It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear


We spend a great deal of time in my office thinking about how to communicate to clients.  For example, “I need to get my contract to you to review and sign before I can get started on your assignment” can sound off-putting.  Instead, we say, “We’ll send along some paperwork for this assignment, and once  you sign it, we’ll be all set.”  

Note the use of “we” over “I,” “some paperwork” over “my contract,” “we’ll be all set” over “before I can get started.” This set of choices is more appealing, isn’t it?  I’ve been attentive to words in this way ever since a photography consultant named Elyse Weissberg helped me to name my business more than a decade ago.

Photography or Photographer?

Elyse, who passed away in 2001, was among the top photography consultants in the country.  She worked with Eddie Adams and wrote Successful Self-Promotion for Photographers.

Years ago, I was struggling with whether to name my business “John Harrington Photography” or “John Harrington, Photographer.”  Elyse had a clear answer for me: John Harrington Photography.

She said, “You’re a business, and you want your clients to see you that way. When you’re ‘John Harrington, Photographer,’ you’re seen as just an individual, and businesses want to hire other businesses.”

She needed say no more. This was one of the earliest lessons in branding I applied to my business, and it set me on the right path for years to come.

The Power of Words

During the most recent presidential campaign, the power of words was dismissed by some.   But it’s hard to deny the impact of words, no matter your political orientation.

Frank Luntz is one of the most respected consultants in the political arena.  Luntz demonstrates, in his book Words That Work, how word choice can dramatically influence public opinion on various issues.  I recently finished his book — which is now full of Post-it notes and dog-eared pages for me to return to later.  The book’s subtitle is “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.”  He shows in example after example why this is the case.

Take the pharmaceutical industry, which has received its share of public criticism in recent years.  Luntz makes the point that one reason for this negative PR is the word “industry” itself.  It suggests big business, uncaring bureaucrats, piles of money, and so on. Why not call it the “pharmaceutical profession”? That’s your local pharmacist, or even possibly your own doctor who gives you a prescription.

This would apply, too, to the “photography industry.”  When we say, “The photography industry is being devastated by X, Y and Z,” people think of big companies like Kodak, Fuji, Canon, Nikon and HP.  People don’t think of the wedding photographer in Duluth, or the studio owner in New Orleans who is closing up shop.  

If you instead say, “The profession of photographer is being devastated,” your audience will be more likely to be sympathetic and want to do something about it. 

Think and Re-Think Your Choices

I encourage you to think, re-think, and then think some more about the words you use.

Luntz’s book is certainly a great introduction to this subject. But you should apply the lessons to much more than what to name your business.  Think about the words you use in your correspondence with clients, in your phone conversations, in your negotiations, and so forth.

Here’s a good exercise to keep you on your toes:  After every client call or interaction, think about how you could have said it better. Because when it comes to the words you use, there’s always room for improvement.


2 Responses to “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear”

  1. That is so true !! Don't call it an industry, because you will leave out the "little" guys, but however, call it "photography" instead of "photographer" so you hide the fact that you are small.
    Makes perfect sense.
    If you think small, you will keep it small.
    Bravo for this great post. will show it my wife right now.

  2. There's an alternative argument to the "Photography vs Photographer" point.

    A lot of people try to take the personal element out of their business as they are trying to target work from other businesses. However, they forget that businesses are run by people and the people that are doing the hiring often like to know "who" they are hiring.

    I am a photographer, and market myself as such. People hire me not just for the photos I take, but also for my personality and the way I work with people. If I wanted to be a faceless business, I would have given myself an obsure company name. I am a self employed photographer that works under my own name, and as such, feel it is more beneficial to use "Photographer" as they are hiring "me" for what I can do as a photographer.

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