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Romm’s Book ‘Language Intelligence’ Insightful, Important

First there was intelligence, then came emotional intelligence. Now Joe Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and well-known ClimateProgress.org blogger, introduces us to the concept of language intelligence in his thoughtful new book Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga. Romm defines language intelligence as “the ability to convince people of something by moving them both intellectually and emotionally, at both a conscious and unconscious level.” For those of us working to explain the science and impacts of climate change to the general public, the book is a reference manual for how to be a more effective communicator.

But it’s far more than just a handy how-to guide. At its heart, Language Intelligence is a fascinating history of rhetoric, what Dante called “the sweetest of all the other sciences.” As Romm details, rhetoric was evident in Homer’s 8th century classics The Iliad and The Odyssey and dates back even further — to the Five Books of Moses.

Genesis by itself is a complete rhetoric handbook, containing all the figures of speech, as we will see. The very first story of Adam and Eve reveals the dangerous power of speech. The serpent, “more subtle than any other wild creature,” beguiles Eve with deceptive language and false promises into eating from the tree of knowledge, leading to banishment from Paradise. Such are the bitter fruits of lack of language intelligence.

The figures of speech, as Romm illustrates, include: metaphors (Abraham Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” is a masterful example), hyperbole (which Aristotle said is used by angry men), and chiasmus (Mae West’s famous line, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men”).

With chapter headings like “The First Rule: Short Words Win” and “If You Don’t Repeat, You Can’t Compete,” Romm walks readers through the basics of good communication by busting myths and offering useful advice. For example:

The big myth about rhetoric is that rhetoric equals big words. If I were to wish but one point to stick with you here, it would be that short words are the best words. Short words win. Short words sell. In an era of snappy sound-bites and sexy slogans, the pitch must be pithy or the channel will be changed. “There is no more important element in the technique of rhetoric than the continual employment of the best possible word,” wrote a young Winston Churchill.

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.

Kindle page on Amazon

« Commentary


By Loving (Washington/DC/20002)
on August 13th, 2012

Joe Romm is a nice man.  I truly suspect that the same can be said of Nevile Chamberlain, Nero (tho I’ve studied him not at all).... 

“Example is not the major thing in influencing people.  It is the only thing,”  Albert Schweitzer.  It is indisputable that 80% of communication is unverbal.  Unviolent action, one of the only two ways to bring radical change, is quintessentially unverbal ACTION; life service, not lip service.

The problem is, Romm, in one of the most pivotal, responsible positions in world history, yes, is determined to have the answer to every political problem to be ‘rhetoric.’  Do women have the right to vote because of rhetoric?  Is that how slavery was ended?  Was the removal of Mubarak a rhetorical achievement?  And civil rights, ending the Vietnam War, apartheid….?

I have nothing but affection for Joe Romm, but there could hardly be a better example of the old maxim - ‘If your only tool is a hammer, then the solution to every problem is a nail,’ or something like that.  Joe likes to write.  He is good at it. It is safe.  You can do it from a comfortable office.  You can make good money at it.  But those who serve humanity don’t start, or end with, ‘what do I like to do,’ they relentlessly hold themselves to the standard, what do these times demand of me?  Of us?  Period.

Joe is in a position of leadership on the most crucial issue ever to confront humanity, environmental Armageddon with just seconds left on the clock,  and to be using his valuable time and ours, directed toward rhetoric, when the competition is not rhetoric, but, A. the most heavily financed army ever to be on earth, the fossil fuel industry after $20 to 80 trillion in revenues, and B. the catatonic penchant of US citizens, especially the ‘let them eat cake’ left, liberals, progressive-ino’s… to be bystanders in what needs to be a participatory government, Democracy, unending unviolent war, is a miraculous feat of madness by the otherwise brilliant, nice, immensely informed bureacrat, writer, blogger, and so far totally unsuccessful for decades in achieving his aims, Mr. Romm.

I wish Joe well.  But frankly, my concern is the next 200 billion of my children, and, well, ‘Nero worked on his rhetoric, while Rome burned.’

‘My problem is not the violent racists.  My problem is the good people that will not stand and do what is necessary to win,’ MLK Jr paraphrase.  Funny,  the world has scarcely ever seen a greater rhetorician than Dr. King, and yet, like Gandhi and the other great Unviolent Leaders, Dr. King exhorted people to put their bodies in the way, not their lips.

The inscription on Gandhi’s statue, here in DC, ‘My Life is my Message.’  But hey, he didn’t go to MIT.  He isn’t fawned over by the do nothing left.  So, let’s just go with Mr. Romms absurdity, shall we?  I mean, if the next 200 billion children that we will thereby condemn to planetary hell don’t have a sense of humor, well, what worth are they? 

What a tragedy.

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By Raymond Welch (San Rafael CA 94903)
on August 14th, 2012

Words inspire action.

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By M Tucker
on August 17th, 2012

I agree with both Raymond and Loving (partially.) Words do inspire action and the liberals, progressives, and the Democratic Party desperately need inspiration. And, to achieve the goal of ending fossil fuel use, thus ending the resources that the mega-multinational corporations depend to become the wealthiest ever in human history, will take action. It will take people willing to “stand and do what is necessary to win.” Of course those corporations are already ahead. They are already mobilizing public opinion against action. They have taken the rhetorical high ground and, so far, command the field. We must do the same.

The Occupy movement was the most remarkable display of public protest I have seen since the protests against the Vietnam war and there is no reason the fight against anthropogenic global climate disruption cannot do the same but on a far larger level. It will take inspiring leaders using inspiring language and that is where Joe Romm’s book comes in. With every movement that Loving mentioned one can find writers and speakers who inspired others to take up the fight. It will take “bodies in the way” but also a great deal of inspiration. And Gandhi, MLK, Desmond Tutu, to name just a very few who have put their bodies on the line, are deeply admired by those who agitate for change today.

Remember rhetoric can and has been used for both good and evil. The side that supports the status quo is ahead in the propaganda game but their ministers of propaganda are, at best, minimally inspiring, at least in my estimation. I think that the “climate hawks” have a much richer pool of talent and Joe Romm’s book helps them with the all important messaging.

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By Jonathan Katz (Los Angeles, CA)
on August 29th, 2012

I think that Loving’s comments fall well away from the mark.  Romm’s discussion of rhetoric does not suggest that being knowledgeable and skillful in the use of figures of speech, is a substitute for values, facts, analysis and logic.  Romm has for many years been concerned that the public, and the politicians that slavishly listen to them, are not able to hear and understand the facts presented by science and scientists.  Language Intelligence is an effort to elucidate why people don’t understand, and there is lots of evidence that the delivery system- communication from other humans- has a lot to do with it.  Romm did not discover this insight- he is simply presenting what others have learned, and practice.  Given that basic premise, rhetoric skillfully used can be a very effective tool to use in delivering your message.  That’s it folks.  Romm points out repeatedly- note the passages about Shakespeare’s work - that rhetoric works equally well whether its used by good or evil.
The key deficiency in Loving’s message is to suggest that somehow rhetoric and action are mutually exclusive.
There is no reason we cannot unify our messages with our lives, so we are Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk

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