Book review: Language Intelligence by Joe Romm

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.

Posted by John Cook on Tuesday, 14 August, 2012

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