Say What They Want to Hear — And, if Possible, Mean It | Wall Street Journal | 01.23.07

A few weeks after President Reagan delivered his 1988 State of the Union address, Dick Wirthlin, the president’s pollster, met with the White House speechwriting staff, of which I was a member. In the first and only presentation of its kind to Reagan’s writers, Dick shared the results of a new polling technique: pulse, or dial, testing.

Forty or 50 randomly selected voters had been assembled to watch the State of the Union address. Each was given an electronic response device. Twisting the dial to zero meant that the listener hated what was being said and 10 that he couldn’t get enough of it, with the numbers in between registering gradations of response. Results were averaged and appeared as a temperature chart line over a linear printout of the text.

To prepare the speech, Tony Dolan, the head of the speechwriting office, had given each writer a section to draft, with Tony editing the parts into a final whole. As it happened, a phrase I had written regarding volunteer and nonprofit local organizations — “a thousand sparks of genius in a thousand communities” — had caused the temperature line to blow through the top of the chart. “We need to keep an eye on this one,” Dick said of the formulation that later, in other hands, morphed into “a thousand points of light.”

It was the beginning of the now common practice of isolating through dial tests the exact phrases to which the public responds, then playing them back in speeches, statements and advertising. Pollster Frank Luntz calls these hyper-tested terms “words that work.”

Mr. Luntz emerged as a celebrity pollster after serving as an adviser to Ross Perot’s successful effort to sink President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 re-election bid and Newt Gingrich’s successful 1994 effort to end the 40-year Democratic Party hold on the House. Now he has produced, in “Words That Work,” a book that offers his prescriptions for public communications, political and otherwise.

It would be easy to use a few words-that-work to lampoon this volume. Far from original, Mr. Luntz’s central theme — “It’s not what you say; it’s what the public hears” — comes straight out of Dale Carnegie’s 1937 “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” His chapter on “Ten Rules of Effective Language” includes the essential ideas of Strunk and White’s 1957 “The Elements of Style.” In big, black-bordered boxes he admiringly quotes bland passages from two CEOs. These offer examples of “words that work,” Mr. Luntz asserts. But do they? Both men — Pfizer’s Hank McKinnell and Ford’s Bill Ford — have recently fallen victim to board revolts.

And Mr. Luntz displays an off-putting taste for glitz and glam. The opening scene finds him at the center of a 2004 Hollywood party in the home of trans-ideological “political-activist-to-the-stars” (Mr. Luntz’s term) Arianna Huffington. Mr. Luntz is the evening’s guru of honor, chosen to lecture the likes of Rob Reiner and Norman Lear (“luminaries of the Hollywood left”) on why George W. Bush then led John Kerry in the polls.

Yet despite the over-selling and self-promotion, “Words That Work” deserves an attentive read. Mr. Luntz offers a fair amount of good advice to anyone who must communicate publicly — most important, “be the message.” By this he means that if you want to talk the talk and be believed, you must walk the walk — which is to say, you must mean what you say and act on it. Integrity sells.

As the book develops, Mr. Luntz’s “words that work” turn out to be portals for his clients to think hard about what they and their opponents stand for and how to align their positions more closely with what their audiences actually care about. This isn’t hocus-pocus. It’s just the result of hard work, careful thought and empathy — the staples of all intelligent public discourse.

That’s the bright side of Mr. Luntz’s work. Then there is the dark side. Mr. Luntz describes the American people, on the whole, as ill-read, provincial, sullen and frightened. They are, he says, susceptible to mere rhetoric and responsive to arguably bogus appeals to values, no matter what the facts. True, his analysis of the 2006 election doesn’t fit this portrait: He sees former GOP voters as all too well informed about the performance of the last Congress and not liking it. Still, Mr. Luntz’s own public statements — and many passages in “Words That Work” — suggest that often, for him, communication is really just a form of manipulation. The left has focused on Mr. Luntz’s more cynical statements as proof that only the GOP’s masterly use of language — a product of his Machiavellian guidance — put the party in power.

The most prolific proponent of this evil-genius-to-be-copied view of Mr. Luntz is George Lakoff, a Berkeley professor of cognitive science and linguistics. In his 2004 volume, “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” Mr. Lakoff holds up Mr. Luntz as “the right’s language man.” Mr. Lakoff has made a name for himself by telling liberals that all they have to do is, in Luntz-like fashion, find the right words — the right “frame,” in his lexicon — and the public will tag along. This profoundly undemocratic view has won Mr. Lakoff a considerable following among Democratic Party leaders. Blurb contributors to “Don’t Think of an Elephant” include Howard Dean, George Soros and Robert Reich.

If they want to consolidate their recent victories, Mr. Luntz’s admirers on the left would do well to see in him the doer behind the cynic and self-marketer. Like focus groups and polling, dial testing is simply a way of listening. And leaders listening are part of responsive government. That’s when words work best.

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