It’s Not What They Said, It’s What We Heard

This week’s Republican debate showed us why so many analysts are finding boxing analogies irresistible.  Whether during the “Undercard” (a term almost exclusively used to describe a match between lesser known boxers) or the “Main Event” (reserved for candidates who had garnered at least 3% of support in public surveys), the candidates seemed intent on displaying their verbal sparring skills.

The prime-time candidates faced a crowded stage, five (!) CNBC questioners, and a two-hour limit demanded by the front-runners du jour, Donald Trump and Ben Carson. With high stakes and ever-increasing pressure to score political points, candidates who maximized the economy of words won the day.

What did we hear from the candidates this week? Jeb Bush wants you to know he’s a mature adult who works well with others. Chris Christie won’t take guff from anyone. Marco Rubio is a living, breathing American success story. Carly Fiorina believes she’s uniquely positioned to go toe-to-toe against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.  These may or may not have been the messages each candidate was hoping to deliver, but that’s generally what we heard.

Indeed, in hearing these statements, we were reminded of Republican pollster Frank Luntz and his book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” In it, Luntz argues that a careful choice of words affects what we buy, who we vote for and even the issues we believe in.

We’re bipartisan in our recognition of smart communications strategies, and at C.Fox, we quote Luntz often in our media and presentation trainings. “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” is a message we consistently relay when working with executives, nonprofit leaders, policymakers, or even when we take the podium ourselves. Because no matter how much you prepare to deliver your messages publically, what’s most important is how your audience receives and interprets it.

And while you may never have to “take the gloves off” like political candidates do, it’s best to remember that you’re still in the ring of competition and there’s someone out there ready to judge you – and your message – based not on what you say, but what they hear.

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