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It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear Thu 15 Mar 07

Words_that_workMy wife Bridget recently heard a radio interview with Dr. Frank Luntz about his new book and the power of words to shape our thinking.  She suggested that I read it and I always try to follow her suggestions for many reasons one of which is that they are always worthwhile suggestions.  Luntz's book Words That Work does a great job of helping you craft your message.  It is all based on one recurring theme which happens to be the subtitle of the book:

It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear

That is an extremely important concept -- considering our message from the listener's perspective and not our own.  As Luntz states,

You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices and preexisting beliefs.  It's not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant.  The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener's shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their mind and heart.  How that person perceives what you say is even more real, at least in a practical sense, than how you perceive yourself.

Fortunately, he provides us with Ten Rules of Effective Language.

Before we get to the 10 rules I should note Luntz does a lot of political consulting, primarily for the Republican party.  In the book he lists a number of political examples not as a political commentary but as an example of the point he is trying to make.  Don't get hung up on the politics.  This book isn't about politics, it is about language.  To further make this point 2 of the blurbs on the back cover are from Al Franken, and John Kerry neither of whom are known for their conservative Republican beliefs.

Even though much of the book is written in a political context it still has applications to the corporate world and IT.  Is asking for funding for a network and storage system upgrade all that different than trying to get people to vote for a bond issue for highway and bridge work?  Is trying to convince people to switch to new systems and technologies all that different from trying to change the political thinking on health care reform?  I don't think so.

So, on to Luntz's Ten Rules of Effective Language:

  1. Simplicity: Use Small Words - Don't make people stop thinking about your message to figure out what that word meant.  Simplicity counts.
  2. Brevity: Use Short Sentences - Sentences, or better yet - phrases, that are short and to the point are much more memorable than rambling, never-ending ones.
  3. Credibility is as Important as Philosophy - Your listeners have to be able to believe your message.  Don't say "New and Improved" if it really isn't.
  4. Consistency Matters - Repetition leads to credibility plus even though you've said it many times before it still may be new to someone in your audience.  Stay on message.
  5. Novelty: Offer Something New - Draw attention to your message and make it memorable by expressing it in a new way.
  6. Sound and Texture Matter - "A string of words that have the same first letter, the same sound or the same syllabic cadence is more memorable than a random collection of sounds."
  7. Speak Aspirationally - "Messages need to say what people want to hear."  You have to speak to their hopes, dreams and fears.
  8. Visualize - Use language that will help your listeners to see your message in their imagination.
  9. Ask a Question - A question involves the listener and makes them personalize your message.
  10. Provide Context and Explain Relevance - You need to explain the "why" as much as the "how" of a message.

Unfortunately space does not permit a more thorough review (a good reason to read the book).  Luntz does provide many examples both from the corporate and political world to illustrate each point.  One key thing to keep in mind is that it is unlikely that you will be able to incorporate all ten at the same time into your message.  However, the more of these that you can incorporate the greater your chances of success.

A real life personal example is the tagline of my blog.  I changed it to "Beyond Blinking Lights and Acronyms" at the start of the year.  Since I've changed the name I've received a fair number of favorable comments ranging from "great name" to the "greatest blog title ever" including some online comments from Scott Burkett at Potholes on the Infobahn (my personal favorite blog title) wrote - "great name, Mike!" and Mincus  from Management-College wrote "Love the new name of your blog!".  Jason Alba  at the JibberJobber blog went on to say -The title is Beyond Blinking Lights and Acronyms - which says “I understand IT but I’m not the “throw-the-pizza-under-the-door-and-leave-me-alone-geek.” which shows my message was received.  I'm not doing this to brag (OK, maybe just a little) but to illustrate Luntz's points.  Although I didn't know it at the time I seemed to have stumbled onto a number of his rules to one extent or another with this new tagline.

  • #1 Simplicity
  • #2 Brevity
  • #3 Credibility
  • #5 Novelty
  • #6 Sound and Texture
  • #7 Speak Aspirationally
  • #8 Visualize

In reviewing the my site visitor statistics I've seen a number of occurrences where someone came to my site by googling the phrase "beyond blinking lights".  Apparently it is memorable.

Now compare that to the old title, "Management of Information Technology for Strategic Alignment with the Business".  The only comment I ever received on that title was from Dan Sweet  over at the FRACAT blog who said it "sounds like something out of a 1960’s era military job descriptions manual".  OUCH!  As painful as this was, it fortunately was enough to make me do something about it.  In looking at this title in comparison to Luntz's 10 rules it looks I managed to violate all ten.  And I don't recall ever seeing any visitors come in by googling that title or any part of it either.  Thanks Dan, I needed that.

A lot of our success in IT depends on how well we communicate with our constituents.  Don't let your language hinder your message.  I'll leave you with two suggestions:

  1. Listen to my wife Bridget's suggestion - Read the book.
  2. Always remember - It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear

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