Must Read: Van Jones and the English Language

[At 2 pm EST today, you can watch here streaming video of Van Jones testifying at a House hearing on “Hearing on Green Jobs, Efficiency Opportunities in Economic Stimulus Package.”]

Van Jones: building an I’m a big fan of people who are persuasive advocates for clean energy — and an even bigger fan of those who keep trying to improve their language skills.

And that brings me to Van Jones, founder of Green for All, an organization promoting green-collar jobs and opportunities for the disadvantaged (and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress). He is the subject of a must-read New Yorker profile by Elizabeth Kolbert, “Greening the Ghetto: Can a remedy serve for both global warming and poverty?”

This is the part that got my attention:

He spends a lot of time listening to speeches–the way most people download Coltrane or Mozart, he’s got Churchill and Martin Luther King on his iPod.

“Ronald Reagan I admire greatly,” he once told me. “You look at what he gets away with in a speech–unbelievable. He’s able to take fairly complex prose and convey it in such a natural and conversational way that the beauty of the language and the power of the language are there, but you stay comfortable. That’s very hard to do.”

Precisely. We are constantly being told people have the “gift of gab” as if it is something you were born with. Facility with persuasive language is a skill that is developed and improved through practice and study.

Lincoln didn’t become our most eloquent President through happenstance. He consciously decided to educate himself in rhetoric. Indeed, much as Van Jones listens to Churchill and Martin Luther King, Lincoln studied, listen to, memorized, and recited the works of the greatest master of rhetoric in the English language — William Shakespeare.

Churchill himself studied the art of rhetoric and the figures of speech all his life and at the age of 23 wrote a brilliant, unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” that explains:

The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to very few…. [T]he student of rhetoric may indulge the hope that Nature will finally yield to observation and perseverance, the key to the hearts of men.

The New Yorker article is chock-a-block with examples of persuasive language and anecdotes that anyone seeking to make an impact in the field could learn from. Here’s my favorite:

In February, 2007, Nancy Pelosi, who had recently become Speaker of the House, scheduled a meeting in San Francisco to discuss measures to combat climate change. Jones was one of forty or so people who were invited to attend. A few days before the session, he received an e-mail about the agenda. Everyone, it said, would be given a chance to briefly introduce himself. “It was like capital-letters ‘briefly,’ bold, italics, underlined–‘briefly’ introduce yourself,” he recalled.

At the meeting, Jones was seated near Pelosi, and he was the first person asked to speak. “My introduction was ‘My name is Van Jones. I’m from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. We work to get kids out of jail and into jobs,’ ” he said. “I figured, that’s pretty good. It would be very hard to get more brief than that. Then the next person says, ‘Madame Speaker,’ and I think, I kind of left that part out. That’s not so good. He got me. That’s probably better. And then he just starts talking and talking. The guy talks for two or three minutes. I’m looking around like, this guy can’t read or something. And then the next person talks for five minutes and each person is talking longer and longer, and by the time we get back around the meeting’s over.” Jones could see that Pelosi had a sheet of paper in front of her with all the attendees’ names listed on it. Next to every name except one, she had taken copious notes. Next to his name, the sheet was blank.

“I knew I had to do something to get the room back,” Jones told me. Pelosi said that they had to leave for a press conference. Were there any last questions? Jones raised his hand. “I said, ‘My question is: Will you say four words at the press conference?‘ And she just kind of looked at me. So of course at this point everybody in the room started to lean away from me.

“I said, ‘If you say these four words, I guarantee you that you’ll keep the Democratic majority in the House for the next twenty years. If you say these four words, you’ll expand the coalition around global warming in a way that nobody even thinks is possible. If you say these four words, you’ll give help and hope to people who haven’t had any for a long time.’ Finally, she said, ‘Well, what are the four words?’ I said, ‘Clean Energy Jobs Bill.’

A little while later, at the press conference, Pelosi called Jones up to the microphone. “We’ll say it together,” she said. “Clean Energy Jobs Bill!

Notice the repetition and use of simply words. Those are two of the most important elements of persuasive language — and the two most lacking in the public speech of scientists (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1“).

As an aside, whatever your discipline or career path, you are constantly going to find yourself in similar positions as Van Jones was here — one of many people in a large group trying to persuade a senior person who has the influence and connections to make things happen. This is the moment that rhetoric shines. Most of the people in the room will be smart and substantive. But it is only those who are pithy and persuasive who will stand out.

I recommend reading the whole article and listening to Van Jones whenever you can. You can hear Van Jones — and Labor Secretary designee Hilda Solis — speaking on the Green Collar economy here at YouTube, which has many of his speeches.

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11 Responses to Must Read: Van Jones and the English Language

  1. paulm says:

    Al needs to read up on this.

  2. Max says:

    I too thought this was an excellent article about an inspiring figure. I also think Elizabeth Colbert knew very well that the economist she quoted as criticizing Van’s approach (with the analogy about making dinner in the shower) was making an ass of himself, and I think that should be obvious to most readers too.

  3. Andy says:

    I’m a big fan of Aldo Leopold’s eloquent style.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Sorta off-topic, but I thought the idea of paper houses is too good not to pass on:,1518,601067,00.html

  5. hapa says:

    i have a feeling mr gore concentrates on small-group persuasion.

  6. Van Jones is part of the problem, not the solution.

    It will do you no good whatsoever and everybody great harm if you continue to try to fool Mother Nature. It can’t be done. “Green” means nuclear whether anybody likes it or not. I am not representing any industry. I am a member of the Association of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy purely because nuclear energy is the ONLY way to replace coal fired power plants in most locations. Yes, there are places where wind works, there are places where geothermal works and there are places where solar works in the daytime. But in most places there isn’t enough wind that isn’t steady enough and geothermal is possible in few locations. NASA says wind is at best a 15% solution, and most of the wind is in very inconvenient places. NASA is correct because otherwise farmers would never have converted their water pumps from wind powered to electric and mariners would never have replaced their sailing ships with steamers. Van Jones is part of the problem because he deludes people into believing in impossible promises concerning wind power. Wind power is NOT going to save most of us, and batteries are far too expensive and polluting to make solar work. Wind power will never provide the required energy and therefore cannot provide the promised jobs.

    If you genuinely want to help prevent the extinction on Homo Sapiens and the fall of civilization, help me help people overcome their irrational fear of all things nuclear. ALL of the “problems” of nuclear power have been solved while you were out protesting, except for the ignorance/paranoia problem.
    Americans are paranoid about all things nuclear. NMR [Nuclear Magnetic Resonance] had to be renamed MRI [Magnetic Resonance Imaging] to get sick people into the scanner. Apparently, the average American doesn’t know that all matter, including people, is made of atoms and that atoms have nuclei. The NMR/MRI machine aligns the spins of the nuclei in the atoms in the patient using a big magnet. Since different atoms have different nuclear spin resonances, the NMR/MRI machine can see one element at a time. I have no idea what the sick sick patients were thinking.

  7. DavidONE says:

    Asteroid Miner Snr., 1961: “Man will NEVER go to the moon. It’s a ridiculous idea.”

    In fact, that’s a poor analogy. We have the technology to be 100% renewable, whereas we did not have the technology to reach the moon in 1961.

    All that has been lacking, so far, is political motivation and bravery.

    > …irrational fear of all things nuclear.

    No, it’s not irrational. It’s borne of an understanding of the significant safety concerns regarding nuclear energy.

    Nuclear is *not* the solution. It may be a necessary part, but only as a last resort where renewables cannot be deployed quickly enough.

    As for your irrelevant rant about MRI scanners – it’s irrelevant.

  8. Rick C says:

    >>NASA says wind is at best a 15% solution, and most of the wind is in very inconvenient places.

  9. Rick C says:

    >NASA says wind is at best a 15% solution, and most of the wind is in very inconvenient places.

    Asteroid Miner, you’ve never heard of high voltage DC transmission lines have you? They can transmitt power to distances of 2 to 3000 miles. The fact that wind turbines here in Texas are located where hardly anyone lives hasn’t stopped us from being number 1 in the nation for wind turbine powered energy. The Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, signed a bill into law that will provide for sighting and funding of high tension power lines to get that wind generated power back to Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston where it is needed. The wind blows constantly in the Pan Handle and in the Corpus Christi area. The wind also blows constantly in one or the other area of the country. Where wind isn’t blowing wind turbines can be turning and generating power where the wind is blowing.

  10. Greg Y says:

    If it takes 10 years to get a Nuclear plant up and going & there is a very very limited capacity to manufacture new plants then they are not much of a solution, particularly when fuel is about to become both scarce & expensive now that high yield mines are heading towards the wall. New technologies will no doubt circumvent the problem but not before a lot more R&D expenditure.

    Concentrated Solar /thermal is here now, has baseload capacity, is readily constructed using regular materials and has no long term harmful leftovers. There are many variations on the theme and no shortage of suitable areas to operate a plant. One more tool in the chest to provide alternatives to coal/oil.

    It is probably unpopular because it isn’t necessary to be a major multi-national to operate one. Can’t have the peasants making there own energy now, can we….

  11. Dan B says:

    It’s amazing that there are so many passionate and well informed voices on this post.

    When everyone comprehends the power tool that’s been handed to them by Joe……

    Well.. We’ll rock the world.

    We’ll transform the planet.

    Right now we’re stuck and stupid.

    What’s stuck and stupid?

    Language, at least the words we use to describe how “they” are not the solution.

    The engineers who put me in a comfortable seat on a flight from LA to Seattle would be baffled. They saw a vision that made that comfortable seat possible. Embrace the next vision and rock the world.

    Simple, …. if you understand “rhetoric”.