We soon will be dragged into the 2012 campaign season. It’s time to get prepared so we can separate the wheat from the chaff, the substance from the rhetoric, the truth from the spin. What better way than to sneak a peak into the phrase tool box many candidates will use to craft their message?
Frank Luntz, a consultant who usually works for Republicans, is revered in political circles for his ability to polish a candidate’s “messaging” chops. Mr. Luntz is renowned for creating the phrase “death tax” to describe the federal inheritance tax and “government takeover of health care” to describe the Affordable Care Act. He also is known for advising candidates to use the phrase “climate change” instead of “global warming” and for urging them to assert that there is scientific uncertainty about the phenomenon.
He also recognizes brilliant messaging even when it’s from the other side. Mr. Luntz has said Bill Clinton was uncanny in his ability to see and hear what Americans were feeling and saying in 1992 and repeat it back to them, thereby persuading them that he understood their plight, the best way to win votes.
Mr. Luntz also has corporate clients. He recently published “Win: The Principles That Take Your Business From Ordinary to Extraordinary.” Rather than withhold the verbal tools for his big-ticket clients, Mr. Luntz has released what he says are the 11 words or phrases “that matter most in business, politics, the media and culture.”
The list includes “imagine,” with which candidates can inspire voters, he writes. It also includes “no excuses,” “I get it” and “if you remember only one thing …” The appeal of the first two is easy to understand in a political climate where the lack of accountability of elected officials to their constituents is a common sentiment among voters. The third is a clever way to sharpen a message.
“Uncompromising integrity,” he writes, is a way to boost the simple word “integrity” to new heights of credibility. And speaking of simple, “the simple truth,” which Mr. Luntz writes that he appropriated from billionaire businessman Steve Wynn, is the perfect set-up for assertions like: “The simple truth is we cannot spend more money than we take in,” or, “The simple truth is that government cannot fix all your problems.”
“Believe in better” comes from a satellite TV provider’s ad campaign, but Mr. Luntz notes that it has a broader power, somehow inspiring a confidence in a brighter future. It recalls presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s “America’s best days are yet to come,” Jesse Jackson’s “Keep Hope Alive” slogan and even Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can.”
The importance of believing in a better future, a better government, a better economy, even when trends suggest otherwise, is an important part of the nonlogical, “gut” connection candidates make with voters. This is part of the reason why candidates who were understood as intelligent, experienced and competent, like Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, lost.
Mr. Luntz writes that candidates will score voters craving a voice in decision making with the phrases “you decide,” “you deserve” and “real time.” “You decide” is crafted as an all-purpose rallying cry for those who feel cut off from government policymaking, and “real time” suggests the parameters for that voter scrutiny and input.
And finally, “let’s get to work.” This phrase works best when the candidate already has carefully rolled up the sleeves on his or her $150 shirt.
Keep score at home to see how many times these phrases are used.