Words Matter: Expert Advice on Effective Language (Part 1 of 3)
Every now and then, I pull out an old favorite off my bookshelf for communications inspiration, and a reminder to keep it real. Lately, I’ve been perusing the highlights and notes I made in my worn copy of Dr. Frank Luntz’s “Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” It’s an oldie, but goodie.
Political junkies may know Dr. Luntz from cable news focus groups and surveys around election time, but he’s a legend in the world of strategic communications. Don’t call him to pick your jury, though, because I’m 99% sure he sticks with politics. (It probably pays better, too.)
Dr. Luntz has “Ten Rules of Effective Language,” and they are universally applicable to all communicators and all audiences, but today I want to focus on lawyers and the jury. The rules lend themselves nicely to theme development, testimony anchors, and storytelling during all phases of litigation.
I will address each of Dr. Luntz’s ten rules of effective language, but I’m going to tackle them in chunks. This is the first of a three-part series.
Rule #1 | Use Small Words
If members of your jury don’t immediately attach your “big word” to the correct meaning, then the power of the word flies out the window, along with a little bit of your credibility. Big, fancy, industry jargon or legalese doesn’t make you sound smart; they obscure the issue.
In the courtroom, communicating in a clear, conversational manner is an essential element of persuasion. If a juror doesn’t understand what you’re saying because your vocabulary is so foreign he needs a translator, nothing you say will have the impact you desire.
But a word of caution: you can quickly cross the line from being conversational and engaging to being condescending and arrogant. Keep it simple, but not too simple.
Rule #2 | Use Short Sentences
Every witness has – at one time or another – been instructed to keep their answers succinct, and there are many reasons why this is smart strategy. But one of the most important reasons is this: When witnesses (or lawyers, for that matter) engage in lengthy discourse, jurors (or judges) can get lost in the message. It’s simply too much information. And, when you overwhelm your audience, your persuasion power goes down a notch.
This is one reason Terms of Service agreements are so maddening. They’re written to cover every conceivable scenario, and in their attempts at clarity and specificity, they confuse and frustrate the average reader. And we all know that friend who can’t resist including every extraneous detail and backstory on each and every person in the story, when all you really needed to know is where they had dinner.
Sometimes, a super-short answer using only a phrase or theme can be far more effective than an overly detailed one. And it’s almost always more memorable. The KISS method works. But don’t forget the cautionary note in Rule #1.
Rule #3 | Credibility Is as Important as Philosophy
Have you ever flipped on the television during the wee hours of the morning and stumbled upon an informercial by someone (who may or may not be) famous? For example, Marie Osmond has been touting her 50-pound weight loss with Nutrisytem for years. Is Nutrisystem the holy grail of weight loss, or is she also wearing the world’s best pair of Spanx and working with a personal trainer?
Although many infomercials may seem too good to be true, there may be a few that are worth the spend. But how do you decide whether to buy? You probably won’t drop $200 on processed food just because Marie Osmond told you to. Like most consumers, you need to believe that the product works as described and is good quality. And it’s no different in the courtroom.
In order for a jury to “buy” your story, they have to believe it’s credible and valid. Lawyers, end-clients and testifying witnesses often try to convince me that, merely being on the side of truth and good facts means they will prevail. If only it were that easy.
You can have the best facts in the world, but if a juror doesn’t respect the communicator, he’ll be much less inclined to embrace your version of what happened. And if you’re on the fence about that, think about political election seasons. If you don’t respect the candidate, how likely are you to accept the pitch?
But credibility is also related to the actual message being delivered. I’ve consulted on a number of cases where plaintiff’s opening statement and trial themes were so over-the-top that, by the time jurors heard all of the evidence, they felt a bit “meh.” Regardless of how awesome you are on your feet and commanding presence in the courtroom, if the words your utter don’t match the evidence, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Words matter, so make sure you have someone on your team who can bring you back to reality if you’re drinking too much of your own Kool-Aid.
Stay Tuned for Part 2…
Dr. Luntz’s book is a great read for anybody looking to engage in persuasive communication, whether it’s in a political campaign, the courtroom, or the boardroom. Stay tuned for my next post, which will cover repetition, novelty, and rhythm.
Happy Memorial Day!