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

Filed under: — mike @ 20 August 2012

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.
4. Use metaphors to paint a picture, to connect what your listeners already know to what you want them to know. Metaphors may be the most important figure as well as the most underused and misused.
5. Create an extended metaphor when you have a big task at hand, like framing a picture-perfect speech or launching a major campaign.
6. If you want to avoid being seduced, learn the figures of seduction. If you want to debunk a myth, do not repeat that myth.

Many of you will know Romm mostly if not exclusively for his “Climate Progress” blog, and his round-the-clock, take-no-prisoners debunking of the disinformation efforts of climate change inactivists and clean energy opponents. So I suspect you, like I, will be pleasantly surprised as you are introduced to a completely different Joe Romm that you never knew existed. Joe demonstrates a remarkable intellectual breadth and depth that goes well beyond his obvious expertise in the area of climate and energy policy. His message in ‘Language Intelligence’ has a generality that extends to all areas of public discourse, whether it be politics, education, or entertainment. But make no mistake. His lessons have great relevance in the domain of climate change communication, and particular salience for those interested in communicating climate change—the science, the impacts, the risks—to a broader public audience. As a rule we don’t, for example, use metaphor–a particularly powerful tool for communicating complicated concepts in a simple and accessible way–nearly enough. Though, as Romm notes, we are getting better. One example of an effective metaphor that he provides (and indeed, which I sometimes use myself) is the notion of “weather on steroids” as a way of communicating the statistical nature of the subtle–but very real–influence that climate change is having on certain types of extreme weather events. Just as many of the home runs hit by a baseball player on steroids were almost certainly due to the taking of steroids–even if you can’t prove that any one home run resulted from it–so too is it likely that the record-breaking heat we are seeing in the U.S. this summer of 2012 is very likely due, in substantial part, to the impact of human-caused climate change and global warming.

Climate change critics have indeed understood the importance of language and rhetoric for some time. In the infamous leaked “Luntz Memo” of 2002, Republican pollster Frank Luntz advised his clients–fossil fuel interests–how they could more effectively use clever word choice and rhetoric–indeed, the figures of speech themselves–to reframe the public discourse over climate change, to help convince the public that there was no scientific consensus, that climate change was not a threat, and that any actions to mitigate climate change would themselves be dangerous. Already, the forces of climate change inaction were sharpening their rhetorical weapons in preparation for retrenchment in the war against the science of climate change–the “climate wars”.

I can appreciate this at a very personal level. I was somewhat involuntarily thrust into the center of the public debate over climate change at this very time, when the “Hockey Stick” temperature reconstruction I co-authored, depicting the unprecedented nature of modern warming in at least the past millennium, developed into an icon in the debate over human-caused climate change [particularly when it was featured in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) of the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC in 2001]. I soon found myself at the center of concerted attacks by those who believed, somewhat cynically (and quite illogically from a scientific viewpoint) that they could discredit the entire case for the reality and threat of human-caused climate change, if they could simply discredit my work and, indeed, me specifically (this is to be distinguished from the good-faith scientific debate and give-and-take, that is to be expected–and indeed is necessary, for the progress of science). Indeed, I wrote a book about my experiences–and what I think I’ve learned from them–earlier this year (The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars).

I was forced to defend myself in the face of a well-organized and well-funded campaign by agenda driven front groups, politicians, and policy advocates to discredit me. And I had to learn the tools of self-defense–I had to acquire the sorts of ‘language intelligence’ tools that Romm describes–through a trial-by-fire of sorts. It is my hope that other younger scientists coming into this field, who too may eventually find themselves subject to politically-motivated attacks on their work, will read Romm’s book (and perhaps mine too) and learn these lessons early in their career, so that they don’t find themselves ambushed with little or no defense, down the road. So, at the (very low, in fact) risk of repeating myself once too many times, I will say it again: you really do need to read Joe Romm’s book.

171 Responses to “Language Intelligence – Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga: A Review”

  1. 151
    Jim Larsen says:

    Just to clarify, the state of the art for a series hybrid car is the Volt, which uses an 80 hp biofuel (or even fossil, if you want) engine. I immediately dropped that by 75% to 20 hp, which represents an incredible compromise. I then further compromised to 3 hp, which is a total compromise of about 96%. Those who already had an opinion laughed at a mere 96% compromise. Others who hadn’t formed an opinion yet, well, perhaps the discussion made a difference.

    You will never persuade a person who already has an opinion. (though I will always believe I’m wrong)

  2. 152
    Dan H. says:

    Yes, the post is a little screwed up (to pray for people to die to save others, is a little bit morbid). However, you make some rather good points. An example would be New Orleans before Katrina. Everyone new that the levees were old and in disrepair, but until the storm hit, and thousands died, they did nothing. Today, they are better prepared for Isaac.
    Also, I am not sure you went far enough before the people will stand up and take notice. Thousands of real and millions of undeveloped people die all the time, and it is currently a yawner. It would take a greater catastrophe to move the masses in such a way as you laid out, smaller changes are adaptable. People will generally pay a smaller price to adapt, than a larger amount to change altogether.

    The small changes witnessed in recent years, are not enough to affect the people. Predictions well into the future are also not great motivators (“I will be dead by then, so who cares” attitudes). Even less motivators are predictions that do not occur. Unless some of the predictions start occurring soon, no real action will be taken.

    By the way, you forgot to mention the corn subsidy for ethanol, when referring to the Iowa farmers. They must have a great lobby in Congress.

    [Response: I take your points, and agree overall. “Hoping for a catastrophe” to motivate people is naive, not to mention raising all sorts of moral issues. But when you say “Unless some of the predictions start occurring soon”, I assume you mean “unless some of the way-out-there really obvious and catastrophic predictions” rather than simply “predictions”. Most of the actual scientific predictions (declining sea ice, just to take a timely example) have certainly come true. Let’s not conflate what the newspapers and tabloids say with what the science actually tells us.–eric]

  3. 153
    SecularAnimist says:

    Dan H. wrote: “The small changes witnessed in recent years, are not enough to affect the people.”

    That may be true.

    But the BIG CHANGES witnessed in recent years have affected a lot of people.

    [Response: :) ]

  4. 154
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Thousands of real and millions of undeveloped people die all the time

    Turing Test alert

  5. 155

    re:152 from Dan H.

    “Thousands of real and millions of undeveloped people die all the time ..”

    OK. Interesting distinction. Vote. Dan H. Real? Not Real?

  6. 156
    Jim Larsen says:

    132 Jim, thanks for the response. (It thrills me when one of the Mods thinks my ramblings merit a response) One problem is that logic and communication don’t mesh very well. Scientists are trained to ignore human frailties, to go logical. But you can logic the average human to zero effect all you want. They will retain all their false assumptions and grade your logic by how well it fits their axiomatic errors.

  7. 157
    Dan H. says:

    The declining sea ice is relatively on cue, although Maslowski’s ice-free in 2013 may be jumping the gun. Some of the “way-out-there really obvious and catastrophic predictions” like BBQ summers, snow-less winters, Himalayan meting, and 3m sea level rise, while headline grabbing, are not realistic (at least not in the foreseeable future). However, these are the predictions that the media publishes because it sells. The more benign, but more reasonable, predictions just produce a yawn (to quote Jim earlier).

  8. 158
    Jim Larsen says:

    152 Dan said, ” People will generally pay a smaller price to adapt, than a larger amount to change altogether.”

    Sure, if that were the choices. But the real choice is to pay a small amount to change altogether, or an incredible amount to adapt.

  9. 159
    Hank Roberts says:

    Figure 3: Global sea-level anomalies.
    From Relative outcomes of climate change mitigation related to global temperature versus sea-level rise
    Gerald A. Meehl et al.
    Nature Climate Change 2, 576–580 (2012)
    Published online 01 July 2012

    “Globally averaged sea-level rise anomaly (relative to 1986–2005) owing to thermal expansion (red line, as in Fig. 2), and the example from the IPCC AR4 (dashed green line) for RCP8.5 (a), RCP4.5 (b) and RCP2.6 (c). Note different vertical scales in the three panels; 1 m and 3 m sea-level rise values are grey dashed lines in each panel. Shading highlights uncertainty in future total sea-level rise projections, with lighter shading becoming less certain. Estimates calculated from a semi-empirical method lie near the upper limit of the shading that becomes less distinct with higher values.”

  10. 160
    Phil Scadden says:

    Hmm. Dan H. wrote: “The small changes witnessed in recent years, are not enough to affect the people.”

    Could that be translated as “changes so far haven’t affected me personally much but doing something about it might”?

  11. 161
    sidd says:

    1) This sequence of comments provides useful excercise in language intelligence. Discussion has been diverted, consider how and why.

    2) I have many farmers who are my friends. Some are staunch denialists, others otherwise. But all to a man, agree on the need for reforestation, which I note is a stabilization wedge. I find it more useful to work with them where we agree, rather than evangelize. This is not so much language as intelligence. But I will say, that while, and after, planting trees together, I find them more receptive to my opinions. Language is important but action sometimes better.


  12. 162
    Dan H. says:

    Then again you could be translating incorrectly, or perhaps, just to accommodate your own thinking. Personal bias is no substitute for scientific research.

  13. 163
    Dan H. says:


    The reforestation is a good common ground. Planting trees has many benefits to a wide range of people. Historically, farmers were at the forefront of tree cutting to make way for cropland. They later bemoaned the loss of good soil to citification. Lately, they have acknowledged the usefulness of the root systems in stabilizing the soil, and have replanted, although not to the extent that existed prior to agricultural use.
    Overall, I have found farmers much more in tune with weather-related events than the average person. This is especially true on second- and third-generation farms. This is not necessarily true about far-reaching climatic effects. Farmers have a higher stake in the weather than most, and consequently, take the time to become well-informed (usually during the winter months).

  14. 164
    Phil Scadden says:

    “Personal bias is no substitute for scientific research”.

    On this I am completely in agreement. Lets see it then.

  15. 165
    Radge Havers says:

    Greg Laden discusses science communication over at ScienceBlogs.
    Critiquing the Critique of Bill Nye’s Video:

    “…privilege of immunity from critique. They obtain this immunity by the simple act of being offended and making sure everyone knows that. This strategy may not seem like a very effective one (try it for a while, it won’t work for you over the short term) but if a social institution does it for, oh, 800 years or so at every opportunity it tends to stick.”

    That privilege seems to have bled via ideology into certain politics.

    “When looking at a single piece of work in isolation, it is almost necessary, certainly very tempting, to abide by the premise that there is a single framing or marketing technique that is most appropriate for the entire science/anti-science discussion. But there are several, and as a community I’m pretty sure we’ve mostly agreed that multiple strategies are needed.”

    Sophist conspiracy buffs are making me weary.

  16. 166
    Edward Greisch says:

    The political parties are giving classes on communication. As in: “On Tuesday, you’ll learn to create an aspirational message that connects to people’s hopes and values.”

    In a way, that is simpler than our message, but it is also more complicated because emotions are so illogical. That word “aspirational” is a hard one all by itself. The root word is “spire,” I think. They had aspirations, and we have to say: “Forget that. Times are going to get hard.”

  17. 167
    Jim Larsen says:

    166 Edward G said, “because emotions are so illogical. ”

    Yeah, but they are also perhaps 70% of the vote.

    Thus, illogical statements are ever so logical to make if one wants to win the vote.

  18. 168
    Jim Larsen says:

    I said, “Yeah, but they are also perhaps 70% of the vote.”

    And remember, the remaining 30% are selected based on how well they fit the 70%.

  19. 169
    Edward Greisch says:
    The Pokemon cartoon seems to be teaching evolution. If that works, can we teach any more science by means of cartoons? All students need to take enough laboratory courses to realize that truth comes from experiment, not argument or old books. But maybe cartoons are the right place to start.
    by DONALD PROTHERO on Aug 29 2012

A Review of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why they Deny Science—and Reality by Chris Mooney, John Wiley, New York, 327 pages.
    Reality has a well-known liberal bias.
    —Stephen Colbert

    Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.
    —Isaac Asimov

    You can’t convince of believer of anything, for their belief is not based on evidence but on a deep-seated need to believe.
    —Carl Sagan

    Hearing the speakers at the GOP convention spout their ideas this week, I’m again reminded that an entire American political party is proudly and openly espousing views that are demonstrably contrary to reality, from claiming that rape does not cause pregnancy, to claiming that global climate change is a hoax, to even weirder idea, like the bizarre notion that the President of the United States is a Kenyan Muslim.”

  20. 170
    Edward Greisch says:

    “Use values to create your message”

    “I hear a lot of questions from organizers and candidates who are fighting for progressive change in rural areas. The most common of those questions goes something like this: “How do I create a message that resonates with rural voters?”

    Whether you’re working in the bluest of blue cities, a deep purple suburb, or a flame-red ranching community, my answer is the same: create a message that’s built on values, not policy. Policy is important, but it has to come second. First, you have to convince people that you’re LIKE them, and that you share their same values. Here are a few of the big picture hows and whys for that, with a focus on why it’s powerful in rural or “conservative” areas.

    Decide what values you want to convey. Progressive policy goes hand in hand with small town values. Sticking together in tough times. Looking out for your neighbors. Hard work. Sacrifice for the greater good. Figure out which values you share with your community, and how they relate to your goals.

    Build a narrative that conveys those values. Use the art of Public Narrative to develop a Story of Self, and a Story of Us and Now, which you’ll use to connect with voters in a powerful way.

    Show how the values match the policy. Finally, draw a line between values and policy. For example, most progressive policy is based on the idea that we all look out for one another. Rural communities often have strong bonds between neighbors, and communities take pride in coming together in tough times. Show how your proposals match that value.

    Your ten point plan for fixing the local schools or investing in roads is important, but if you can’t connect those policies to values, you won’t connect at all.”

    Woops! We aren’t like them. Or are we?

  21. 171
    Edward Greisch says:
    See courses that have already happened. Yes, we are forced into being political, which is completely out of character.