A remarkable guide to maximizing the power of words
By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Sep 11, 2012 | Comments (13)
Bill Clinton’s masterful speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention had pundits marveling at his ability to convey complicated facts and ideas in such a clear, powerful and compelling manner. Really good political speech is like that—it is an almost lost art called rhetoric that, these days, is taught to very, very few people, but without it you will have a far harder time succeeding. You can be brilliant, as many scientists are. You can have the biggest, most bold and beautiful ideas, as many would-be leaders do. But unless you can master the tools and techniques of rhetoric, of wrapping those big, bold beautiful ideas in the clarity and soaring language of emotion, they will go largely unheard. The world will miss a critical contribution. Progress will be slowed, or worse, turned back by others who use their mastery of rhetoric for more selfish ends.
We’ve seen this happen throughout history, for both good and ill. Adolf Hitler used his mastery of rhetoric to turn the tide of the world’s most scientifically advanced society backwards into darkness. Winston Churchill’s powerful rhetoric called Britain to her finest hour. Barack Obama’s brilliant rhetoric inspired the United States to elect a junior US Senator with a funny name as its president. Where eloquent rhetoric leads, society follows, because rhetoric has the ring and power of truth.
Today scientists, especially, are victims of their own lack of rhetorical mastery, and we all pay the price. Consider how action on climate change has been delayed for decades now by more skillful communicators working for selfish ends. Scientists have the truth on their side, but by and large they’ve done a poor job of communicating it. Science often runs counter to common sense, which frequently deceives us, but rhetoric appeals to that common sense. Consider how fundamentalists argue so compellingly that we should “teach the controversy” in science classes between those who argue the evidence says we’ve evolved over millions of years, and those who say God created us some six thousand years ago. “Don’t be afraid of healthy debate,” they argue, “it’s so important for our children.” Their rhetoric has effectively shut down the teaching of evolution — the foundation of modern medicine, the entire field of biology, and the emerging biotech economy — in many classrooms across the nation.
Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga, the new book by scientist turned political communicator Joe Romm, seeks to free those big, bold, beautiful ideas by giving scientists, innovators, executives, and political operators alike the skills and insights they need to get their ideas across in ways that can change the world, by using the closely guarded tools of the world’s most powerful rhetoricians.
Romm gave me a copy of the manuscript way back in April. I’ve taken this long to review it because I wanted to savor it and reread it. The book is such a rich pleasure because it takes readers on a trip through history from a rhetorician’s point of view, looking at how words move the world, from the earth-changing to the nuts and bolts. From why Lincoln chose to paraphrase Jesus when he said “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” to how Tina Brown figured out how to win an audience back when she took over the ailing Newsweek magazine.
Language Intelligence draws from an astonishing breadth of the most eloquent, moving, and world-changing writing, speeches and songs of all time. Its many entertaining insights will arm you whether you’re a teen arguing with your parents or a corporate CEO taking your company in a new direction — or maybe even a gladiator in the political battle over climate change, as its author Joe Romm is, at Climate Progress, where his effort to win over public opinion before it’s too late have led many to consider him one of the world’s foremost bloggers.
The man speaks from experience. Romm has a PhD in Physics from MIT, but he also published a paper in the journal Hamlet Studies in 1988. He understands the difference between knowledge and rhetoric, and how to effective wrap one in the other, and make complex ideas sound like common sense. There are few warriors of words more skilled, scarred, battle-tested, or more well-read. If you want to win the argument, in politics, in business, in life, Language Intelligence is an essential, entertaining and inspiring weapon in your arsenal of letters.
Shawn Lawrence Otto is an award-winning author, science advocate and filmmaker. He is cofounder and CEO of ScienceDebate.org in which Obama and Romney debate science policy, and author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,"One of the most important books written in America in the last decade." Starred Kirkus Review; Starred Publishers Weekly review. He is also an award-winning screenwriter. Visit him at http://www.shawnotto.com. Like him on Facebook. Join ScienceDebate.org to get presidential and congressional candidates to debate science.
Tags: Anticience, Climate Change, Economics, Politics, Republican, Environment