Come Whisper in My Ear, Words I Want to Hear

I don’t know how I got so lucky, but suddenly I find myself bombarded with rules about how […]

I don’t know how I got so lucky, but suddenly I find myself bombarded with rules about how to write SO YOU CAN BE HEARD just as I am attempting to edit a couple books.

Thought I’d share them.

From Frank Luntz’s WORDS THAT WORK: IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY, IT’S WHAT PEOPLE HEAR we have these ten. The examples are my summarization given on Twitter, and thus all under 140 characters, except ironically rule 2, brevity, in which the negative example required its own tweet.

Ten principles of effective language.

Rule 1. Simplicity: Use Small Words. Don’t use words you have to look up, because most (people) won’t.

Rule 2: Brevity. Use short sentences. Good: Just do it! Bad: John Kerry “a bold progressive internationalism that stands in contrast to the belligerent and myopic bush administration”

Rule 3: Credibility is as Important as Philosophy: “Ultimate driving machine” “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Both catchy… both true?

Rule 4: Consistency matters. “It’s the real thing” 1943. “The breakfast of champions” and “M’m M’m Good” 1935. “Good to the last drop” 1915.

Rule 5: Novelty. Volkswagon (and now Mini’s) promoting small when everyone else is pushing big.

Rule 6: Sound and texture matter. “Snap, crackle pop” “intel inside” “quicker picker upper” “think different” … beauty before accuracy.

Rule 7: Speak Aspirationally. “A diamond is forever” “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I think Obama read this book.

Rule 8: Visualize. “melts in your mouth, not in your hand” The secret to visualization is the word “imagine” The work is done by the reader.

Rule 9: Ask a question “can you hear me now” “got milk” “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Passive becomes interactive

Rule 10: Provide Context and Explain Relevance: From “Have it your way” in 1973 to “No late fees ever” from Netflix today: Be relevant

You can’t help but notice that rules 1-5 are all Strunk, while 6-10 are all White, if you are a fan of The Elements of Style.

Next up, from Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Dieb by Chip and Dan Heath. This site is lousy with free examples, btw. Thus the below is a direct excerpt from the book.

Six Principles of Sticky Ideas


How do we find the essential core of our ideas? A successful defense lawyer says, “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.” To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentlessly prioritize. Saying something short is not the mission — sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound. The Golden Rule is the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.


How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across? We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counterintuitive. A bag of popcorn is as unhealthy as a whole day’s worth of fatty foods! We can use surprise — an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and cause focus — to grab people’s attention. But surprise doesn’t last. For our idea to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity. How do you keep students engaged during the fortyeighth history class of the year? We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically “opening gaps” in their knowledge — and then filling those gaps.


How do we make our ideas clear? We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. This is where so much business communication goes awry. Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions — they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images — ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors — because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language: “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.


How do we make people believe our ideas? When the former surgeon general C. Everett Koop talks about a public-health issue, most people accept his ideas without skepticism. But in most day-to-day situations we don’t enjoy this authority. Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves — a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas. When we’re trying to build a case for something, most of us instinctively grasp for hard numbers. But in many cases this is exactly the wrong approach. In the sole U.S. presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable Statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”


How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something. In the case of movie popcorn, we make them feel disgusted by its unhealthiness. The statistic “37 grams” doesn’t elicit any emotions. Research shows that people are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions. Sometimes the hard part is finding the right emotion to harness. For instance, it’s difficult to get teenagers to quit smoking by instilling in them a fear of the consequences, but it’s easier to get them to quit by tapping into their resentment of the duplicity of Big Tobacco.


How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories. Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by doing so they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations. Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

Finally, from George Orwell’s Poitics and the English Language. Interestingly he also said “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.”

“I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”