Pollster Frank Luntz on the Power of Perception

Says Language Is Major Factor in Swaying Public Opinion

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Frank Luntz
Frank Luntz Credit: Fox

Pollster Frank Luntz's mantra -- "It's not what you say; it's what people hear" -- isn't revolutionary. But in an industry that can be easiily distracted by shiny new tech and content toys, he reminded the audience at the Holmes Report's Global PR Summit in Miami that language is more capable of changing public opinion of a brand or politician than almost anything.

Among the examples he shared was a top-testing 2014 political campaign for Mitch McConnell, in which a cancer survivor who could barely speak told a story about how the Kentucky senator stood up for workers who had been exposed to radiation, some of whom were ultimately diagnosed with cancer. At the end, the whispering survivor said, "Having a strong voice matters."

"McConnell has no personality," exclaimed Mr. Luntz. "This ad makes him emotional. It makes him caring. It says that everyone, even those who don't have a voice, have a voice. It's what makes this ad so powerful."

He was interviewed on stage by MDC CEO Miles Nadal, whose holding company bought a majority interest in Mr. Luntz's firm, Luntz Global, earlier this year.

The "what people hear" mantra first started to become a defining part of Mr. Luntz's career in 1992, when he was supporting Ross Perot's presidential campaign. Mr. Luntz suggested that Mr. Perot launch the campaign in the following order: with a bio, testimonials and then a speech. That way, "nobody could be pulled away from him even if they heard negative information." When Mr. Perot started with the speech rather than the bio or testimonials, "people looked at him and said what's wrong with this guy."

The specific use of words is just as influential as the order of those words when it comes to political or brand campaign messaging, he said. He demonstrated the point by contrasting two different messages trying to communicate the same thing.

In testing, this message only received 22% of votes: "Right now we have a wide array of products with one goal in mind: a tomorrow your family can count on should the unexpected happen."

And this was the big winner: "You deserve security and independence in your retirement. That's why we deliver the right financial tools."

Mr. Luntz said the use of the word "product" indicated that you're pushing something. Conversely, the phrase "you deserve" puts the "audience in control," making it effective companies battling poor perception, possibly a crisis.

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