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Book review: Language Intelligence by Joe Romm

Posted on 14 August 2012 by John Cook

In early 2011, Joe Romm blogged about using the rhetorical techniques of Abraham Lincoln to be more persuasive communicators. When he promised an upcoming book that would delve into the topic of rhetoric in greater detail, I awaited it with much anticipation. That book, Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga, is finally available. Yes, you read that title right. This is possibly the first time Lady Gaga has been listed amongst such esteemed company.

I'm happy to say Language Intelligence lives up to the expectation. The book promises to help us "become more persuasive, more memorable and harder to manipulate". Romm achieves this by revealing the secrets of rhetoric, the art of verbal persuasion. This isn't a book about sneaky manipulation (although there is a chapter on how to identify such attempts in order to avoid being manipulated). This is about harnessing the power of language to craft compelling, memorable and emotionally engaging communication. These are skills all communicators need to hone, particularly scientists whose nature, let’s face it, is to bleed their content of any emotion or character.

The first myth that Romm debunks is the notion that rhetoric is about soaring flowery language. On the contrary, there's a whole chapter "Short words win" devoted to keeping your language simple and natural. Winston Churchill, a master rhetorician that Romm references regularly, advocates the use of "short homely words of common usage" which have power and stick in the mind. George Orwell offers a simple rule of thumb: "Never use a long word when a short one will do".

A key chapter is on repetition and begins with a quote from Frank Luntz, the political strategist who infamously (and effectively) advised Republicans on how to confuse the public about climate change. Luntz advises that you repeat your message again and again and again: when you're absolutely sick of saying it, your target audience has heard it for the first time. This is sound advice for long-term messaging but Romm also talks about repetition in the way we put our words together. One form of repetition is rhyme (if you don't repeat, you can't compete). Another is anaphora, repeating the same phrase at the start of your sentences (we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them in the fields, we shall fight them in the air). One of the most popular forms of repetition is chiasmus, repeating words in inverse order (ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country). As these iconic examples demonstrate, repetition helps messages stick.

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.

Lastly, Romm advises on how to spot someone using rhetoric to deceive or manipulate. This is just as important as understanding how to communicate better – learning how to see through misinformation and deceptive arguments. Actually, I would’ve liked to have seen more on this topic (I do have somewhat of an interest in the science of debunking). A key to seeing through misinformation is understanding the rhetorical techniques of misinformers, and Romm only touches the tip of the iceberg here.

Language Intelligence is extremely readable, due to the fact that Romm practices what he preaches, employing the full kitbag of rhetorical techniques that he expounds about. The principles of rhetorics are illustrated with colourful examples from some of history’s greatest figures. It’s not just a user manual on how to communicate but also a riveting account of the history of communication. Language Intelligence is a must-read for anyone who seeks to communicate better or safeguard themselves from rhetorical manipulation. If you’re a communicator, a blogger, a public speaker or merely someone with a Twitter account, adopt this book as your user manual in how to tune up your talks, posts and tweets to maximum impact.

Update: I posted this review on Amazon so feel free to give it a "found this review helpful" rating.

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Comments 1 to 29:

  1. Good luck!
    The reason that communicating global warming and other upcoming environmental catastrophes is that a huge change in mindset is required. Up to now our society has operated under the assumption that we can do anything, we are in control, our desire for economic development cannot be modified in any way. All this has to change.
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  2. I'm an assiduous a keen reader of Joe's blog and I go there often to find out what's happening in both science and policy. He's an excellent writer, too, and I'm so sure that I can learn lots from him that I immediately bought a Kindle copy of his new book.

    But (there's always a "but") I wonder how effective his style is in getting inside the heads of the doubtful and disengaged and actually changing their minds? There was a good comment on Planet3.0 , one I didn't entirely agree with, but which did express very well why some people often recoil from forceful rhetoric. Dan Thompson wrote:

    Now, I will say, for me, the recent Hansen paper makes sense. I like its sober approach. But when that paper is rolled up and I’m beaten with it, figuratively of course, what choice to I have other than to take the opposite stance and fight back?

    I saw an informal summary of Hansens’ paper published by Columbia.edu leads with a photo of a huge forest fire. It’s like they need that bit of drama to bring readers in. But drama quickly puts us on edge, feeling that we’re being knowingly manipulated, with the result being that you don’t quite trust what you’re reading.


    I'm relying here on my familiarity with Joe's blogging style, not with his book, which I haven't yet read. I will be interested to read how he deals with the psychology of persuasion. Maybe his straight-ahead style is the only one that works in today's polarized world of American politics, but I can't help thinking that he could use a little more honey with his vinegar.
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  3. John, or whoever has read the book,

    Lady Gaga's listing among the esteemed persona as mentioned above is intriguing yet left unexplained. Does anyone have the explanation (best if supported by relevant citation) of such listing?
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    Response: [JC] He cites examples of Lady Gaga using rhetorical techniques like repetition and metaphors in her songs. You'll have to read the book for more details :-)
  4. Rhetoric aside, the laws of physics even apply in the parallel universe inhabited by Sen. Inhofe, the Heartland institute , Plimer et al. :)
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  5. chriskoz@3:

    I think it's because of the way Lady Gaga uses repetition and extended metaphor. Also, her videos get a staggering number of hits, so she must be doing something right. There are limits though, I'm sure that Joe is not advising John Cook or any of the rest of us to don a raw-meat bikini, effective attention-getter though that would be.

    Chris Mooney has an extended interview with Joe Romm.
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  6. I haven't read the book (of course). Nonetheless, in true internet form, I'll comment authoritatively on the review.

    Firstly, all this is well known to anyone with any background in public speaking outside science. The value in Joe's work is therefore in bringing it to a specific audience and presumably in introducing some field specific examples.

    Beyond that, it gets messy. The problem with communicating in metaphor is that metaphors can only be pushed so far. If you give your audience a partial understanding of a system based on a metaphor, you also give them the tools to reach wrong conclusions on the basis of that incomplete understanding. That's a tough problem. I'm not saying don't use metaphor (indeed arguably all of science is an exercise in metaphor), but that doing requires care - it can backfire.

    This is a symptom of a deeper problem (which can probably be expressed more precisely using a sociological terminology of which I am unaware). Our natural mode of reasoning is something I call 'social reasoning'. In this mode, arguments which are simple and link in to things we already know are the most persuasive.

    However, this mode of reasoning is not well adapted to scientific exploration - this is presumably a contributing factor to the scientific hiatus between ancient Greece and the Enlightenment. Effective scientific reasoning is logically consistent and deeply evidence based, both of which compromise simple expression. Thus scientific arguments are frequently less 'fit' in social discourse than social reasoning.

    Again, that's a tough problem. I've got ideas here; Romm may have more, so I'll certainly try and make time to read the book.
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  7. Nicely review.
    I particularly liked the use of repetition on paragraph 4. I wonder if we'll see, in future blog posts, more use of the techniques you illustrate in the fourth paragraph, i.e. repetition...
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  8. Good review. The scientific community has great difficulty in communicating with the general public, via a media that relies far too much on false equivalency and a "he said, she said" mode of exposition. Contrairians assert that "it's all a hoax," and the response is what one might expect from a journal abstract: full of qualifications and caveats. The advice to keep it simple and repeat needs to be taken more to heart. Use simple, declarative sentences, without qualification, as much as that may pain most scientists. For example: "The best science shows that the human species is in peril." James Hansen, at least, has figured this out. But too many scientists think even speaking to the public directly somehow sullies their reputation.
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  9. I will also read the book and then comment further. In the meantime, as regards the use of metaphors to convey complex scientific concepts, I think one critical key is to have mastery of the subject at hand, and being able to relate it to layfolk in terms of a common everyday occurance/object/action/thing with which they are familiar.

    Before becoming a geologist in the late 90s, I spent close to 30 years as a professional auto mechanic. I "retired" from that field in the early 90s to pursue my long-postponed secondary education.

    Fast forward to 1997: I applied to Columbia University Biosphere II's NASA-funed internship and when writing up my resume, I chose to leave out all my car-related experience, thinking it utterly irrelevant to doing work in the earth sciences. My then-girlfriend, who was and is much more astute than I about such matters, cautioned me against that, stating those experiences and expertise might be of interest to someone reading my app. So, in went the references to my experience repairing Jaguars and Rolls-Royces....>-/ I was doubbtful anyone in an earth science field would care....

    Lo and behold, when I was accepted to the program, the head of the BSII project at the time, Bill Harris (also head of NSF, at the time) contacted me and did a final interview with me, on the phone. From memory, this is essentially what Harris told me, as to why he chose me.

    "I have a Corvette, and I wonder, when you get down here (Oracle, AZ) would you be willing to help with some issues on the car?"

    The short of it is: Over the years, my 'mastery,' such as it is, of things automotive has been *invaluable* in being able to convey complex scientific issues to those not so trained. It is true, as someone mentioned, that metaphor can only go so far, but if by using that technique, you can get a person's brain to 'click into' the key concept you're trying to convey, then it usually is easier to trend towards more esoteric and scholastic means to discuss the issues at hand.

    I look forward to reading Romm's insights.
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  10. Andy@5:

    --Not only are there local ordinances that proscribe me EVER 'donning a bikini' in public, there is also...

    --NO WAY any person, perhaps especially male persons, can resist clicking your link.

    I had never seen Gaga in the aforementioned carne-suit, but...*now* I have. Time to go eat lunch....!

    Back to the regularly-scheduled science discussion....;)
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  11. Might I also suggest another book which is highly relevant, even 50+ years after its first publishing: "Language In Thought And Action," by S.I. Hayakawa.

    Highly recommended!

    Language In Thought And Action



    http://www.amazon.com/Language-Thought-Action-Fifth-Edition/dp/0156482401
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  12. Look forward to reading the book. It's not easy to step outside your comfort zone and speak to an unfamiliar audience, especially a 'mass' audience.

    It's easy to talk to colleagues and peers - everyone speaks the same language.

    Move beyond that to a specific audience and it's not that hard for most of us, provided we have a reasonable idea of how much they know about the subject.

    Go beyond that to a mixed audience comprised of people who have some understanding through to people who have no understanding and are openly fearful of the subject, even to the extent of being hostile - and it is a whole other challenge. Politicians and community leaders have to face this when speaking in public. They don't always succeed in communicating complex issues.

    Most scientists don't ever have to speak about their work to anyone but other scientists. Some have to communicate with policy makers, investors or other lay persons. Climate scientists are increasingly being asked to speak to all sorts - from the eminently uninformed to decision-makers (not that they are mutually exclusive).

    Talking about science shouldn't be left up to researchers and it's not. Thankfully there are people like John Cook and his crew and Joe Romm et al who are trained in science but work as science communicators.
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  13. I read an essay by George Orwell, and remember a few things, but the one that stuck was to invent new metaphors. Never use tired old metaphors, or cliches.
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  14. Andy S: Quite the contrary, according to recent research

    Researchers looking at Stephen Colbert's 'truthiness' demonstrated that "People are more likely to believe something is true if a photograph appears alongside the story".
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  15. Ah... how great this moment is.... we fully accept the science of global warming. Now, we arrive at a point of studying human reactions and the psychology of communicating needs to change.

    We are fully confident that the physics of climate change will unfold as they must - and that humans will meet and respond as we can.

    The science is now shifted from climate science to studying our species.
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  16. BWTrainer@14

    I fully agree that using photographs or other images can be very effective in communication, even the "decorative" ones used in the study you referred to. The point about the forest fire photo was that it apparently (er) backfired on the writer of the comment that I quoted.

    I saw the same photo and it had no conscious effect on me (it was included, coincidentally, in the previous SkS post to this one), but it obviously caused a negative response in at least one person. Incidentally, this discussion led me to check the wildfire statistics for the USA and it appears that this year-to-date is bad but not exceptional, despite the record heat and drought. Thus, this photograph not only raises hackles but also provides a segue for an otherwise irrelevant "skeptic" talking point.

    My concern is simply that rhetoric, because it appeals to the emotions, can have unpredictable effects on those who do not share your worldview. We have to be careful to measure our success not just on how we rouse the people who already get it on climate change but on the unintended reactions of the those who don't.
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  17. re: "photographs" to accompany message

    Lady Gaga can sing and flaunt and make music videos. She can fill a small stadium.

    Madonna in concert mentioned the trials of the Pussy Riot hoolicanistas.. and in a few seconds greatly influence their fate.

    When the world, when all media voices decides to face up to global warming, we will. For now we are on the edges, the mainstream media is in a plundering carbon mode -- practicing various forms of denial - and I suspect fully aware of the bubble.
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  18. Andy S @16, we cannot judge an attempted communication by the fact that it has a negative effect on a given person unless that person was the particular target audience. Some people, quite simply, are primed to find fault with certain messages, or messages from certain people. Such people will then seize on anything as a reason to not like the message, or to reject it. That they should do so is no indication of the effectiveness of the communication. Indeed, that one such person should seize on the picture of a forest fire in a discussion of extreme heat events to reject the message is probably an indication that the communication was effective rather than the opposite. What did that person expect? That discussions of extreme heat should be entirely isolated from any mention (or illustration) of the potential consequences of extreme heat?
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  19. Tom Curtis @18-I agree,and your comment made me reflect back on Barry Bickmore's idea (paraphrased),that when AGW "skeptics" pick on minor points and employ logical fallacies to "win" and argument,that they are "trying too hard".
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  20. Tom@18

    The kind of person who I quoted in my comment @3 (intelligent and apparently uncommitted) ought to be our target. If they take the trouble to tell us why our message is not getting through, perhaps we should listen. We shouldn't blame them for not reacting in the way that we think people logically should react. It's not, after all, as if we are actually winning the communication war.

    I sometimes feel that our opponents are better at messaging than we are, not because they are more skilled in rhetoric but because they understand how to appeal to people on an emotional level, at the level of instinctive values. This area has been explored recently by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. This book review sums up his argument quite well.
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  21. Andy S @20, I have difficulty buying that the person you quote is both intelligent and uncommitted. It never escapes my attention that the various "sins" of communication supposedly violated by those trying to communicates mainstream climate science, and which supposedly have turned people of, have been committed in spades by opponents of mainstream climate science without turning anybody of. That means the supposed sin did not turn anybody of, but was merely seized upon as a pretext to allow the person to stick with the belief they found comfortable. It also means that no matter how well crafted the communication of mainstream science, because the failures are typically due to pretexts rather than reasons, some pretext will be found.

    This does not mean the communication of climate science cannot be improved. There have been some genuine howlers by people advocating for action on climate change. But the primary need is not some fundamental change in the way we report climate science - but a fundamental recognition of by mainstream media of the institutional barriers to accurate reporting on climate science, with an effort made to eliminate those barriers.
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  22. Good conversation. Andy - I agree that some people may be turned off or feel manipulated by something like this picture, but I also think that's a small subset of people. Those of us looking at SkS (or Planet 3.0) are "high information", at least on these topics. So we're probably more likely to recognize the rhetoric and not be swayed by it, or even be angered by it.

    We're not representative of the population at large though. Knowing how much people like pictures, and knowing that most people only read headlines, I think the overall impact will be beneficial.

    While some might consider it intellectually lazy to resort to pictures and vivid headlines that appeal to emotion rather than reason, the pictures and headlines are (generally) supported by data. We all know that no one ever let facts get in the way of a good argument, so facts can't be the lede. Emotions rule, so effective communication must play to them.
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  23. The repetition thing works in other ways. People tend to forget that there is always a someone new in the audience who have never heard it before. Always. I learned that by teaching Gr 8 Maths.

    We tend to get bored with repeating our own ideas. But if its a good one, and it works, remember that there is someone who hasn't heard it, even if it is a Gr 8 Maths student.

    You see, I just repeated myself. Subtle aren't I?

    Also I am reminded of a recent (6-12 months) controversy here in Australia about a minor paper on sea level. From memory the paper reported on the decrease in acceleration of sea level rise in the south-west Pacific. By the time a certain newspaper chain was through with it all anyone ever remembered was the word "decrease".
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  24. I can't cite the provenance, but I have read elsewhere (and possibly on comment threads here) that "humans are feeling animals that think, rather than thinking animals that feel".

    In my (admittedly nonexpert) opinion, communicating science effectively to people not trained or practiced in emphasizing rational-type thinking means appeals to both the knowledge and to emotion. It means including the data and illustrative anecdotes.

    By contrast, we see how promoters of pseudoscience and (with regards to climate science & policy debate) pseudoskepticism tend to resort to appeals to emotion only, or appeals to ignorance, or rely on anecdotes as a substitute for data. Effective communication, perhaps, but without the backup of good science that makes it effective science communication.
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  25. I just would like to say a word or two from a layperson's view. But before I start.
    First, you, scientists can not compromise science when you talk science and explain. We do know and expect scientists talk weired. I agree 100% with KevinC

    "Beyond that, it gets messy. The problem with communicating in metaphor is that metaphors can only be pushed so far. If you give your audience a partial understanding of a system based on a metaphor, you also give them the tools to reach wrong conclusions on the basis of that incomplete understanding. That's a tough problem. I'm not saying don't use metaphor (indeed arguably all of science is an exercise in metaphor), but that doing requires care - it can backfire."
    Thus my original idea of cultivate more sarogates in the public here.

    However, I must add that 'metaphors' are not an explaination. It is actually asking you to acknowledge the obious. It just makes it easier for us or me to (mis)understand it. I tend to use analogies in my life around me to see what becasue this science things are not easy or familier thing to understand it. So I have to resort to everday analogy even though I'd know it's not exactly the same. What else should I do? Would I have to take a lesson on the net? That is why they use it.
    What you have to understand is 'why' and 'how' do they use their metaphors and rhetorics, their basic premisses and logic for them, misunderstandings.

    For example, they say "Why greenland is called Greenland?". What they mean is that it was warm before even Greenland was green once. But if you relpy by saying "Oh, it was a viking named Rick the red once named it so becasue .... " But, but that's not gonna do it. It just becomes he says and you say. Both are not on the same premise nor logic. they apeal to my intuition and you apeal to my understanding of history. What if I don't remember? They'd just keep repeating it.
    I'd say "Why Iceland is called Iceland, then?". Now both are on the same illogical premise and would give the 3rd party, the public to rethink their basic logic and hopefully would be willing to listen to real scientific explainations. By the way the 3rd party, the majory of the public is the one you'd have to explain not the sceptics.

    One more thing about 'rhetric' and 'metaphore' or using big words is that they prey on people's vanity, pride, fear of embarassment(and lack of knowledge). They always dance around it. Idea is they don't give you a chance to think for ourselves. We'd rather keep our pride, vanity.

    My point is that you don't have to or necessary to use it but you should understand why and how we, I tend to fall into their rhetrics and metaphores. You could explain it if you understood how we, I misunderstood it.
    Oh, one more thing, you'd have to be careful when you use everyday words like, "warm water from equator is cooled when it reaches the poles" or "Heat is lost (or leaked) when ... " something like that. I tend to hink "lost" "leak" "cooled" mean heat is gone, gone for ever. Then I ask myself "Huh?", am utterly confused after I read some of your stuff.

    As for Lady Gaga, I don't care for her, I'm too old but I think she speaks young people's language. I don't think it's something to do with rhetrics. Just my 2 cents.
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  26. Is Joe giving out any autographed versions? Any book signings in the US West coast?
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  27. Myers-Briggs identifies this problem (communication between rational/analytic and the rest of humanity). Those who are iNtuitive (as opposed to those who are Sensors) - see the world in concepts. This is 25% of the population. 75% see the world concretely - thus the power of metaphors.

    I repeat the following clear thought as my signature on any internet site I post on (excepting SkS) - "The world is warming; man is to blame". It sometimes starts a conversation. I encourage anyone who posts in areas with signatures to find a similar simple statement to increase the amount of repetition of message. You are certainly welcome to use the sentence I use.
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  28. I have been using much the same:
    "The world is warming and mankind is the cause of it."
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  29. Romm points out that when you're speaking to a critical audience, they're primed to reject facts that contradict their world view. We have to change or shake the world view before we get to facts. That's where priming and metaphor and repetition and stories and questions work. Want to see a good example? Study the entire lyrics of "Like a Rolling Stone." Romm uses some of it, but the whole song is a great tutorial. Most of Dylan's lyrics are easily available online.
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