Twenty five centuries ago, long before the start of the common era, the written record about the spoken language began. The ancient Greeks were not likely the first to study speech and communication, and they certainly were not the first to write stuff down, but among the early writers, they were probably the first to write about how we construct messages and stories with words.
Today we are engaged in a great battle between those who respect, even demand, the truth, and those who care more about partisan power than advancing or even using knowledge.
Perhaps this is why we tend to quote the dead more than ever. During the current election season, I’ve heard the late great Senator Paul Wellstone (1944-2002) quoted at nearly every meeting of loyal Democrats. “We all do better when we all do better.” “The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” “I’m short, I’m Jewish and I’m a liberal”
We remember the inspiring words of JFK. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” “A child miseducated is a child lost.” “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” “Ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country.”
To turn to the living for one moment, Gloria Steinem. “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” “Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” “Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.”
What do these memorable, moving, or emotive missives have in common? They all rely on rhetorical practices that have been part of language since, possibly, some ancient early stage of this unique human ability. Alliteration, Allusion, and Analogy are to language what a good set of planes and saws it to a carpenter. Parallelism, balance, and anaphora are used repeatedly. It is not hyberbole to suggest that metaphor underlies all of these statements. Human language, when used well, can shape minds, steer conversations, and cause more change than any military weapon.
Yet progressives, Democrats, and others on the left, even with their deep respect for and love of education, can’t seem to create a message that serves the struggle of keeping civilization on track. Why? I might guess it is because the eschewing of rhetorical forms has become the style of the day. Or, it could be because learning the rhetorical forms that work is hard to do, and our school systems, burdened under the ever increasing weight of standards across a wide range of subjects, had to squeeze something out, so rhetoric had to go. Whatever the reason, we are paying a cost. We need to dedicate serious effort to changing this.
Maybe it is a difference between private and public schools. Maybe the people who write for Republicans are from Exeter and the people who write for Democrats are from Stuyvesant High. This is not necessarily a difference in quality of education, but perhaps the elite prep schools know to teach about metonymy, epizeuxis, and enumeratio, because they know to weaponize the young else the efforts of the ascending generation would be in vain.
And yes, those forms of speech do sound like JK Rowlings-conceived spells one would cast with a unicorn-core wand made of ash. And they are, in the sense that powerfully crafted words are the original powerful magic.
Everybody left of center would do well to embrace tried and true ways to communicate, else that side of the political spectrum becomes extinct.
In an effort to combat this problem, Joe Romm, trained as a scientist, a student of rhetoric, a long time communicator of politics and issues such as climate change, has written an excellent book: How To Go Viral and Reach Millions: Top Persuasion Secrets from Social Media Superstars, Jesus, Shakespeare, Oprah, and Even Donald Trump.
Notice that the title of the book is rhetorically structured to attract readers.
Joe’s book does the rarely done task of integrating, as I imply above, the thinking of the ancient Greeks, the practice of rhetorical greats like JFK and MLK, and the more recent battle over messaging between Republicans and Democrats. This is further informed by reference to modern social science and psychology research.
This is really more of a war than a single battle, and the Republicans famously win most of the battles. Romm provides key insight as to how they do this, and how those on the left can to better. And when we do better, any of us, we all do better. It is said.
I’ll have to go back to see if Joe Romm explains why most of our paragraphs are so short these days.
Romm’s book is informative and offers inspiration, but it also offers very specific advice and guidance. It is well researched, authoritative, accessible, and memorable. Unlike so many other books on communication, it is a good piece of communication.
As an added bonus, Romm talks about his own experience with the publication process, an excellent source of helpful advice and perhaps inspiration for potential self-published authors.
I am happy that you are reading this review, but I’d be even happier if you would listen to my interview with Joe, which you will find as an installment of Ikonokast Podcast: Episode 21 – What messages go viral and reach millions?
Finally, a challenge to Joe Romm himself: If you come across this post, can you suggest a better headline than my original? (“How to put together a message that will be clicky and sticky”)? One of these days, I’ll install a headline tester plugin. For now I’m flying with the stick. Which is probably a metaphor that went out of style about the time they invented sliced bread.