Language and the words you use are extremely powerful. Saying the right thing at the right time, using the correct words, and choosing the right language to convey our thoughts, makes all the difference between winning a debate or losing one, escaping a parking ticket or facing a fine, and in more grave situations, getting acquittal in a murder charge case.

When it comes to making an impact and winning others over with words, we need to be able to choose the right words that get our ideas across efficiently. Words that Work (2007), by Dr. Frank Luntz explores the elements of language and how to leverage the spoken word to not only make our messages clearer but also to use them effectively, so that one may make a memorable impression.

Who’s The Audience?

It is a common occurrence when a person says something, but the words get completely misinterpreted, or the other person hears it completely wrong. Flaws in language, such as these, are made by almost everyone in their daily lives. This happens often because at times, different words, though having the same meaning can elicit completely different responses.

For example, the words ‘welfare’ and ‘assisting the needy’ broadly mean the same thing. In a poll conducted, 23% of Americans thought the country is spending too little on welfare, whereas 68 % of Americans thought that there is too little assistance for the needy in the country. This happens because of how the words are projected. ‘Welfare’ is often associated with rich ‘welfare queens’ and ‘wasted government expenditure’, ‘assistance to the needy’ brings forth images of charity!

Language is surely made up of words, but the words themselves are not more important than how they are understood. In reality, how others understand words is based on their perceptions, beliefs, fears, etc.

George Orwell’s famous 1984, plays on a reader’s deepest personal fears. in the book, he describes a ‘Room 101’ that makes the people who enter the room face their personal fears. The words ‘Room 101’, soon got associated with personal nightmares.

Words that Work (2007), by Dr. Frank Luntz
Words that Work (2007), by Dr. Frank Luntz

Clarity, Simplicity, And Organization Of Language

While everyone has access to a dictionary, few actually use it to increase their vocabulary. That is because others seldom understand those few who have a sophisticated vocabulary.

Language, therefore, should be simple, for it to be effective enough for others to understand easily. Thus simpler,  shorter words, are more important. For example, Apple’s Mac has more impact than its original lengthy name the Macintosh. Similarly, shorter sentences also make a bigger impact.

The importance of shorter sentences and words can be seen in American politics. Dwight Eisenhower’s’ ‘I like Ike’ campaign is still memorable for many, whereas, in 2004, John Kerry lost the election due to the fact that the average American couldn’t understand his sophisticated and complicated vocabulary. He simply couldn’t get his message across.

Along with clarity and simplicity, using the right words in the right order is equally important. The order adds relevance and context to any message. Thus without context, people will not understand what is being said. For example, while offering people a solution, telling them what the problem is will add context to the solution.

In 1920, Warren G. Harding won the election because his ‘back to normalcy’ campaign was apt for a post-World War I America. His solution – himself as President – was in context to the post-WWI America needing to get back to normalcy.

Appealing To The Senses And The Imagination

Language can help trigger imagination and can be used to appeal to our senses. Its power can be seen when a bunch of words such as a bear on a unicycle can fuel our imagination and appeal to our sense of humor by creating a vivid picture of a circus bear. Our brains find it difficult to resist the appealing nature of imagination. It tends to sensualize language that appeals to it. 

For example, in advertising, the sensuality of language plays an extremely important role. Advertisements for chocolate always use terms such as melting, soft, silky, rich, etc. These words appeal to our imagination, wherein we can visualize how soft and rich, and tasty the chocolate is while it appeals to our senses, making our mouth water and wanting to eat chocolate.

Imagination is all about creating one’s own personal vision based on one’s deepest emotions and desires. Imagination helps create a very powerful, personal image. this was exactly the reason behind the success of John Lennon’s Imagine.

Other factors of language that make something more appealing to the senses and thus trigger imagination are repetition, alliteration, and sonic quality of words. For example, M&M’s ‘Melt in your Mouth’ slogan uses the sound of ‘M’ to create an effect one can visualize, and the ’Snap, Crackle, Pop’  of Kellogg’s rice crispies makes one literally hear the sounds.

Addressing Emotions

Language has the most important power to influence emotions. Therefore, since the beginning, advertisements, movies, songs, debates, speeches, political campaigns, etc. all rely heavily on the power of language. When language or words can affect how a person feels, it can also have a lasting effect on one’s memory. Such a lasting effect on memory can be brought about by the humanization and personalization of language or words that apply, appeal to, or describe the personal and human emotions of people.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known ‘I have a dream’ speech had a humanization effect. It appealed not only to those in the black community but all Americans. Humanization and personalization have been well used in the fields of advertising and marketing for a long.

Questioning is another great way of using words and language to appeal to emotions. Questioning demands a direct answer. This, in turn, triggers people to engage in the thought processes that will lead them to a conclusion. They will be ultimately more interested and invested in the fact that they have arrived at the conclusion themselves, rather than being handed the conclusion on a platter. Discovering the answer themselves has a more profound effect.

When Ronald Reagan, during his presidential campaign questioned Americans, ‘Are you better off today than you were four years ago?’ his question, got people to think and realize that the country indeed had gotten worse under Carter’s Presidency. Reagan thus won the election.

The Credibility of Strong Language

Communication is all about the balance between old information (consistency) and new ideas (novelty). It is important to ensure that one strikes a balance between the two to ensure that the language that s used is effective to not only get one’s point across but also to ensure that the audiences’ attention is captivated.

When it comes to communication, especially in advertising, many companies and brands change their slogans too frequently, which is a mistake. No one can really remember the tagline of Coca-Cola instantly, unlike another brand like Wheaties for example. Their tagline “The breakfast of champions.” has stuck around since 1935, when it was created, whereas, Coca-Cola’s tagline was “Open Happiness” from 2009 to 2016, after which they changed to “Taste the feeling”. This is how consistency can make a difference.

Additionally, considering people get bored very easily, one needs to use novelty to grab attention. Volkswagen in the 1950s, successfully captured people’s attention by using a contradictory campaign “Think Small” at a time when cars were getting bigger. Yet contradiction has its pitfalls too. Any information or language that is perceived as contradictory to the generally accepted facts can be seen as fake. For example, Al Gore’s claim in the 2000 presidential election that he ‘invented the Internet’ became a joke! Thus authenticity is at the crux of strong language. Authenticity seen in action is more powerful than said in words, thus while one chooses the right words that seem authentic, their actions have to reflect the same.

Understanding The Audience

No bit of communication is effective if the communicator does not have a clear and full understanding of their audience. One has to know that they believe in, in general, what type of perceptions they have and what hopes do they have. 

For example, anyone communicating with (or advertising to ) Americans, should know that contrary to popular belief, the average American isn’t as educated as we think. In fact, only 29% of Americans over the age of forty-five hold a bachelor’s degree, and only one out of four 25-year-old Americans are college-educated.

The average American also does not vote on the basis of political agenda. Most cast their vote on the basis of character, trustworthiness, and image. George Bush knew his audience well. Thus, after the 9/11 attacks, he successfully conveyed the image of the determined, strong leader Americans wanted to see and thus, won the re-election.

Additionally,  it is also important to know how the audience perceives certain words. For example, Americans perceive the words ‘freedom’, ‘opportunity’, and ‘fairness’ very differently. ‘Freedom’, for example, is associated with the Republican party since it was most used during the George W. Bush administration. The Democrats use the word ‘fairness’ more. ‘Opportunity’ is perceived as a middle-of-the-road word with no political connotations.

Using Communication Effectively Daily

The most effective use of language is when it becomes part of a person’s daily usage; whether it using the right amount of ‘pleases’ and a believable, authentic, story to get the airport crew to re-open the aircraft door to let you in, or a  right-off-the-fly ‘I’m sorry, Officer’ when you get caught for speeding, or even if it is to get your colleague to do you a favor at work.

The most important aspect of effective language and communication is how the audience perceives the words and how they interpret them. Effective language is all about clarity, simplicity, organization, imagination, and sense appeal, addressing emotions with the right words, understanding the credibility of the language, and most importantly, understanding the audience that is being communicated to. These elements of effective language need to be put into practice daily.