Frank Luntz is a political analyst, spin-doctor and familiar face to anyone who watches the circus that is FoxNews. Of the talking heads that bob up on Fox’s nightly merry-go-round, Luntz (along with Kirsten Powers) is the most compelling. Partly because of his experience as a political insider, but mostly because he relies on research. In particular, Luntz conducts focus-group research of the kind normally used by marketers, to test not just the appeal of candidates, but also discrete group responses to the language politicians use.
Insights from this kind of study together with the concrete realities of the US political process are the stuff of Words That Work; Luntz’s entertaining, informative and slightly biased look at language in political and public discourse. It’s a book I highly recommend, not just to students of politics, but to anyone whose calling it is to use words publicly. If you are speaking from a pulpit, or addressing students, or putting words on a powerpoint slide this is a book you should read.
In the final chapter, Luntz offers up some words that could have real staying power over the next decade – words that work in terms of communicating ideas, cutting through suspicion and building trust with audiences, customers and voters. One particular suggestion stood out for me in the context of emerging church discussions; the use of words beginning with re-,
“…The so-called “re” words… are incredibly powerful because they take the best elements or ideas from the past and apply them to the present and the future.”
Luntz singles out words like renew, revitalise, rejuvenate, restore, rekindle as vehicles for taking something that is old, tired or stale and giving it new passion and polish.
“The “re” words imply action, movement, progress, and improvement – all the essential attributes in the twenty-first-century economy.”
Of course, “re” words are perfect for our consumer society of constant reinvention and makeover. They speak to our sustained adolescence as many of use, despite being well into mid-life, still stubbornly refuse to accept the realisation that this is, in fact, all there is.
“As in corporate communications, the “re” words should be applied to politics as well. Better to have programs and policies grounded in tradition and experience, than launch something that’s brand-new…
… The most effective way of saying “new and improved” from a political standpoint is to employ one of the “re” words.”
All of which leaves us with a troubling duality. On the one it’s hard and possibly unwise, to avoid deep cynicism when it comes to “re” words. New and improved – same as the old and unimproved. We’ve all been fed enough spin and hype in our lives to see that coming. But, there’s also a real value is accepting that some traditions still carry power; that sometimes it’s worth breathing new life into old ideas.
Within the world of Christian speaking and publishing there has already been an avalanche of people leaning heavily into the “re” words and I suspect there is yet more to come. Hopefully we can think clearly about what this kind of language really means and be sensitive to the how overuse of “re” words might lead to intellectual burnout.