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In the German novel, Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “Words are mere sound and smoke.” But is this really true? Hardly. Words carry meaning and ideas, so choosing them carefully is vital to getting your message across. Anytime you talk to people—at work or at home—you have to weigh your words because they convey a specific message that might not always be what you intend it to be. You need to understand how people will interpret your words in order for your message to stick with them.
You will also learn why John Lennon’s song Imagine was so successful, how effective language helped Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton become presidents, and how to talk your way out of trouble with a local police officer.
Big Idea #1: Similar words can prompt different reactions among different people – effective communication is about considering your audience.
Have you ever been in a situation where your words were misunderstood? Have you thought that one thing was being said, but the other person heard something else entirely?
If you have ever had this problem, there are likely some flaws in how you communicate. You’re not alone either; many people encounter misunderstandings in their daily lives and careers.
This is true because words have different meanings to different people. For example, “welfare” and “assistance to the poor” essentially mean the same thing. However, if you ask Americans whether or not we are spending too much on welfare (23%) or assistance for the poor (68%), it’s clear that these two terms hold differing connotations. So while “welfare” brings up images of “welfare queens” and wasteful government spending, “assistance to the poor” reminds people of charity and Christian compassion.
Effective communication isn’t about the objective meaning of your words, but rather how people understand them. It’s essential to consider their preconceptions, especially their beliefs and fears. One example is George Orwell who knew this well and used it in his book 1984. He wrote a passage that described Room 101 as a place where one confronts her greatest fears. Since everyone has different personal nightmares, Room 101 became associated with each reader’s individual nightmare.
Communication is key to inspiring people and getting them on your side. You have to make sure that the message you’re trying to convey comes across as intended, so it’s important to learn how best to communicate your ideas effectively.
Big Idea #2: Effective language is clear, simple and well organized.
How often do you look up a word in the dictionary? Many people don’t, but that’s okay. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated your language is if it isn’t understood. In order to be effective, we should stick with clear and direct wording. Effective language is easy to understand. However, there are steps we can take to make our language as effective as possible: using simple words and brief sentences; making sure our messages are easily understood by others; and remembering that shorter words have a bigger impact than longer ones. For example, Apple’s Mac computer was originally named Macintosh because of its simplicity (and also because of Steve Jobs’ admiration for former president John F Kennedy). Likewise, not following this rule can cause big problems—one reason why John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election was his inability to communicate effectively with voters due to his overly complicated speech patterns.
For example, he talked about how progressive internationalism is better than the belligerent and myopic unilateralism of Bush’s administration. People didn’t understand what that meant, but it was also important to explain why this message was relevant. He could do that by ordering his ideas correctly so people will understand them better.