Frank Luntz on Barack Obama, Charlie Sheen, and Winning

Pollster discusses his new book Win.

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What does it take to be a real winner? Don't ask Charlie Sheen, says communications guru and pollster Frank Luntz. For his latest book, LuntzWin: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary, Luntz looked at the nation's top business executives, like Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Las Vegas resort magnate Steve Wynn, and politicians, like President Obama, for the answers. He shares with readers the principles that, he says, are common to successful people. He recently chatted with U.S. News about why business has more winners than politics, and how gaining trust is the key to success. Excerpts:

Is it easier to be a winner in business or in politics?

They both require the same skills. It's just that business is more forgiving than politics. You can make a mistake in business and come back again. In politics, one dumb statement stays with you for your career.

Steve Wynn appears a lot in your book. What can American political leaders learn from a trip to the Las Vegas strip?

They can see the relentless pursuit of perfection, which is very important to political leaders today. There is way too much mediocrity in political language. Steve Wynn is a role model for the political world because what he does with his resorts is what they need to do with their communication. That relentless pursuit of perfection, if applied to communication, would improve a whole lot of speeches and would improve the relationship between the elected and the electorate.

What makes President Obama a winning communicator?

He has the ability—and we saw this in his speech in Arizona—to understand and reflect the psyche of the country. The problem for him is that his policies don't. His words are America's words, but his policies aren't America's policies. The public sees two different Barack Obamas. The one that gives a great speech, they still like. The one that is ideological and partisan, they don't. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

How should politicians address supporters and critics?

There will be people that will be opposed to you always, and there's nothing you can say to win them over. Don't waste your time, your effort, or your emotions on them. Then there's a group who opposes you, but not strongly. Your goal is to neutralize them. Try to create doubts in their mind. Then there's the neutrals. At this point, if you're neutral, you're either disengaged or uninvolved and you don't care. Then there are the supporters. They're the most important. You want them to speak up. You want to turn them into advocates.

How can a politician do that?

There's several aspects. One is consistency. There's so much noise in America today that it's hard to get a message across. You may have said it 10 times, but it's likely that it's only the first time that anyone's heard you. Second is brevity. Too many politicians talk for way too long and say way too little. I encourage business leaders and political leaders to use the word "imagine." It's the single most powerful opening in the English lexicon. When I ask you to imagine, I put the communication in your perspective, not mine. You create the vision. I've connected to you on your terms.

[See the month's best political cartoons.]

Who is the Steve Jobs of politics right now?

The closest person is [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie. He says it like it is, and it sounds tough, and it sounds uncompromising, but it sounds like the truth. He isn't the smartest person out there, and he's certainly not the best-looking person out there. But he has the words that work better than any politician on either side of the aisle.

So, is being a winner just about trust?

Yes. That's what it is. Whether you are a political leader, or business leader, or journalist, no attribute matters more than trust. Winners have trust in spades; losers couldn't generate trust to save their lives.

Speaking of winners and losers, do you know if Charlie Sheen has read your book?

I feel like I owe him a royalty. But here's the interesting thing. He says it like it is, but do you trust him? Would you bet your show on him? Would you sign a contract with him? In one way, he's the biggest winner of 2011 because he has captured the public mind-set. He has broken through in a way that no other celebrity has. But in the end, do you trust him? The fact that no one does makes him the biggest loser.