. It keeps going … and going … and going.”
5. Offer something new
Many of us are easily bored – if something doesn’t shock or surprise us, we’re likely to move on.
Luntz recommends a simple test to determine whether your message has followed this rule: “If it generates an ‘I didn’t know that’ response, you have succeeded.”
6. Sound and texture are important
The sound and texture of your language can be just as important as the words you use.
A string of words that have the same sound, or start with the same first letter, or have the same “syllabic cadence” can be more memorable than a more random collection of sounds.
Here’s how this can be applied to the description of previous five rules in this list: simplicity, brevity, credibility, consistency, and novelty.
7. Speak aspirationally
Effective messages speak to what people want to hear.
In a political context, two of most impactful and lasting messages are FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
8. Paint a picture
Luntz notes that there’s practical truth behind the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, and he suggests that, whenever possible you should visualize your point.
M&M’s “Melts in your mouth and not in your hand” tagline is one of the more effective examples of this strategy.
9. Ask a question
Luntz argues that “personalized communication is the best communication,” and asking questions can make delivering your message more interactive.
One of the more effective examples is: What would you do if you were in my shoes?
10. Make the context and relevance clear
For Luntz, this is the most important rule of effective communication, and he offers two tips:
- You have to give people the why of your message before you can get to the therefore and the so what.
- Given all the other messages competing for our attention, your target audience must see “individual, personal meaning and value in your words.“