Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear

It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

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.

Words that work, whether fiction or reality, not only explain but also motivate. They cause you to think as well as act. They trigger emotion as well as understanding.

Ten Rules of Effective Communication

  1. Simplicity: Use small words
  2. Brevity: Use short sentences
    1. If one visual can say more than a thousand or ten thousand words, use it
    2. If your sentence has more than two commas, you have too many.
  3. Credibility is as important as philosophy
  4. Consistency Matters
  5. Novelty: Offer Something New
  6. Sound and Texture Matter
  7. Speak Aspirationally
    1. People will forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel
  8. Visualize
    1. The word imagine is perhaps the single most powerful communication tool because it allows individuals to picture whatever personal vision is in their hearts and minds
  9. Ask a question
    1. A statement, when put in the form of a rhetorical question, can have much greater impact than a plain assertion.
    2. Similarly, asking “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” puts direct pressure on the recipient of your complaint to see things your way.
  10. Provide Context and Explain Relevance
    1. In corporate advertising, as in politics, the order in which you present information determines context, and it can be as important as the substance of the information itself.

These, then, are the ten rules of effective communication, all summarized in single words: simplicity, brevity, credibility, consistency, novelty, sound, aspiration, visualization, questioning, and context. If your tagline, slogan, or message meets most of these criteria, chances are it will meet with success.

Preventing Messaging Mistakes

The problem with far too many male politicians and executives is that they tend to make everything into a sports analogy. In my years of interviewing women from all across the country and in all walks of life, I’ve consistently found that this drives women insane.

And the most effective , least divisive language for both men and women is the language of everyday life.

Several years ago I asked Americans whether they would be willing to pay higher taxes for “further law enforcement,” and 51 percent agreed. But when I asked them if they would pay higher taxes “to halt the rising crime rate ,” 68 percent answered in the affirmative. The difference? Law enforcement is the process, and therefore less popular, while reducing crime is the desirable result. The language lesson: Focus on results, not process.

Be the Message

Instead of trying to talk voters into seeing him as a hawk, Bush simply talked in a hawkish manner. Consequently, he came off as much tougher and more determined than the man with the multiple Purple Hearts. Show, don’t tell.