Thursday, January 01, 2015

Book Review - Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What PeopleHear

Decades ago I was sitting in my Sophomore High School English class and we had an unexpected visitor. A previous "English Sterling Scholar" for the school stopped by to visit with our teacher and he was asked to give us an impromptu presentation. He'd gone on to major in English and was currently doing an internship on a speech writing team for one of our state politicians in Washington D.C. I remember him saying that he had a lot of people telling him that his English degree would be useless and he should choose something else. He told us that they were wrong and that there were plenty of job opportunities for people with English degrees. In fact, he suggested that a degree in English would be vital since more and more the future will have a dire need for people with the ability to write, read and understand language. He talked a bit about his experiences with political speech writing as well as opportunities to be professional writers for executives, colleges, research groups and others. I didn't have a great passion for politics so even though the speech writing thing sounded fun, I focused more on his points that an English degree had value. By that time I'd more or less decided I wanted to study English literature and writing but I had no idea what career might come of it. I definitely don't credit his entire impromptu speech as the impetus for my educational choices, but he did help me feel more confident in my plans.

I was given the book "Words That Work" as a gift by someone who knows my love of language and writing. Just glancing at the title I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from the book but I dove in, eager to find out. The author, Dr. Frank Luntz may well be one of the "end results" of the path started on by my visiting English Sterling Scholar mentioned above. Dr. Luntz has a passion for language and has taken that passion not only to Washington D.C. as a speech and campaign writer but also to numerous high profile corporations and non-profit groups. He stepped beyond the "simple" role of being "just" a speech writer and has taken on a role of helping a person shape their language into the best possible form for the desired message.

Much of the book includes anecdotes and references to real-world experiences that the author had with some politician, executive, or other highly visible individual. Truly he has had a star studded career having worked with US President's, Congressional/House Majority leaders, Fortune 100 Executives and Hollywood stars. Many of his stories were rather funny even if only for the unfortunate results of poorly structured language. I had a hard time relating directly to the many examples that were deeply entrenched in political or corporate dealings. still, the construction and results were intriguing.

The subtitle of the book "It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear" was the main focal point that Luntz returned to again and again. He presented a number of rules and bits of advice to help ensure your message is received in the way you intend. The first step, of course, is to make sure you are personally very clear on the desired message. After that, you need to very carefully and methodically analyze and choose words with special focus on your audience. Every listener comes with his or her own paradigms or prejudices which can taint certain words or cause even a seemingly simple and straightforward message to be misunderstood.

I really appreciated the analytic and in-depth way the author presented his ideas and backed them up with examples. The difficulty for me remains in how to take some of these higher concepts and their political/corporate examples and incorporate them into my own life in an effective way. Many of his examples include extensive studies with focus groups to examine and analyze reactions. A lot of his rules have to do with large scale speeches and presentations to large audiences such as a community council, corporate board members or even the entire nation.

As an individual non-political/executive person, many of the concepts are just too nebulous to easily translate into daily life. Fortunately, the last few chapters in the book include some examples meant for the "everyman" (or 'every-woman') such as how to talk with a police officer after being pulled over for speeding, how to schmooze your way past the concierge/greeter at a full restaurant, etc. Some of the examples and usage felt a little trite or at the very least unbalanced when compared with the examples throughout the rest of the book, but I was relieved that he at least made the effort.

He also included a section showcasing some of the most important words and phrases for the new century/decade/etc. In various sections of the book, some of his concepts felt a little dated. These "important words" sections felt even more dated than others. Some of the words he pointed out as being "new" have already become so entrenched in our collective vocabulary that they feel old. Others already feel a little antiquated. This just serves to emphasize a point that Luntz makes in saying that language is changing more and more rapidly and we have to do our best to keep up with an ever changing lexicon. He talks about the generational changes as Baby Boomers are retiring and dying off while Generation-X, Generation-Y, Millennials and other groups are bringing their own patterns of speech and mindsets.

Overall, I found this to be an interesting read. At times it felt a little too academic or that the examples and suggestions were too distanced from me as an "everyman" reader. But I definitely appreciated and enjoyed reading about his concepts of how to frame your words with the audience in mind and the suggestion emphasized by the subtitle that your message may not always be as clear to others as it is to you.

3 out of 5 stars

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