Language Intelligence – Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga: A Review

Any book that manages to link together the lessons of the Bible, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Lady Gaga (not to mention Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Seinfeld), can’t be all bad. With Joe Romm’s new book Language Intelligence, it is, in fact, ALL good. There are lessons galore for the scientists among us who value public outreach and communication. The book is a de facto field guide for recognizing and assimilating many of the key tools of persuasive language and speech, something that is ever more important to science communicators who face the daunting challenge of having to communicate technical and nuanced material to an audience largely unfamiliar with the lexicon of science, sometimes agnostic or even unreceptive to its message, and—in the case of contentious areas like climate change and evolution—already subject to a concerted campaign to misinform and confuse them.

Unfortunately, as Romm notes, “Scientists are not known for being great communicators”. And so you will forgive me, I hope, if I fail to convince you to read his book. But you really should read his book! You should definitely read his book! In fact, you need to read this book! Have I mentioned that you ought to read Romm’s book?

Repetition is in fact one of the key tools of effective communication that Romm emphasizes. Channeling the late Johnny Cochran, Romm tell us “If you don’t repeat, you can’t compete”. That is hardly the only lesson in this book for would-be communicators. The book is packed with great examples from history, ancient and modern, of how rhetoric (defined by Churchill, as Romm informs us, as “The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion”) serves as the scaffolding of effective communication. The materials filling that scaffolding are the ‘figures of speech’, many of which are familiar to us, even if we don’t use them as frequently or effectively as we could. They include the use of hyberbole (extravagant exaggeration, and antithesis (the pairing of contrasting words or ideas), puns, and irony in its various forms. They include the use of wit and aphorisms, and metaphors (especially, where appropriate, extended metaphors) and devices such as alliteration and chiasmus (the repetition of words in reverse order). Romm provides numerous illustrative examples. In the case of chiasmus my favorite is from the James Bond Movie “Die Another Day”. [This is, incidentally enough, the only Bond flick to talk about climate change, via an ironic comment from the main villain: “Global Warming. Its a terrible thing”]. In one scene, Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) tells the curmudgeonly “Q” (played by John Cleese; I preferred Desmond Llewelyn. So call me old school) “You’re smarter than you look”. Q, in reply, quips “Better than looking smarter than you are”. It is the figures of speech, used in proper measure and appropriate context, that comprise not only a memorable line from a movie, but the key tools to effective writing and oratory.

Romm’s key lessons to would-be communicators, in short, are:

1. Use short, simple words.

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is the essential element of all persuasion.

3. Master irony and foreshadowing. They are central elements of popular culture, modern politics, and mass media for a reason—they help us make sense of the stories of our lives and other people’s lives.

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