Scoop Review of Books

Words that Move Public Opinion

Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by Frank Luntz

wordscgi.jpegFRANK LUNTZ is the propagandist who sold Republicanism and Bush to the United States. He prepares congress leaders for televised debates and advises senators on how to employ language to their advantage. In Words That Work he tells us how he uses words to move public opinion. Not surprisingly, Words That Work has ignited controversy. Even people who haven’t read the book are writing reviews of it, and the word ‘Luntz-speak’ has become synonymous with lying. Last year, the US News and World Report
created the ‘Pimp my candidate’ project to get advice from Luntz for current political candidates (Bedard, Gilgoff & Marek, 2007).

I am not a supporter of right wing politics, however, there is something about this book that is seductive. Luntz is intelligent—he has a doctorate from Oxford University and lectured at prestigious universities. His style is straightforward, elegant and witty.

To be sure, his opening advice on the 10 characteristics of effective communication repeats information that writers may already know. Yet Luntz drives his points home with fascinating examples, such as the language used by the defence pathologist in the O. J. Simpson trial, and insightful conversations with screen writer Aaron Sorkin.

He also provides new material, including his market research on words and phrases that powerfully affect people. Luntz uses dial sessions to get participants’ moment-by-moment, visceral responses to words. Top of the list for a favourable effect on listeners is ‘imagine’, followed by ‘hassle-free’. ‘Re-words’ also score highly, especially ‘renew’,
‘revitalise’, and ‘rejuvenate’.

Luntz’s most controversial material is about how he helped Republicans sell unpopular policies by altering their language. He is responsible for changing the phrase ‘drilling for oil’ into ‘energy exploration’ and for advising those wanting to abolish the ‘inheritance tax’ to call it the ‘death tax’.

Repeated throughout the book is the refrain, ‘It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear’. Luntz notes that, once words leave politicians’ mouths, they are interpreted by listeners’ imaginations—especially by journalists who translate them into stories. ‘The act of speaking,’ he concludes, ‘is not a conquest but a surrender’ (p. xiv).

Towards the end of the book Luntz comes across as slightly dislikeable, as he advises us on how we can use language manipulatively: to board an aeroplane after the door has closed, and get a table at a packed restaurant.

Not everyone will like this book. Feminists may feel tight around the collar while reading Luntz’s advice to men on how to apologise to a woman by giving flowers, and New Zealanders—steeped in a tradition of modesty—may squirm at his frequent name dropping. Also, Luntz’s wit can be scathing, such as his criticism of earlier Republicans for looking like morticians (‘people that my mother wishes I dressed like’ [p. 94]).

Wordsmith or huckster, scholar or manipulator, Luntz emerges in this book as a more fascinating figure than the politicians he advises. Perhaps that was his purpose all along.


HEATHER KAVAN is a communication lecturer at Massey University

Bedard, P., Gilgoff, D. & Marek, A. (2007). Obama-rama: A mix of hope and change. US News and World Report, 142(4), 14.

The above review first appeared in the Pacific Journalism Review.

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