The act of speaking is not a conquest, but a surrender. When we open our mouths, we are sharing with the world—and the world inevitably interprets, indeed sometimes shifts and distorts, our original meaning.
It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.
You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs. It’s not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant. The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener’s shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their mind and heart. How that person perceives what you say is even more real, at least in a practical sense, than how you perceive yourself.
When someone asks me to illustrate the concept of “words that work,” I tell them to read Orwell’s 1984—and then see the movie. In particular, I refer them to the book passage that describes Room 101—or as Orwell basically describes it, the place where everyone’s personal, individual nightmares come true. If your greatest fear is snakes, you open the door to a room full of snakes. If your fear is drowning, your Room 101 fills to the brim with water. To me, this is the most frightening, horrific, imaginative concept ever put on paper, simply because it encourages you to imagine your own Room 101. Words that work, whether fiction or reality, not only explain but also motivate. They cause you to think as well as act. They trigger emotion as well as understanding.
But the movie version of 1984 denies the viewer the most powerful aspect that makes Room 101 work: one’s own imagination. Once you actually see Room 101, it is no longer your vision. It becomes someone else’s. Lose imagination and you lose an essential component of words that work.
Just as a fictional work’s meaning may transcend authorial intention, so every message that you bring into the world is subject to the interpretations and emotions of the people who receive it. Once the words leave your lips, they no longer belong to you. We have a monopoly only on our own thoughts. The act of speaking is not a conquest, but a surrender. When we open our mouths, we are sharing with the world—and the world inevitably interprets, indeed sometimes shifts and distorts, our original meaning.
After all, who hasn’t uttered the words “But that’s not what I actually meant”?
I asked the brilliant Hollywood writer Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and Sports Night, and someone with a very different political orientation from mine, to explain the difference between language that convinces and language that manipulates. His answer stunned me:
“There’s no difference. It’s only when manipulation is obvious, then it’s bad manipulation. What I do is every bit as manipulative as some magician doing a magic trick. If I can wave this red silk handkerchief enough in my right hand, I can do whatever I want with my left hand and you’re not going to see it. When you’re writing fiction, everything is manipulation. I’m setting up the situation specifically so that you’ll laugh at this point or cry at this point or be nervous at this point. If you can see how I’m sawing the lady in half, then it’s bad manipulation. If you can’t see how I did that, then it’s good.”
 Luntz F., 2008. Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, Introduction. Hyperion.