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Book Review of: Words That Work

It's not what you say, it's what people hear

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Review of Words That Work, by Dr. Frank Luntz (Hardcover, 2007)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

If you're looking for magical words that will imbue you with the power to get people to do your bidding, you won't find them here. What you will find, instead, is something based on reality.

One of the things that bothers me about "non-fiction" titles these days is most authors assume the book is their pulpit for pushing their personal (and usually irrational) political views. Even if those views have nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of the book, and even if their "supportive arguments" defy logic, they feel compelled to slip that stuff in. I've pointed out examples of this in some of my other reviews, and it is more the rule than the exception.

When I came across this book, authored by a figure who works primarily in the political arena, my nonsense detector went on red alert. And it turned out to be a false alarm.

Drawing on a wide base of facts and correctly applying logic, Dr. Luntz has produced a valuable work of nonfiction. The book sticks to the subject it promises to cover, and covers it well. Dr. Luntz also avoids engaging in pop psychology, which was another welcome relief. Instead, he presents his findings, provides intelligent explanations, and illustrates points with specific (and often well-known) examples.

The book spends most of its time looking at why some messages get mangled and others don't. It provides  general practices to help you clearly communicate your intended message. This information is timeless; it will be as valid a century from now as it is today. The book also contains some information that will eventually be outdated but is useful today. For example, Chapter 12 discusses twenty-one words and phrases that work. They work in the present time, based on present perceptions and current events.

Some reviewers of this book deride Dr. Luntz as a "spin doctor." Their use of that emotionally-charged term is classic manipulation--exactly what they accuse Dr. Luntz of. Their  accusation is both false and irrelevant. This book isn't about spinning. It's about how to communicate clearly and not undermine your own message.

Some reviewers of this book deride Dr. Luntz as a "right wing partisan." As he has worked for leading Democrats, this accusation is, like the other one, without merit.

A note about labels

The "left" or "right" labels are normally misapplied. Ted Kennedy, for example, is allegedly a liberal. The truth is that he's a statist who misuses liberal ideas when they suit his statist agenda; he is not a person who serves liberal ideals. On the sliding scale between government control and personal freedom, his pointer is all the way at the bottom (government control).

For most of America, neither the left nor the right offers much that they agree with. The practice of framing every political problem as left vs. right issue misses the reality that the real clash is between statism and personal freedom. Dr. Luntz didn't touch on this in his book, which is OK because--contrary to what some reviewers have said--it's not a political book. But since they put that on the table, let's take a moment to look at facts rather than emotionally-laden, misapplied labels.

Government has grown with the speed and malignancy of cancer. In the USA, the federal government is now 185 times larger than it was 100 years ago. The geographic area of the USA is not 185 times larger than it was in 1907, when it had 46 states instead of today's 50. Nor is the USA population of 300 million 185 times more than its 1907 population of 87 million. Why, when in the private sector, advancements in productivity allow one person to do the job of tens or hundreds, does the federal government need hundreds of people to do the job of one?

To see stupidity incarnate, look only to government. The flavor of stupidity, left or right, doesn't really matter. The question of whether an anchor chained to your left leg will drag you to ocean floor faster than one chained to your right leg is rather silly, when you think about it. And so are people who use left vs. right labels while ignoring statism--a classic "elephant in the living room" situation if there ever was one.

Consequently, these silly critics of Dr. Luntz have, with their own words, discredited themselves. They could have avoided this self-defeating behavior by using the insights provided in Chapter 9.

Some book details

The first chapter, as you might expect, lays out the ground rules. I have found this practice to be fairly consistent in "How To" books--the first chapter summarizes what you need to know. Then, the subsequent chapters expand on that to give you the understanding. Some authors will devote one chapter per point, with the first chapter serving essentially as a hefty outline of the book. Other authors will use the first chapter as a 'basis of understanding" so that the rest of the book makes sense, and they'll keep referring back to this or that principle. This second method is more or less the one Dr. Luntz chose.

While the first chapter gives you a thumbnail strategy for effective communication, the second chapter reveals the other side of the coin: mistakes not to make. The next two chapters take this same front/back of the coin approach. We read about old words that have new meanings, then we read about how new words (that work) are created.

The next two chapters repeat this approach. First, Dr. Luntz talks about how to "be the message" (choosing the words that reflect your identity) and then he addresses how people remember that message.

In Chapters 7 and 8, we see this front/backapproach once more. First, we read corporate case studies and then political case studies. Chapter 9 takes an interesting look at myths and realities regarding language and people, with both opinion and fact presented. The next chapter discusses Dr. Luntz' views on what people really care about and then he provides a chapter on personal language for personal scenarios.

Overall, I found this to be a logical presentation on an important and useful topic. As many experts have noted, there's a huge problem with personal communication. It's especially bad in the USA and even worse in Canada. Yes, there are good communicators in both countries. But generally, people have adopted shrillness and histrionics in place of articulation. I've read several experts' theories on why this is so. I've also read several good books on how to communicate without the shrillness and histrionics. Dr. Luntz' books is one of those. Dr. Stephen R. Covey is perhaps the most noted author of such books.

A theme that Dr. Luntz brings to the forefront and then refers to repeatedly, is stated in his subtitle. "It's not what you say, it's what people hear."

An example of how this theme works is this. Suppose you have a problem with another person. If you start out by inflicting some insult on that person, your message is likely to consist only of the insult. The rest of it is lost. But if you take the approach that you share a common problem and a solution can benefit both of you, then the other person hears what you're saying about the content. That's not spin. That's treating people with respect. And this is what Dr. Luntz' book is really about.

Why you need this book

If you want to read a book that is helpful, informative, and interesting, then you should pick up a copy of Words That Work. Take the time to think through the concepts being presented, examine the corporate and political case studies, and review your own daily communication patterns. You'll be glad you did.

If you've been reading and applying Stephen R. Covey's principles, especially "seek first to understand," you will find this book a valuable addition to your collection. If you've never read any books in this genre, Words That Work is just as good as any to start with.





About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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