Words Matter

Yesterday at the Milken Institute Global Conference, Frank Luntz challenged business and political leaders alike to “mean what you say and say what you mean.”   He says it’s not about brand, it’s about trust and if we’re ever going to inspire public confidence, we’ll have to restore public trust first!

In framing the current environment, Luntz started with business, noting that 39% of people have little to no trust in companies, 47% don’t trust the CEO and that anything big is widely regarded as being bad.  When it comes to politics, 57% of the American public believes Washington is broken and cited Congress’s abysmal approval rating.  It’s among the reasons Luntz believes President Obama will be re-elected.  Not because people agree with him, but because they are more angry with Congress than with the White House, and they see the President as a victim of the current legislative dysfunction.

Other notable statistics Luntz offered to frame the current situation include:

  • 68% of Americans believe the “1%” took advantage of the other 99%.
  • When asked “Are our best days behinds us?” 44% responded yes, 45% no, and 10% offered no opinion
  • 70% believe they are better off than their parents
  • Only 34% believe their kids will be better off than they are
  • 72% “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore”

Luntz believes that the core of America’s anger lay in this lack of “generational confidence.”

In describing what people really want from us, he offered these five attributes:

  • Accountability
  • Fierce Integrity/Principles
  • Respect
  • Focus on the Future
  • Measurable Results

Understanding these attributes will be essential to rebuilding trust.  And the words we use to frame our messaging matter because it isn’t what you say so much as what your audience hears.  He asked his audience to contrast the framing of these ideas and take note of their response to each:

  • Drilling for oil – Exploring for energy
  • Voucher – Opportunity Scholarship
  • School Choice – Parental Choice
  • Estate Tax – Death Tax
  • Welfare – Assistance to the poor
  • Fairness – Justice
  • Sacrifice – We’re all on this together

Luntz says, “Imagine” as the most powerful word in the English language.”  Despite how you may feel about Luntz’s politics, his overall argument was non-partisan and practical.  My takeaway was that if a leader (in business or politics) fights for what is right (good intentions) and can capture the imagination of the public, it’s a winning approach in business, politics, and life.

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Leo Bottary

Leo J. Bottary is an adjunct professor for two of Seton Hall University's graduate level programs in strategic communication and leadership.  Leo has enjoyed a 25-year career counseling leaders in the areas of strategic comm…

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