Words that Work, Words that Don’t

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
            – Winston Churchill

What is said:  “I’m lovin’ it.”  “Can you hear me now?” “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.”

What you hear:  McDonald’s, Verizon, M&M’s.

As pollster and word specialist Frank Luntz points out in his book “Words that Work,” it’s not what you say but what people hear that matters.  And when it comes to selling everything from “the king of beers” to “the ultimate driving machine,” the right words can make the ultimate difference.

“You can have the best message in the world,” Luntz writes, “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.”

Take the current ad from the Republican National Committee that talks about health care reform.  Copywriters skillfully redefine the words President Obama used in his speeches to Americans about what he wants in genuine health care reform:

“‘Public Option’ means putting government bureaucrats in charge.”

And while the ad says that, “Republicans want health care reform that reduces costs,” and that “…every American deserves quality health care,” they also reframe the president’s plan:  “Another government takeover would diminish health care choice and quality.”

In ten words they liken the president’s (as yet incomplete) proposal to the financial bailouts of AIG and GM.  They also suggest that the plan would diminish, or weaken both choice and quality.  The imagery those ten words carry is staggering.  Who wants another “takeover” that would “diminish” choice and quality?  I don’t.

So what does President Obama really mean when he talks about reforming health care?  In brief, the president said the following:

“…even though Congress is still working through a few key issues, we already have rough agreement on the following areas.

“If you have health insurance, the reform we’re proposing will provide you with more security and more stability. It will keep government out of health care decisions, giving you the option to keep your insurance if you’re happy with it.

“It will prevent insurance companies from dropping your coverage if you get too sick. It will give you the security of knowing that, if you lose your job, if you move, or if change your job; you’ll still be able to have coverage.

“It will limit the amount your insurance company can force you to pay for your medical costs out of your own pocket. And it will cover preventive care like check-ups and mammograms that save lives and money.

“Now, if you don’t have health insurance or you’re a small business looking to cover your employees, you’ll be able to choose a quality, affordable health plan through a health insurance exchange, a marketplace that promotes choice and competition.

“And, finally, no insurance company will be allowed to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing medical condition.

“I’ve also pledged that health insurance reform will not add to our deficit over the next decade, and I mean it. Already we’ve estimated that two-thirds of the cost of reform can be paid for by reallocating money that is simply being wasted in federal health care programs.

“Our proposals would change incentives so that doctors and nurses are free to give patients the best care, just not the most expensive care. That’s why the nation’s largest organizations representing doctors and nurses have embraced our plan.

“Not all of the cost savings measures I just mentioned were contained in Congress’s draft legislation, but we’re now seeing broad agreement thanks to the work that has been done over the last few days. So even though we still have a few issues to work out, what’s remarkable at this point is not how far we have left to go, it’s how far we’ve already come.”

Mr. Obama’s words describe “agreement” with Congressional leaders; that his plan will “keep government out of health care decisions, giving you the option to keep your insurance if you’re happy with it.”  Further, his plan “will prevent insurance companies from dropping your coverage;” and that “no insurance company will be allowed to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing medical condition.”

Mr. Obama also pledges that “…health insurance reform will not add to our deficit over the next decade, and  that “our proposals would change incentives so that doctors and nurses are free to give patients the best care, just not the most expensive care.”

There is a decided difference in the words each side in the debate has chosen, not unlike the difference in words between Republicans Michael Steele and Peggy Noonan that I discussed last week.

One persuades by thoughtful, reasoned words; the other by fear and insinuation.

At the end of the day, thoughtful, reasoned actions need to follow thoughtful, reasoned words.  Lawmakers and Americans will need to see and understand the details of any plan before it’s voted on.

However, when it comes to the issues that matter most – and health care is second only to fixing the economy – the process is a lot more complicated than selling a burger, or cell phone plan.  It’s about something that will affect all of us for years to come, and it needs to be treated with sober, well-reasoned thought, not be reduced to a clever slogan or divisive catch phrase.

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