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Pollster Frank Luntz analyzes the country’s best communicators

Monday, January 22, 2007

HH: Joined now by Dr. Frank Luntz, one of America’s most influential pollsters. He has polled not just for political candidates and parties, but for public advocacy groups as well as CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies. He has a new book out called Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. Dr. Luntz, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show. It’s always a pleasure.

FL: This is really a pleasure. I’m very excited about the chance to do this with you, particularly one day before state of the union. And with all the corporate mess that’s out there, the timing could not be better.

HH: Well you know, I was just talking with Victor Davis Hanson for an interview that will air after this one, about what he wants the President to say tomorrow night. Frank Luntz, what do you expect him to say? What do you want him to say, if you are a fan of his agenda?

FL: Well, first off, the word surge was so inappropriate, because it only focuses people’s attention on the number of troops. What he should have talked about was a resetting and a realignment, resetting of where we stand, and a reexamination of the conditions in Iraq as they stand right now, and then a realignment of troops and resources, because if we reexamine and we reset and we realign, it’s more about the overall policy, the overall strategy of Iraq, rather than the troop count.

HH: And so, can he accomplish that in one state of the union address?

FL: Well, he had two opportunities at this. He had the speech last week as well as the speech tomorrow night. And I’m just nervous that this president is not really paying attention to how Americans react to his language, to the words he’s using, that they may sound great in the White House, but that they don’t sound so good to the American people 2,000 miles away.

HH: Now does anyone successfully communicate anymore, Frank Luntz, because yes, I agree with you, Bush’s message last week certainly didn’t get through, although it resonated with people like me who approve of the policy. But I don’t know that anyone gets through anymore.

FL: I’ll give you some examples. Newt Gingrich – we know how he left office. If you take a look at the book, you’ll see that Gingrich actually is one of the best communicators, because he causes people to rethink their positions. And while they may not like him as an individual, they absolutely appreciate his intellect. They appreciate his ability to communicate very comprehensive policies in a very clear cut fashion. Bill Bennett is a great communicator. Rudy Giuliani in talking about defense and foreign policy, he’s interesting. I use this dial technology, which people hold these units, they’re the size of a remote control, and they turn it up and down based on whether they agree or disagree. Rudy Giuliani doesn’t dial well, because he doesn’t speak in sentences, or even paragraphs. If you read his actual words, they’re not beautiful. But when you listen to what he says, you start to believe him. You’re intrigued by him. And so there are people who can communicate what the President’s trying to do. Unfortunately, they’re not given the chance to do it, and this White House needs to pay more attention to the words and phrases that it’s using, if it wants to generate more public support.

HH: I want to branch out a little bit from politics, because I think what you say on Page 163 of the book, that most of the those are forgettable, as are most campaigns, and even some of the candidates, when you’re reviewing the language of political campaigns. I think that is generally true about every brand in America, and every pitch in America, because the noise is so loud, Frank Luntz. Am I right about that?

FL: You’re absolutely right. We collect more information from more people from more sources, and no longer is it just television and radio and newspapers. Now, it’s on the web. And with all that information, very little cuts through. I’m going to say the name of the book again, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. The truth is, in the time that I spend with you, if that book title isn’t repeated…now I’m going to let you in on a secret, but if the book title isn’t repeated four times, your listeners won’t remember it.

HH: Oh, I think it’s actually…that’s why I always repeat the name of a guest endlessly, and the name of a book endlessly, so that people find out that it’s Frank Luntz, and that his book is Words That Work. But not a lot of people do that, do they, Dr. Luntz?

FL: They don’t, they don’t repeat it, and they don’t realize that at about the same time they get bored with what they’re saying, either as a Senator or a CEO, by the time they get bored, having repeated it so often, is about the very first time that the public has heard it.

HH: So who are the best communicators in America? They just don’t want to read Words That Work, but they want to model themselves on someone else, Frank Luntz. Who is that someone else?

FL: You’ve got some of these young politicians that probably most of your listeners will not have heard of. Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, brilliant communicator, I don’t think he’s 40 years old yet. To me, he looks like a Republican John Kennedy. On the U.S. Senate side, Richard Burr, the Senator from North Carolina. Some of the best communicators aren’t available. You don’t see them nationally at this point. They’re just coming up, but we need them really quickly.

HH: Now let me ask you about Robert Byrd. The fact of the matter is, he’s a source of great amusement to my audience. They’re a little bit stunned that you brought him up at this point, Frank Luntz.

FL: No, Richard Burr.

HH: Oh, Richard Burr, okay. Thank goodness I heard that, because I was about to say Frank Luntz has lost him mind, and I’ve never thought…

FL: No, Robert Byrd has lost his mind.

HH: Yes, he has. Okay, what about in corporate America. Who is communicating effectively? Again, politics aside, who gets a message through?

FL: Jack Welch was very effective at GE, and people though he was so direct and so blunt, and yet they appreciated what he said, and he was very credible in his messaging, because you could understand it. And Welch talked about the one value that the public doesn’t see enough in politics, or in corporate life – accountability.

HH: Now there’s an anecdote that I love in your book, on Page 134, Steve Wynn renaming his hotel to make it accessible to people. How often does corporate America persist in a bad brand, because they’re stubborn or they’re lazy?

FL: Well, the difference between Steve Wynn and the Coca-Cola company is the difference between night and day. Coca-Cola did not understand it, and it did not pay attention to research that would have showed that there is a tie-in, just as if you like Las Vegas, you love Steve Wynn for all that he has done. If you like cola drinks, you have a connection, or you had a connection with Coca-Cola. But the company didn’t understand it. It launches new Coke, it doesn’t matter whether it tasted better in taste tests. People have a relationship and an identity to things that are traditional, to things that we’ve grown up with, and we don’t like change when it comes to our products and services, even if we want change when it comes to our politics. And so Wynn changed to Wynn Las Vegas, because he discovered the power of his own name, that people were willing to pay more, and wanted to be associated with the impresario of Las Vegas, the true creator. And I’ve got to tell you something. There are three people that I have heard in my life, that have the most incredible voice, and the most incredible vocabulary: Orson Welles, Richard Burton, and Steve Wynn.

– – – – –

HH: Frank Luntz, I think the most effective communicator in America is Oprah Winfrey. She’s got the best brand, she emotes the best, she connects the most quickly. Why does she work?

FL: You know, you get it. You absolutely get it. I didn’t even think of that. Whenever I’ve asked questions of who’s the most credible person, ten years ago when I first asked that question, it was Bill Cosby. Today, it is Oprah Winfrey, but she’s the most credible for women, not necessarily for men, and that’s because even though she’s so wealthy, and been so successful, and really doesn’t live the life that the average woman lives, they see in her someone who has succeeded, someone who has struggled in a man’s world and done quite well, the language she uses, she speaks…you know, quite frankly, she makes love to the camera. She’s always got that love affair. You feel like she’s talking to you directly. And her messaging, her language, is absolutely spot-on, not just for the professional woman, but also for the woman who works at home.

HH: Now the reason I brought her up first is I want to go through your ten rules, which I agree with almost entirely, and use her as an example of how they are manifest in tremendous communication. Rule number one, simplicity.

FL: And by the way, the reason why I wrote this book, and I say this to your readers, I wrote it because of…in terms of simplicity, the Republicans are going to lose, and I don’t mean to upset anyone who’s listening, but the Republicans are going to lose unless they simplify and clarify their language in 2008.

HH: All right.

FL: Right now, the latest Newsweek poll has them down 20 points in the presidential race. 2006 can happen once again. That simplicity, it means that whatever you say should be clearly understood by the person you’re speaking to. The average American has not graduated from college, therefore you’ve got to simplify the message so it’s clear and concise.

HH: And how does Oprah do that?

FL: She does it by using very small…honestly, she uses very small words, and she does so in a very amusing way. She brings people in so that they pay attention to what she’s saying.

HH: Frank Luntz, brevity.

FL: Brevity, something that I’m not so good at. It’s basically getting to the point. It’s where Senator Biden has so much trouble.

HH: Trouble? (laughing)

FL: Okay, he’s the Fidel Castro of American politics.

HH: Yeah, that’s like calling a tsunami a gentle wave…trouble.

FL: But we’re looking for…and this is why George Bush was so effective in 2004. You knew exactly where he stood. He could give you ten words about winning the war on terror, and you knew where he stood, and the majority of the American people supported that.

HH: And how does Oprah use brevity?

FL: She doesn’t, actually, because her stories are very heartfelt. This is one example where she isn’t effective at that, but no one holds that against her, because she’s so interesting. She’s intriguing, is the word I would use.

HH: Credibility is your third rule.

FL: Credibility means that they have to believe that you say what you mean, and mean what you say. Credibility has…

HH: Oprah follows through with $40 million dollar donations, yup.

FL: And that’s exactly…and when Oprah speaks, she’s the most powerful endorser. It’s why everybody buys books. If I could get Oprah to say Words That Work on her show, I’d sell a hundred thousand books.

HH: Consistently.

FL: They expect you to not switch your position. That’s why John Kerry was devastated in 2004. He was on both sides of the war, he was on both sides of leave no child behind, he was on both sides of welfare reform. If the guy had been elected president, he would have delivered the state of the union address and the rebuttal the same night.

HH: Now I’m not going to go through the rest, because we’ll run out of time. People need to pick up the book, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, if they want to get Dr. Luntz’ rest of this. But I want to talk about some particulars. Rush Limbaugh communicates with humor, brevity, all of your rules. Is that why he is the largest single market on the center-right?

FL: It’s why he is so loved, and it’s also why he’s so hated. The left realizes how effective he has been, that he created…he basically is the equivalent of Will Rogers of our generation, because he tells stories. He doesn’t just state political points of view. If you listen, he always gives the parable, in essence. He would have been a great minister, if that’s what he went into, because he’s so engaging.

HH: Now a last question.

FL: And the problem with the Republicans…and by the way, it sounds like he’s having fun, as do you.

HH: Yes, yes. Well, I do, and he does, and you’re right. Now we’ve got three first tier candidates. You’ve already talked about Giuliani in favorable terms on the Republican side. What about McCain? And what about Romney? And their communication abilities?

FL: John McCain’s interesting, because he’s getting lower and lower key on his TV interviews to the point where I expect six months from now, we won’t even hear him. I watched him on Russert yesterday, and they were trying to give him a hard time, and his voice got softer and softer…actually, it may not have been Russert. It may have been CBS. I’m not sure…

HH: It was Russert, it was Russert.

FL: He was so laid back, and his voice got down here.

HH: Okay, 20 seconds on Romney.

FL: Romney, the key for Romney, is to be able to talk about…in his case, it is credibility. It’s getting the job done not just as a politician, but also what he did in business, what he did in the Olympics. We are looking for someone who makes business sense, not just political sense, and that’s Mitt Romney.

HH: Dr. Frank Luntz, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, I look forward to talking to you again soon about so much that we didn’t have a chance to today.

End of interview.

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