How 6 Words Stung My Lizard Brain

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The other day I got a text message from my Mom that shoved me unceremoniously back into my 7-year-old skin.

She started with these 6 words, “It has come to my attention…”


Suddenly I’d time traveled back to our house in California. I could hear my Mom calling me from her bedroom. There was disappointment in her voice.

I asked myself, “What did I do?” I started coming up with “it wasn’t me” ideas that I could say to convince her somebody else had screwed up.

I heard my full first name… And then… I heard my middle name. The dreaded middle name. The one sure way you KNEW you were in some serious trouble…

“Douglas… Douglas Gary… get in here…!”

6 little words at the beginning of a text message and my 38-year old self transformed. All my childhood ‘fight-or-flight’ juices came flooding back.

Her full message said… “It has come to my attention that you have been working with Mary & Krista with their online business and helping Brad too. Thank you for being a good big brother and giving your time to your younger siblings.”


I was honestly worried for 5 seconds that felt like eternity. Luckily, everything was okey-dockey.

But why did I have such a wild reaction? How could 6 little words jolt me back 31 years to the depths of my lizard brain?

That’s what Dr. Frank Luntz talks about in his fantastic book, “Words that Work.”

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The subtitle really says it all: “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.”

I’m sure a psychologist would love to work on me and plum the depths of this maternal relationship. I’m more interested in discussing the power of words.

She knew she was saying a kind thing. But what did I hear?

Once I read the whole message all my fires were put out. But they were an inferno for a bit just because I misunderstood her words. I heard a reprimand.

What Do Your Clients Hear When You Speak To Them?

Have you ever had a “communication breakdown” (great Led Zeppelin song, btw…) like this with your clients?

In Dr. Lunzt’s book, he teaches 10 Rules of Successful Communication.

As you read through the list, think about your own words. Are you using these principles when you communicate with your clients? Your spouse? Your friends? Your children?

I’ve found myself 2nd guessing the words that come out of my mouth since reading this list. Especially when I’m talking with my children. And especially when they need correction. Wow, this stuff really works! I was able to talk my 4-year-old down after she had been slapped in the face by her big sister over a stollen Wii controller.

The Big Idea

In copywriting, there is the “holy grail” component, the one all copywriters wrack their brains to find. It is the Big Idea. But according to David Ogilvy, only 1 in every 1,000 campaigns has a truly great Big Idea. And he himself, though he wrote hundreds, if not thousands of ads in his time, claims only to have come up with great Big Ideas. Which for most, is like winning the all-time home run contest.

A somewhat recent Big Idea that had blockbuster success was copywriter Mike Palmer’s “End of America” campaign.

David Garfinkel, the world’s greatest copywriting coach describes The Big Idea like this:

“A Big Idea is a concept, maybe a headline, maybe something else, that's so fresh and original it can redefine an industry, or start a new one, by itself—Gene Schwartz talks about this in the introduction to "Breakthrough Advertising: copy that opens up ‘an entirely new market for an existing product.’”

We can discuss how to find The Big Idea in another post. As I’ve been studying The Big Idea, I’ve been realizing that Dr. Luntz’s 10 Rules of Successful Communication are an excellent guide to coming up with the means to communicate your unique, Big Idea.

So, let’s get into it. Here we go…

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.” — Dr. Luntz

2. Brevity: Use Short Sentences

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” — Mark Twain

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.” — Dr. Luntz

Some of the best slogans and ad campaigns in history have used “brevity” to great success.

“Think” — IBM

“Easy as Dell” — Dell Computers

“The UnCola” — 7-Up

“They’re grrreat!” — Frosted Flakes

“Got Milk?"

“Just Do It” — Nike

3. Credibility Is As Important As Philosophy

People have to believe it to buy it. As Lincoln once said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. If your words lack sincerity, if they contradict accepted facts, circumstances, or perceptions, they will lack impact.” — Dr. Luntz

4. Consistency Matters

Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Good language is like the Energizer Bunny. It keeps going… and going… and going.” — Dr. Luntz

5. Novelty: Offer Something New

In plain English, words that work often involve a new definition of an old idea.” — Dr. Luntz

6. Sound and Texture

The sounds and texture of language should be just as memorable as the words themselves. A string of words that have the same first letter, the same sound, or the same syllabic cadence is more memorable than a random collection of sounds.” — Dr. Luntz


“Snap, Crackle, and Pop” — Rice Crispies

“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.” — Alka-Seltzer

“Think Different” — Apple

“I’m lovin’ it” — McDonalds

7. Speak Aspirationally

Messages need to say what people want to hear. A good advertisement… makes idealists of us all.” — Dr. Luntz

8. Visualize

Paint a vivid picture. From M&M’s ‘Melts in your mouth not in your hand’ to Morton Salt’s ‘When it rains, it pours,’ to NBC’s ‘Must See TV,’ the slogans we remember for a lifetime almost always have a strong visual component, something we can see and almost feel.” — Dr. Luntz

9. Ask a Question

“‘Is it live, or is it Memorex?’ ‘Where do you want to go today?’ (Microsoft) ‘Can you hear me now?’ (Verizon Wireless), ‘Got Milk?’ may be the most memorable print ad campaign of the past decade. The creator realized, whether intentionally or not, that it’s sometimes not what you say but what you ask that really matters.” — Dr. Luntz

10. Give Context and Explain Relevance

Context is so important that it serves as the last and most important rule of effective communication. With so many messages and so many communication vehicles competing for our attention, the target audience must see individual, personal meaning and value in your words.” — Dr. Luntz

So, how will you use “Works That Work” and the “10 Rules of Successful Communication” in your marketing?

Do you want some help? I’d love to get together with you and talk about ways you can improve your communication.

Click the button below and let’s take a look at your business. Your home page. Your emails. Your ads. Let’s apply the 10 Rules and help your messages “work” so that your people really hear what you want them to hear.

May your copy be melodious and ever resonant!


P.S. Let’s talk and see how we can work together to clarify your marketing messages. Click the link here to setup a call. Talk to me!

Douglas PewComment