10 Rules of Successful Communication


Here’s a dangerous way to start a post:

Love him or hate him: Frank Luntz is right.

Not necessarily about this… or this… although this bit from the Colbert Report is pretty awesome.


What I mean, as the subtitle of Luntz’s 2007 book Words That Work claims, is this:

It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

In the digital realm, we might more usefully translate that line:

It’s not what you write, it’s what people read.

Either way (written or said), Luntz’s is right.

How your audience interprets, perceives, and responds to your copy is the ultimate standard of success.

And so, since “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” here’s a shamelessly stolen summary (along with a few bits of running commentary) of Luntz’s…

10 Rules of Successful Communication


Rule 1 | Simplicity: Use Small Words

“The most effective language clarifies rather than obscures.  It makes ideas clear rather than clouding them.

“The more simply and plainly an idea is presented, the more understandable it is—and therefore the more credible it will be” (5).

In other words: simple sells.

In fact, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article the “single biggest driver” of a consumer’s likelihood to “follow through on an intended purchase, buy the product repeatedly, and recommend it to others” was “by far . . . simplicity”:

What consumers want from marketers is, simply, simplicity.

Of course, simplicity does not mean you have to “dumb down” your communication or “lower the bar” to meet your audience’s technical level.

Instead, whenever you use a word or a phrase that your audience might not understand (i.e., technical or unfamiliar concepts central to your topic):

  1. define it immediately and
  2. offer concrete, real-life illustrations.

Einstein put it like this: “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

The moral?

Keep. It. Simple.


Rule 2 | Brevity: Use Short Sentences

“Be as brief as possible.

“Never use a sentence when a phrase will do and never use four words when three can say just as much” (7).

“[W]hen it comes to effective communication, small beats large, short beats long, and plain beats complex.  And sometimes a visual beats them all” (8).

Keeping Rules #1 and #2 in mind, I’ll stick to just three syllables.

Less is more.


Rule 3 | Credibility Is As Important As Philosophy

“People have to believe it to buy it. . . . If your words lack sincerity, if they contradict accepted facts, circumstances, or perceptions, they will lack impact. . . . The words you use become you—and you become the words you use” (9).

How do you establish credibility on a topic?

Four tips…

  1. Demonstrate knowledge of the topic in both your content as well as your supporting evidence: e.g., footnotes (whether or not they’re actually read) make your audience feel safe, warm, and secure.
  2. Write right. Display technical and grammatical competency. Nothing like a missing apostrophe or a misspelled word to undermine your otherwise brilliant argument.
  3. Show empathy and open-mindedness. This is especially true of controversial topics. Be honest and even handed. A win won’t last if the argument you defeat isn’t real, especially if it’s one of your competitor’s arguments.
  4. This one’s GOLD: borrow other people’s credibility. This goes for both experts (i.e., that footnote deal) and especially social proof (e.g., recommendations from people just like your visitors).


Rule 4 | Consistency Matters

“Repetition.  Repetition.  Repetition” (11).

“Finding a good message and then sticking with it takes extraordinary discipline, but it pays off tenfold in the end.

“Remember, you may be making yourself sick by saying the same exact thing for the umpteenth time, but many in your audience will be hearing it for the first time.

“The overwhelming majority of your customers or constituents aren’t paying as much attention as you are” (12).

The easiest way to ensure consistency is by following the old, three-part pattern:

  1. Introduction: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em.”
  2. Body: “Tell ‘em.”
  3. Conclusion: “Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”


Rule 5 | Novelty: Offer Something New

“[F]rom a business perspective, you should tell consumers something that gives them a brand-new take on an old idea (and then, in accordance with rule number four, tell them again and again). . . .

“[W]hat matters most is that the message brings a sense of discovery, a sort of ‘Wow, I never thought about it that way’ reaction” (15).

One of the primary tasks of communication, whether online or in person, is to define and invest old concepts with new life.

This is especially true if your product or  ideology conjures up negative images and emotions in the minds of your audience.

For example…

  • You might say “inexpensive,” while what your audience hears is “cheap.”
  • You might say “conservative,” while what your audience hears is “bigoted and closed-minded.”
  • You might say “gospel,” while what your audience hears is “religious fundamentalism.”
  • You might say “government assistance,” while what your audience hears is “handouts.”

The list goes on and on.

Acknowledge the misconceptions and old definitions and then work at redefining the terms that are important enough to keep.


Rule 6 | Sound and Texture Matter

“The sound and texture of language should be just as memorable as the words themselves” (16).

The style and poetry of your language is often just as important as your content.

The more musical, rhythmic, and audibly repetitive your language is, the clearer and more memorable it will be.


Robert Cialdini gives this point legs in Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive.

Way 38 asks, “How can rhyme make your influence climb?”

After recounting an experiment in which participants were asked to gauge the relative accuracy of rhyming and non-rhyming statements—i.e., “Caution and measure will win you treasure,” versus “Caution and measure will win you riches.”—Cialdini explains:

The researchers found that even though all the participants in the study strongly held the belief that rhyming was in no way an indicator of accuracy, they nonetheless perceived the statements that rhymed as more accurate than those that didn’t (165).

In this vein, think especially of the great speeches and mottoes of the last 50 years: “I have a dream,” “Snap, crackle, pop,” “Just do it,” “Yes we can,” “Plop, plop. Fizz, fizz. Oh what a relief it is,” etc.


Rule 7 | Speak Aspirationally

“The key to successful aspirational language . . . is to personalize and humanize the message to trigger an emotional remembrance. . . .

“[P]eople will forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel. . . .

“Aspirational advertising language doesn’t sell the product as a mere tool or as an item that serves a specific, limited purpose.

“Instead it sells the you—the you that you will be when you use the product” (18).

Key takeaway?

Benefits over features!


Rule 8 | Visualize

“Paint a vivid picture” (p. 18).

Until your audience can see, taste, hear, touch, and smell what you’re saying in the real world, not only will they not feel what you’re saying, often they won’t even understand it.

Put flesh on everything.

For example, do not just say, “On average, women make close to 25% less than men for doing the same job with the same level of experience.”

Instead, put flesh on it:

For six years, Heather Turner worked as the supervising administrator in one of Los Angeles’ toughest and most underfunded school districts.  Over her tenure, Turner implemented a number of innovative and at the time controversial programs designed to improve student performance as well as hold ineffective teachers accountable.  By the end of her sixth year, Turner’s efforts had attracted nearly 100 new teachers from some of the country’s most prestigious universities, student-on-student crime had dropped 35%, and high school graduation rates had close to doubled.

So imagine Turner’s shock when she discovered that to attract a viable pool of male candidates to succeed her, the school board was forced to in increase her position’s salary by just under 30 thousand dollars.

Even more shocking, however, is the realization that Turner’s case is far from unusual.  On average, female professionals make close to 25% less than their male counterparts for doing the same job with the same level of experience.


Rule 9 | Ask a Question

“The reason for the effectiveness of questions in communication is quite obvious.  When you assert . . . the reaction of the listener depends to some degree on his or her opinion of the speaker.

“But making the same statement in the form of a rhetorical question makes the reaction personal—and personalized communication is the best communication” (24).

Questions move readers and listeners from passive observers to active participants.

So, whenever possible, sow rhetorical questions into your writing and speaking.

Even if you answer the question immediately, acknowledging its legitimacy and giving your audience time to think for themselves forces them to invest into the topic you’re dealing with.

Get it?


Rule 10 | Provide Context and Explain Relevance

“You have to give people the ‘why’ of a message before you tell them the ‘therefore’ and the ‘so that.’ . . . The ‘so that’ of a message is your solution, but solutions are meaningless unless and until they are attached to an identifiable problem” (26).

Make sure the problems you address are real.

And make sure you dress them up using real data and real scenarios with real people taking real action.

Only after you’ve established the reality of a problem will an audience care about addressing it.

Again, they have to experience it before they’ll care.


So, which of the ten rules are you going to start applying today?

Drop me a line on Twitter or share in the comments.

Extra points if you can make your comment rhyme!


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