PRe-existing PRisms

Frank Luntz

Frank Luntz

Many of us have books we keep meaning to read. Mine have been “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo and “Words That Work,” by Dr. Frank Luntz. Since Hugo’s book is approximately 1,500 pages and is in French (English translation available!), I opted to finally purchase Luntz’s 267-page tome.

I’m an admirer of political and public opinion strategist Frank Luntz. I often watch his political commentaries and follow him on Twitter. Luntz’s clients are primarily Republicans, although he’s worked for various politicians and business leaders around the globe.

The subtitle of “Words That Work” is “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” Luntz frames his philosophy nicely in the book’s introduction; it’s an approach that should guide every public relations practitioner and professional communicator. “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 pre-existing beliefs,” he wrote. “The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener’s shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their minds and hearts.”

Luntz’s quote reminds me of a bullet point PR guru Fraser Seitel used in his textbook, “The Practice of Public Relations.” In a chapter on crisis management, Seitel instructs us to “plan from the outside in,” noting that the external environment, not internal strategies, should dictate how we select our priorities when communicating. Because we have to communicate through our target audiences’ pre-existing prisms, we should try to see issues the way they will see them before we can effectively craft our messages.

With its more than a million words, the beauty and the challenge of the English language is that there are so many ways to express an idea. I’m looking forward to discovering Luntz’ success in finding the words that work for us. As PR professionals, we must be very tactical when planning how we’ll use the language to engage and motivate our audiences. Your thoughts?

43 responses

  1. I recently had a presentation in my honors seminar with Professor Allison. I was used to presenting with a PPT, where each slide fully elaborating every bullet point I intended to talk about, never diverging from the script. For once, through thanks to an accumulation of everything I’d learned this semester in the class, I realized that this method of presenting was incredibly boring for the audience. It was cheap, easy, and predictable, and though that meant an easy public speaking hurdle for me, it meant an incredibly dull, even forced listening for my classmates. For the first time, I considered what my audience would want, and tiered my presentation to them. I aspitred to meet our goals halfway so that I could get my message across, while my peers could experience something they felt was worthwhile. Needless to say, my presentation went great. My peers walked away with new knowledge, and I walked away with a greater sense of what it means to truly communicate with a crowd.

  2. Dr. Frank Luntz is a brilliant man, and I will always remember watching the documentary about him in class. I think that, especially in this day and age, words and how we use them are extremely powerful. Sometimes, we may end up walking a thin line between choosing words that will make our point stick out more, and constructing a lie. We, like Luntz, need to realize that line and walk it carefully, because lying in PR obviously would likely end one’s career. That being said, one can definitely take a lot from Dr. Luntz’ work, because there aren’t many other people with the ability to influence public opinion through clever speech like him. One’s audience is going to read every word as its written, not how it’s meant, so careful selection is key.

  3. Words are a very tricky thing, because although some may get your message, others will misinterpret them. I don’t believe we will ever find a way where we all understand something in the same way. Just like each word is different but some share similar meanings, people are also different even if they share similar qualities. Writing through text is one of the biggest ways the true meaning gets blurred, because the person reading it interprets it how he/she wants to. If spoken, it can still be taken out of context but because you can see the person’s reaction, you can try to fix it.

  4. Communication everything for PR and it is interesting to think how fragile it is and how careful practitioners have to be. To ensure that communication between practitioner and audience is always correct and “polite,” homework is needed. A practitioner must know their audience, the culture, even the environment and platform, inside and out to ensure the proper usage.

  5. Deana Meccariello | Reply

    This relates very well to the workplace. In everyday dealings with employees, colleagues and superiors it is important to know who your speaking to and how they perceive what is being discussed. To ignore those factors would be a nail in the coffin of your career.

  6. Gabrielle Furman | Reply

    The way a message is put out is very important. This will determine if the audience will pay attention, understand the message, or just not have any interest. In the blog it mentions to put yourself in the audiences shoes to give your message. I think this could be good because it shows that you could relate to them and will show that they are important too and not just people listening.

  7. I think it is important for organizations to plan from the outside in. What seems like a genius idea/messaging to the internal organization strategists might not resonate with the intended audience for the specific project. It is so important to do research on a perspective audience to see what they like and build a plan with the appropriate messaging around that information that will succeed. A lot of times companies will have campaigns with messaging that fails because the appropriate research was not done. A company should consider testing ideas on a focus group in order to get more insight as to what the intended audience prefers and does not prefer.

  8. I think it is great how you find this man’s words to be so wise and useful for all public relations professionals. After reading your blog I can see why this man’s book is so appealing to you. He mentions many handy tips including the subtitle of his book, which is, “it’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” This stood out to me because people often speak, but people hardly listen. It is not all about people speaking, it is all about people hearing and actually listing to what the other person have to say. This relates heavily to the profession of public relations.

  9. I completely agree… but I think that it can be hard sometimes to decipher what will stick with the audience and what will not. Sometimes when I see videos go viral I question what was so special about that specific video? What makes it different than other videos that people upload? I feel like it is difficult to find that one thing that will make a message clear and loud to its audience, and maybe sometimes its luck?

  10. i have had countless professors tell me over the years the importance of good writing. Be it music, business, or PR, i’ve had professors in each field explain to me how clear, correct, and concise writing can determine whether you receive a job offer or you do not. In todays world with social media it is more important then ever to be a good writer because you need to grab a readers interest and with so much information being thrown at people only a few writings truly stand out above the rest.

  11. Planning your message to effectively reach your target audience is always important. Choosing your words wisely to make sure you can relate it on the same level as your audience is the key to creating a successful message in PR and within the general writing and communication field.

  12. I have watched a few clips online about Dr. Luntz and how he picks key words. His technique is really interesting because he finds words that peek peoples interests. He does studies using groups of people where he has them watch a speech or something he wrote and the audience holds sensors to show how they are feeling through out the speech. The chart readings show where the audience becomes engaged and it allows Luntz to pick out words that are used to give listeners a good feeling. I think his book is definitely going to be one worth reading.

  13. In PR 261 we watched a brief video of Luntz conducting a focus group, where he listened and watched people react to different prompts. It was interesting to learn just how important it is to craft messages to your external audiences. You can say the exact same thing to a group of people, but based on a variety of factors, people will hear and interpret what they want. I agree that PR professionals must find words that work for them and try to get pass those pre-existing prisms that the audience may have, in order to effectively communicate key messages.

  14. As a PR professional you have to write properly, you have to think about what to say, and how your audience will react. “Planning from the outside in,” is now one of my favorite quotes because it tells us what PR professionals should do in a simple way.

  15. The way you communicate a message is key. You have to make sure the message is being conveyed in the correct way to the correct audience.

  16. The quote “It’s not what you say, its what people hear,” is so relevant to PR and, in general, to today’s society. With all the social media and easy access to information, we will believe anything we hear because it’s easy. We are so use to getting information when we please.

  17. I actually learned about Frank Luntz in another class this semester and I think he makes some fantastic points. You can never guarantee how the audience is going to take what you write. I think when it comes to people working in the PR world, or in the world of communication as a whole you do need to be careful with how you say things, but you can’t really worry too much about it because everyone receives things different with how they think and their perspectives.

  18. The quote you posted, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” is very accurate and appropriate in terms of PR. You always are trying to please your external environments and audiences. People always will have their own views and opinions and you need to remember the different ways people will take things in their own contexts.

  19. I completely agree with Luntz’ point about putting yourself into the receiver’s mindset before crafting a message. We need to understand that not everyone sees our client in our point of view. Obviously, we are passionate about the company or person we are representing, but the receiver may not feel the same. Trying to disconnect ourselves from our personal feelings and seeing it from the outside will help construct effective messaged for our audiences.

  20. I find Luntz’s quote “It’s not what you say, its what people hear” to be very interesting and true. You really can have an amazing message, but if it doesn’t speak to some of your publics, you haven’t really created the best possible message. This proves to be a tricky, but very important aspect of public relations.

  21. It can be extremely difficult to see something from someone else’s pint of view especially if you have different view points. As a or professional for the American Cancer Society you must be passionate about cancer research but trying to convince someone who has never been touched by Cancer or have a love one effected by cancer can make is very difficult to examine it from a less emotional stand point.

  22. I agree – In PR (or any field) it is so important to express yourself in a very clear way. It is important because we are representing our clients with everything we say. Don’t give the media the opportunity to twist words. It seems best to plan our what you are saying and make yourself clear.

  23. I 100% agree that at the end of the day people walk away from something with their own personal interpretation. The subtitle of “Words That Work,” “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” is a great quote that I’ve learned this semester in my Argument and Debate course. Every week I debate my opponent, and realize that he is only hearing certain aspects of my speech. I could have answered a question that he said I avoided, or mentioned a point that he said I did not say. This all stems from an audience tailoring a message with their own emotions or pre-existing beliefs. This is exactly why we must “stuff” ourselves into the listener’s shoes so we could plan our message, or debate even, to how the listeners may interpret it. This also applies with public relations, and I love Siegel’s instructions to “plan from the outside in.” We need to remember that we should be communicating through our target audience’s pre-existing prisms, and therefore, should be seeing issues the way they would rather than the way we would. This is why it’s so important to have a clear target audience and a clear message.

  24. Frankly, I couldn’t agree more. David Hume suggests human beings observe the world through “filters” or constructs, developing in the brain from birth. They are what make each individual see the world differently, through their different filters. Luntz suggests that what one person hears from a set of words, may very well be quite different from what another person hears from the same set of words. This all depends upon what constructs each particular person has. I find his point extremely insightful. If PR’s main goal is to send messages to the public, it is crucial that professionals keep Luntz’s theory in mind; that they develop messages in the most sufficient way, in order to deliver the intended message, not a varied, altered one. This ties nicely to Seitel’s point. Messages should work from the outside in, not the other way around. If PR wishes to communicate with the external environment, their messages should be derived from the external itself. This will ensure the proper means of the message, with no miscommunications. In order to communicate with the public, we must be speaking the public’s language.

  25. I couldn’t agree more with Luntz and his advice. Its not what you say but how you say it. He has turned what may seem as basic communication skills into a precise and thought out art form. We must consider our audience and understand that no matter how hard we try, we cannot rid our audience of their own personal experiences and interpretations and so we must accommodate them. We need to know how to best combine what we want them to think and feel what they actually will think and feel after we say something. We want to change or create an opinion. For example, outside the communication and profession world, there are so many times where someone might apologize to us and we would say “they didn’t sound like they meant it” and its still the same two words, “i’m sorry,” but its the delivery and context of those two words. The same can go for any sales or PR pitch.

  26. I really like the quote Frank Luntz said, “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 pre-existing beliefs.” It’s how we work. The message always becomes twisted in our heads. For example, I believe McDonalds has realized this and that it’s affecting their business. They could have a great message about their food but because of preconceptions and pre-exiting beliefs it won’t matter. Their new campaign is “Our Food, Your Questions” This campaign gives the public the opportunity to ask any question they want about the establishment. Some questions were “Does McDonalds even sell real food?” and “What’s in a chicken mcnugget?”. This puts McDonalds in the spotlight and hopefully will clear all the preconceived ideas people have about McDonalds. It will be a successful campaign if the giant food establishment has a clean record.

    P.S. I just saw Les Miserables on broadway two weeks ago and it was amazing! But I would never be able to get through the book.

  27. I really liked the quote “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” because it is very true that communication and choosing one’s words is so important, not only in every day life, but as a PR professional too. One could have the best message in the world, but if one person misunderstands the message, it could mess up everything. The power of words is so enormous, which is why it is important to not only be careful of what one says, but to also make sure that one understands what his or her audience is thinking and write to that.

  28. This post raises a very interesting point. A written speech isn’t about the speaker as much as it about the audience. It is important to tailor each sentence and word in a way that the audience will resonate with. In a world where so many people feel strongly about different things, proper word construction is absolutely everything.

  29. An appeal to pathos is definitely one of the key elements in communicating with audiences. It is the way we present things that makes all the difference in this industry. You have to be able to step into your public’s shoes no matter how diverse they may be. You have to understand the public before you can get them to understand you.

  30. There are so many books I want to read, but keep putting off…….

    Choosing your words carefully is one of the most important aspects when writing for the public. Your message could can be misconstrued or misinterpreted, so the clearer the language is, the more likely it is that the public will understand exactly what you are saying.

  31. Linguistics fascinate me and they way in which we interpret words and phrases are a significant factor in the communication process. Perception is a subjective trait that is unique to every person and is influential in the decoding of key messages.Frank Luntz makes a very good point and I admire the research and studies he has done thus far. He has mastered the science of captivating and persuading an audience through strategic word choice. This shows the importance of knowing and understanding your target audience to get your intended message across.

  32. The quote from the book, “It’s not what you say, It’s what people hear,” is something that I especially liked form this blog post. Getting a message across is something that is so much more difficult than it would seem because everyone has preconceived ideas and opinions that it can be hard to get through to people. The PR field deals with so many different types of people that it is important to know how to say what to who in order to get your message across the way you want.

  33. I completely agree that when creating messages, the most important thing to keep in mind is the audience. This could not be more true when it comes to PR. All that matters about a message is how it is perceived; this is the aspect of communication that can make or break a campaign.

  34. I couldn’t agree more with this. In order to get through to all of your audiences it is so important to think of how each of those individuals will perceive your message that way you can tackle the message in the best way.

  35. When it comes to the PR profession and representing a client and speaking to the public, I believe it is in our best interests to know the correct words to say that are going to go over well with the public. As this is only my second year at Hofstra, Luntz has been brought up three times in different classes regarding his approach and word phrases he uses to get the publics attention. I think we’ve all heard our mother say, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it” and that’s especially important when it comes to communicating in our profession. The right words or word phrase can either sell a pitch story or get your letter thrown in the trash.

  36. When it comes to professional communication, I think it’s best to assume that your audience will take every word and face value and doesn’t have the ability to read into what you are saying. When you ensure that there is virtually no way for someone to contort your message, then you know that what you are trying to convey is clear and concise.

  37. I have thought about this a lot through out my life under many different circumstances. Many times growing up I would say things to my parents, friends, or family and they wouldn’t receive it in the way I intended. Just because I want a message to be understood a certain way doesn’t mean it will be taken by others like that. Many companies and influential people end up in a bind when they say something on social media or to the media and it is taken by the public in a way that is far from its intentions. Language and communication can become very complicated when emotions and understandings are brought into it.

  38. In any type of communication, it is always important to choose your words wisely. Anything you say can be misinterpreted or overlooked. Especially in public relations, it is important to express your ideas effectively and in a way that the public will respond to positively.

  39. Choosing the correct words to craft a message is very important. I really like Luntz’s philosophy. While you can be saying one thing, the audience can be hearing it in a different way. I also like the quote “plan from the outside in.” These professionals have a good way of expressing just how messages should be created. It’s not as easy as it seems.

  40. Courtney Zanosky | Reply

    I completely agree with the idea that there are so many ways to say things in the English language. That’s what makes it so hard for foreigners to learn — because so many things can express the same exact messages. It’s important for PR professionals to use that to their advantage because they can make things sound how they want them to with the use of differently formed sentences and word choices. The power of the English language is immense. (Also, I’m disappointed you didn’t choose Les Mis, I’m reading it now and it’s wonderful!)

  41. I was so wrong in thinking that PR had no writing involved. Most of what we do is writing. The thing is though the person reading on the other end can perceive it any other way, you have to be able to look ahead and craft your message the best way for the public to receive it.

  42. I was thinking about this while I was at work yesterday. It’s interesting how various people in different positions talk to fellow employees and comparing how the various people will speak to employees. Communication is so important and choosing your words wisely means everything. I wish more people realized this.

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