Frank Luntz: A New Lexicon for the Business Leader

The pollster, political consultant, and author of Words That Work offers five words for right now that have the power to persuade
Peter Herman

U.S. business leaders are searching for the right lexicon. They need it. Their customers and employees are in a funk, worried that the days of a good job with a steady income are to be replaced forever by living paycheck to paycheck. That lexicon is beginning to take shape. In my travels across the linguistic landscape of contemporary American life to research a book, I have discovered five words that really resonate in the world of business right now. They should become part of every executive's vocabulary.

The most powerful among them is "consequences." Seemingly neutral—there can be good consequences as well as bad—the word instantly personalizes and dramatizes the potential result of a particular action. When someone talks about consequences, the listener immediately thinks: What does this mean for me? When union leaders, shareholders, or community activists talk about the consequences of a particular corporate action, they're putting the company on the defensive and using words that work.


Focusing on "impact" also makes a listener pay attention. This one word causes people to assume they will see a measurable difference. People want results. Talking about "effort," or even "solutions," doesn't work; Americans don't care about good intentions. They want to know how well you execute.

Thanks to our growing dependence on electronic technology, coupled with dwindling free time, another word with increasing resonance is "reliability." When it comes to such products as automobiles, cable television, and personal communication devices, reliability is now even more important among customers than price. In fact, it's often a crucial factor in determining the price of a product or service. Value is now the sum of price plus convenience plus reliability.

The last two words to make a part of your business vocabulary are "mission" and "commitment." Thanks to a generation of CEOs willing to say just about anything to keep their jobs, words like "pledges" and "promises" no longer carry much weight. Consumers have become increasingly skeptical about broad-brush promises because they often don't pan out. Leaders now have to make a personal commitment in business. Commitment means a speaker is willing to put his or her credibility on the line to achieve a successful outcome.

Mission, meanwhile, should not be confused with "mission statements," which are often cold, empty words from corporations pretending to be something they're not. A mission explains in more compassionate terminology what you do, why you do it, and above all, why you care. Mission statements are written by consultants. A mission, by contrast, is shaped by managers and inspires employees with passion and a vision of something better. It's a window into your corporate soul.

What these words have in common is a desire on the part of those who use them to sound authentic. All of the words are oriented to delivering measurable results. They are positive and, more important, proactive. Leaders can really only use them if they are speaking candidly and truthfully. By using them, you connect the values of your company to the values of the people you serve. When I was a child, my mother used to warn me: "Frank, you are what you eat." In today's world, I would warn every business leader: You are what you say.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.