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Intelligent Language: Lessons from Lincoln, Lady Gaga, Lakoff, Luntz and beyond

August 13th, 2012 · 2 Comments

In 2004, amid many frustrations, I could not understand why Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry (and the ‘campaign’) remained locked so hard into the Vietman War and failed to create a narrative of his life-long service to the nation from the SEAL operations in Vietnam, to principaled efforts to end the war on his return from overseas, to protecting citizens in the courts as a prosecutor, to his service in Congress.  Rather than “SEAL in Vietnam”, I yearned for “a life of service” as message. While that frustration remained through the campaign and beyond, that frustratrion never fit within a meaningful intellectual construct until page 96 of Joe Romm’s new book Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga.

The 2004 presidential campaign revealed how foreshadowing had moved to the forefront of modern political campaigns. … John Kerry based much of his campaign on events in Vietnam …

Kerry, however, made two fatal mistakes in his foreshadowing effort … First, he never linked the second half of his life to the first half, never completed the life story, to show that the foreshadowing had in fact foreshadowed anything.

A core inadequacy of the 2004 campaign captured succinctly within the framework of rhetoric and the power/importance of rhetoric.

As for the second ‘fatal mistake’, leaving the door open for the misrepresentations and (outright) lies for the Swiftboat Veterans for Truthiness:

Senator John KerrySecond, if you are going to build a campaign around some foreshadowing event, you must defend your story against the inevitable attacks. Your opponents understand the power of foreshadowing and will not just sit by while you write the story you write.

Page 96 does not rest unique — essentially every page provided some form of education and enlightenment from lessons about the educational environment of Shakespeare’s formation to Lincoln’s intense passion about rhetoric to the power of metaphor within Lady Gaga’s lyrics.  Paragraph-to-paragraph, page-to-page, Language Intelligence is filled with insights and lessons about the power of language and how to use it more effectively for impact.

And, there are substantive lessons to apply (note: some provided after the fold). For example, my recent tweet on temperature records:

Focused on #Olympic records? What about climate change’s 2012 olympian record breaking? http://getenergysmartnow.com/2012/08/08/focused-on-olympic-record-breaking-what-about-your-backyards-olympian-climate-chaos-records/ â?¦ @LO2012 @climatereality

The linked pieceLady GaGa analogizes the climate on steroids to East Germany’s “female” swimmers. And, to get a grade, I ran the tweet by Joe:

Repetition and allusion/metaphor.

Pithy and profound.

It actually isn’t hard once you start doing it since it comes closer to natural speech and storytelling.

I have come to the conclusion that I spent the second half of my life unlearning what I was taught in the first half.

Thus, perhaps this is a book about”unlearning” …

While Romm is best known for his passionate — science-based — advocacy for action to address our energy and climate challenges, this is not a book “for” climate scientists or those advocating for action to address our catastrophic climate chaos, those these people should read it, but has value for anyone concerned about leveraging language more effectively to confront those who distort reality to undermine American democracy.

While powerful as a politicalAbraham Lincoln text(book), this is a book destined for the nation’s classrooms.  Romm has written something that every high-school debate team would learn from and any English teacher concerned about Language Intelligence would be well advised to read it and consider incorporating it into their educational program.  And, every public librarian in the country should add it to their collection.

Unusually, after having read a book, my intent is to read it again — soon. I also intend to have my children read it and will recommend other family members read it.  I recommend that you do so as well.

Other reviews:

Scott Mandia, What do Winston Churchill and Lady Gaga Know that You Don’t?

Romm’s book is packed with powerful advice. A few are highlighted below:

  1. The title is probably more important than the content. Hey bloggers, your title is like the cover letter while your blog is the resume. A great cover letter means your resume will get a read. Bad letter = no read. Spice up those titles.
  2. Keep it simple! Avoid jargon and try to use one syllable words as often as possible. I recall a phone interview I did with a reporter at The Los Angeles Times. Afterward, the reporter said, “Thank you for talking to me so even a 12 year old could understand.” Big words impress few. Small words impress many.
  3. Tell a story! (This is a key point made by legendary actor Alan Alda who now spends his time teaching science students how to effectively communicate.)
  4. Use metaphors, similes, analogies, and irony to make your points. The brain is always trying to make connections and these rhetorical strategies help to cement those connections. Climate communicators can see many great examples at Climatebites.org.
  5. Repetition, repetition, repetition. One of the quotes that really stuck with me is one from Republican strategist and no friend of climate change, Frank Luntz:

“There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your audience has heard it for the first time.”

Reading this book is like taking steroids. If you are not a good communicator right now, after reading this book, you will be. If you are a good communicator right now, you will become a great one! Give yourself a legal injection of powerful rhetoric – read this book.

Chris Mooney, Of Nerds and Words: Why Everybody Must Read Joe Romm’s New Book Language Intelligence

If you ever want to understand why scientists fare so poorly getting their message across–and why liberals lose policy debates and, often, presidential campaigns–this is also the book for you. In essence: too much higher education, too much wonk sophistication, destroys the common language simplicity of good rhetoric and makes you less persuasive.

Romm–quite-self consciously–uses powerful rhetoric himself to get the point across. And he shows how, slowly, climate researchers are coming to recognize the power of figures of speech–comparing global warming’s influence on the weather to a batter on steroids who hits more home runs, for instance, or to the loading of dice.

Representative Ed Markey (D-MA- ), Friends With Words: A Review of Joe Romm’s New Book Language Intelligence

In the war of words, it’s the words that win the war. And Joe Romm likes his words short, rhetorical, repeated and repeated again (and again).

Joe’s new book, Language Intelligence, is GPS for modern day communicators.

Heidi Cullen, Romm’s Book ‘Language Intelligence’ Insightful, Important

Given his day job, Romm continually connects back to the difficult task of communicating about climate change. “Those who deny the reality of climate science have made use of the best rhetorical techniques,” Romm said. “Those seeking to inform the public about the very real dangers of a warming climate will need to learn the lessons of the best communicators if they are to overcome the most well-funded disinformation campaign in history.” There’s plenty here to help scientists looking to become better communicators.

This insightful and important little book — it’s a concise 213 pages — comes at a time when, despite having more ways to communicate than ever, trust in what is being communicated stands at an all-time low. If rhetoric is king, then trust is God. And yes, that’s a metaphor.

John Cook, Book review: Language Intelligence by Joe Romm

For science communicators, I believe the most important lesson is the use of metaphors. Scientists are trained to think in the abstract while in general, people think in metaphors. It’s a “Scientists are from Mars, people are from Venus” kind of thing. People conceptualize and make meaning of the world using analogies and metaphors, which transform the abstract into the concrete. Consequently, we take more notice of messages and remember them better when metaphors are used. Romm provides example after example of history’s greatest communicators using metaphors to land home their message. And if you want to take it to the next level, use extended metaphors where your metaphor is adopted through a whole speech, article, political campaign, etc.

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