Friday, January 12, 2007

Words That Word -- A Review

Words That Work by Frank Luntz (New York: Hyperion Books, 2007, US$24.95)

Over the last couple of days my movements have been severely restricted as I have undergone one of those unpleasant medical procedures that is fast becoming a rite of passage into one's more senior years. Work has been almost impossible, and at times even reading has been difficult. However, I did manage to complete reading Frank Luntz's book, Words That Work.

Luntz is a bright spark with the kind of gifts that are valuable (and obviously profitable) in an information and knowledge-driven society. The sub-title of his book is It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. This isn't a book that I would have even have known about, let alone picked up if I hadn't seen Dr. Luntz on C-SPAN early on Christmas morning after the cat had awoken me from heavy slumber demanding to be let out.

As Luntz says in his introduction, 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 (Page xiii).

All this is just plain common sense. After having introduced the idea he then sets out to clarify and illustrate from his experience as a consultant and pollster to politicians and commercial interests. I am not sure that if I were to know him that Frank Luntz would be exactly my cup of tea, but he is certainly a gifted communicator who has important lessons that all other communicators need to either re-learn or learn for the first time.

Luntz, who holds an Oxford doctorate, is a master at taking someone's message and helping them put it in words that speak to the people they are trying to reach rather than not be heard, or worse, be turned off altogether. He claims to be the one who guided the Republicans away from talking about Estate Taxes to Death Taxes, thereby gaining support for their policies, and to talk of Climate Change instead of Global Warming.

He is known among those who despise him, or have absolutely no time for him as an unrepentent spin meister, but that is not how he sees himself. As he says, I do not believe there is something dishonorable about presenting a passionately held proposition in the most favorable light, while avoiding the self-sabotage of clumsy phrasing and dubious delivery (Page xix). This is a fair response on his part.

The battle, he says, is about comprehension, and that means getting over ideas in the best possible way that we can, for all human enterprises involve ideas and the communication of ideas. The truth is that if your audience does not hear (or understand) what you are saying, then you are not going to win an election, sell a product, or enable someone to get excited about Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

I have spent my whole life falling in love with words and struggling how best to use them as a servant of Christ. While there is a lot that Frank Luntz says that I have discovered myself by trial, error, or study over the last few decades, it is always good to see these spelled out clearly and put in order within the context of the present cultural challenge as he does. I would say that Luntz's lessons are extremely helpful to just about anyone who has a passion to get across the message of the Gospel as well as those who want to sell more potato chips.

He begins by outlining ten rules of effective language, which means successful communication and he begins with simplicity. You can argue all you want about the dumbing down of America, but unless you speak the language of your intended audience, you won't be heard by the people you want to reach (Page 5).

I don't know how many sermons and how much Christianspeak I have heard that fails just on this ground alone -- and some of those sermons have probably been my own! To be honest, some of the worst communicators of what are in reality dynamic ideas are to be found in pulpits on a Sunday morning.

The he talks about how essential is the credibility of the communicator. Credibility is established very simply. Tell people who you are or what you do. Then be that person and do what you have said you would do. And finally, remind people that you are what in fact you say you are (Page 11). Much Christian failure in recent decades stems from the fact that we are not who we say we are neither do we seem to mean what we say, and you can point your finger at any Christian tradition for loads of examples illustrating this.

The saddest cautionary tale I know is of the man who was beginning to show and interest in the Good News and is invited by a friend to come and share in the life of his church. "Good heavens, no," the man responds, "I've got enough problems of my own already, why would I want to be part of the church?" The tragedy is of such a cautionary tale is that it is uncomfortably true.

But the fact is, Luntz tells us, even with the best will in the world we all have a tendency to make message mistakes, and often this is by making calamitous assumptions about where our audience is coming from. While Luntz does not accept the postmodern premise that words change their meaning depending on what the receiver of them is hearing, he does warn us that if we are to persuade then we should use language to inform and enlighten rather than obscure and exclude.

Our listeners' preconceptions through which they filter what we say are influenced by their gender, their education, their political affiliations and biases (or lack of them). It also depends on ethnic background, national origins, cultural and generational conditioning. These all need to be considered when we are about the business of trying to communicate. So he tells us to ask ourselves what we want the result to be and then to use language to aim at that outcome.

And we should not forget that as culture changes so do words change their meaning. This man has a good feel of youth culture, which is shaped by the streets and hip-hop, and also invites us to remember that email and the Internet have also played a role in coarsening our language.

We may deplore such a thing, and throw up our hands in horror, but the fact is this is the reality and we are called to communicate into this reality. Because many of us within traditions with an elistist bias do deplore such things, we ignore the reality on the ground and end up by being terrible communicators.

A number of years ago, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was in Moscow with Orthodox friends and broached the question of the Russian Orthodox Church's use of Old Church Slavonic rather than modern Russian for their liturgies. Old Church Slavonic is the Russian ecclesiastical equivalent of Chaucerian English, but several hundred years earlier. I suggested that it would be increasingly difficult to hold onto the hoards of young people thronging the churches because they did not understand what was going on. "Ah," I was told, "If they want to be part of the church then they will be willing to learn it." Old Church Slavonic might not be our problem, but there's a lesson here that we need to learn even as the liturgical revision language of the mid-20th Century ages while we use it.

Words That Work is readable and has lots of fascinating case studies from politics and commerce. It isn't difficult to see how Luntz's lessons translate into the language of the faith. As far as I have been able to discover there is absolutely no mention of faith and spirituality even when the author talks about morals and values. This should remind us that a huge proportion of the movers and the shakers do not have much interest in who we are and what we are about, especially when the message we proclaim is one thing, and then the way we live and behave directly contradicts it.

Words That Work is a helpful tool and its lessons can be applied in all sorts of settings. For a start, preachers and speakers would benefit from reading it, giving clues as to how they should project their message. It would be good to look at the contention in the church through its grid because I am convinced that a lot of the time we determinedly use words in such a way not to communicate with "the other side" but to deliberately rile them.

It should also be a challenge to us to keep studying language, studying the culture in which we use the language, and being prepared to make changes in order to communicate more effectively.

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