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.
– Heidi Cullen is Vice President for External Communications and Chief Climatologist for Climate Central. This was reprinted with permission.