Just Say the Magic Words

Frank Luntz -- pollster, political consultant, and author -- recently appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal program.  Dr. Luntz is a linguist (a "word nerd") best-known for his Instant Response dial sessions, in which focus groups listen to politicians or sales pitches and "dial in" their immediate responses to phrases or even particular words.  The group reactions are meticulously analyzed and the client presented with a summary of "words that work," which also happens to be the title of one of Dr. Luntz' most popular books: Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear.

As a political consultant, Dr. Luntz advises politicians on the words and phrases that will resonate the most with the electorate.  For example, he coined the phrase "death tax" instead of estate tax and suggested "opportunity scholarships" instead of vouchers.  His new book, Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary, explains the importance of the right message. In politics, even a single wrong word can be a game-changer.  As Luntz told NPR:

[People] want to be inspired. They want to aspire to something. [...] You can have the best product, the best service, the best argument in a debate[.] [...] But without the effective words you still lose. In the end you need good principles and good language if you are to succeed.

During Dr. Luntz' C-SPAN appearance, he discussed several politicians currently in the news and their communication strengths and weaknesses.  He began by discussing Governor Scott Walker and Walker's battle with the Wisconsin public employees' union.  Dr. Luntz stated that when the argument is framed over "collective bargaining rights," Governor Walker loses in the court of public opinion.  Luntz believed that the governor needed to start using words like "freedom" to join or not join a union.  Those were the words that would work.

But a funny thing happened in the week following Luntz' C-SPAN appearance.  Governor Walker won.  Not the argument -- the war.  And he won not by using the right words, but by signing legislation that ended collective bargaining for public-sector unions.  Amazingly, that was exactly what Governor Walker had said he would do during the campaign.  In the end, it didn't matter whether the governor used the word "freedom" or slipped and said the word "rights."  He won.

Meanwhile, a politician who impresses Dr. Luntz is Governor Christie of New Jersey.  Luntz calls Christie "real" and "direct" and ascribes Christie's success to the fact that "he doesn't sound like a politician."  Governor Christie, we're told, uses the words that work.  Lucky for the governor that the words that work just happen to be the truth, and the voters are ready to listen.

Could it be that we are entering a new phase in political communication -- one where candidates no longer have to memorize the "magic words" and where the electorate is expected to actually listen to more than slogans?  Governor Walker was elected not by chanting "Hope and Change," but by patiently explaining that Wisconsin is in a fiscal mess and that collective bargaining by the public-sector unions was partly to blame.  Governor Christie won the governorship of a deep blue state not by assuring the adoring masses that "we are the ones we've been waiting for," but by declaring that New Jersey's ship of state was about to capsize and that the grownups had arrived.

But not all politicians in 2011 have decided to toss aside the "words that work" messaging strategy.  A news story about Mitt Romney reveals that lately he has been going without a necktie and appearing in such venues as barbershops and the pit area of the Daytona 500, all in an attempt to "combat the image that he is unapproachable and stiff."  According to Dr. Luntz, in 2008, focus groups agreed that Romney won the primary debates as far as substance, but he lost when it came to style.  This election cycle, Romney is trying to show his more casual side, which Dr. Luntz tells us is not only of supreme importance to voters (along with "heart" and "empathy"), but also very much who Mitt actually is in private.

Now, I don't have a Ph.D., but I'm fairly certain that all of us are much more casual in private.  If Governor Romney does not get the Republican nomination in 2012, it will probably be due more to RomneyCare than to his decision to forgo neckties.

Poor Governor Romney.  For four years, he's been carefully weighing every sentence, searching mightily for the words that work.  And the deafening sound he hears is the entire punditocracy cheering themselves hoarse over the rotund governor of New Jersey, who seems to say exactly what he thinks.

A few years back, I had my own experience with the difficulty of finding the magic words.  After decades of bedside nursing, I decided to look for a position in hospital administration.  For the first time in my life, I experienced the behavioral interview.  I was given prompts like "Tell me of a time that you disagreed with a decision of your manager and how you handled the situation."  I hated it.  I would sit and think for what seemed like hours, desperately trying to come up with an answer that didn't make me sound like an idiot or a know-it-all.  After two or three of these torture sessions where I could never seem to find the words that work, I made up my mind that in the next interview, I would just be myself.

The job was in an area of administrative nursing I was only hazily familiar with.  The manager asked me why I wanted to work in her department.  I threw caution to the winds and said, "Because there's no nights, weekends, or heavy lifting."  Without missing a beat, she smiled and said, "And no holidays, either!"

I got the job.

Carol Peracchio is a registered nurse.
Frank Luntz -- pollster, political consultant, and author -- recently appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal program.  Dr. Luntz is a linguist (a "word nerd") best-known for his Instant Response dial sessions, in which focus groups listen to politicians or sales pitches and "dial in" their immediate responses to phrases or even particular words.  The group reactions are meticulously analyzed and the client presented with a summary of "words that work," which also happens to be the title of one of Dr. Luntz' most popular books: Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear.

As a political consultant, Dr. Luntz advises politicians on the words and phrases that will resonate the most with the electorate.  For example, he coined the phrase "death tax" instead of estate tax and suggested "opportunity scholarships" instead of vouchers.  His new book, Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary, explains the importance of the right message. In politics, even a single wrong word can be a game-changer.  As Luntz told NPR:

[People] want to be inspired. They want to aspire to something. [...] You can have the best product, the best service, the best argument in a debate[.] [...] But without the effective words you still lose. In the end you need good principles and good language if you are to succeed.

During Dr. Luntz' C-SPAN appearance, he discussed several politicians currently in the news and their communication strengths and weaknesses.  He began by discussing Governor Scott Walker and Walker's battle with the Wisconsin public employees' union.  Dr. Luntz stated that when the argument is framed over "collective bargaining rights," Governor Walker loses in the court of public opinion.  Luntz believed that the governor needed to start using words like "freedom" to join or not join a union.  Those were the words that would work.

But a funny thing happened in the week following Luntz' C-SPAN appearance.  Governor Walker won.  Not the argument -- the war.  And he won not by using the right words, but by signing legislation that ended collective bargaining for public-sector unions.  Amazingly, that was exactly what Governor Walker had said he would do during the campaign.  In the end, it didn't matter whether the governor used the word "freedom" or slipped and said the word "rights."  He won.

Meanwhile, a politician who impresses Dr. Luntz is Governor Christie of New Jersey.  Luntz calls Christie "real" and "direct" and ascribes Christie's success to the fact that "he doesn't sound like a politician."  Governor Christie, we're told, uses the words that work.  Lucky for the governor that the words that work just happen to be the truth, and the voters are ready to listen.

Could it be that we are entering a new phase in political communication -- one where candidates no longer have to memorize the "magic words" and where the electorate is expected to actually listen to more than slogans?  Governor Walker was elected not by chanting "Hope and Change," but by patiently explaining that Wisconsin is in a fiscal mess and that collective bargaining by the public-sector unions was partly to blame.  Governor Christie won the governorship of a deep blue state not by assuring the adoring masses that "we are the ones we've been waiting for," but by declaring that New Jersey's ship of state was about to capsize and that the grownups had arrived.

But not all politicians in 2011 have decided to toss aside the "words that work" messaging strategy.  A news story about Mitt Romney reveals that lately he has been going without a necktie and appearing in such venues as barbershops and the pit area of the Daytona 500, all in an attempt to "combat the image that he is unapproachable and stiff."  According to Dr. Luntz, in 2008, focus groups agreed that Romney won the primary debates as far as substance, but he lost when it came to style.  This election cycle, Romney is trying to show his more casual side, which Dr. Luntz tells us is not only of supreme importance to voters (along with "heart" and "empathy"), but also very much who Mitt actually is in private.

Now, I don't have a Ph.D., but I'm fairly certain that all of us are much more casual in private.  If Governor Romney does not get the Republican nomination in 2012, it will probably be due more to RomneyCare than to his decision to forgo neckties.

Poor Governor Romney.  For four years, he's been carefully weighing every sentence, searching mightily for the words that work.  And the deafening sound he hears is the entire punditocracy cheering themselves hoarse over the rotund governor of New Jersey, who seems to say exactly what he thinks.

A few years back, I had my own experience with the difficulty of finding the magic words.  After decades of bedside nursing, I decided to look for a position in hospital administration.  For the first time in my life, I experienced the behavioral interview.  I was given prompts like "Tell me of a time that you disagreed with a decision of your manager and how you handled the situation."  I hated it.  I would sit and think for what seemed like hours, desperately trying to come up with an answer that didn't make me sound like an idiot or a know-it-all.  After two or three of these torture sessions where I could never seem to find the words that work, I made up my mind that in the next interview, I would just be myself.

The job was in an area of administrative nursing I was only hazily familiar with.  The manager asked me why I wanted to work in her department.  I threw caution to the winds and said, "Because there's no nights, weekends, or heavy lifting."  Without missing a beat, she smiled and said, "And no holidays, either!"

I got the job.

Carol Peracchio is a registered nurse.