Tag Archives: rhetoric

Be a better communicator

How well we communicate determines success or failure in every aspect of life. The ability to effectively get a message across is learned, even if the person learning is unaware of that learning. We are not born as linguistic beings, but acquire that ability after birth, during early childhood. We hone that ability subconsciously as we engage in our social interactions, our inner dialogue typically running ahead of our overt patter by about a mile. Every now and then the message that the message is important gets out. Lately that has been in the form of memish** aphorisms, like “don’t repeat the falsehood” or “stop using their talking points” or “get a better frame!”

These bits of advice often do more damage then good. They are potentially sharp knives, or meaty mallets, or highly useful duct tape, in the tool kit of novices, but just as likely to cut or pound a finger or gum something up as to help. These bits of advice are like the tricks surgeons used to close off a bleeder or work around a key nerve without harming it. They are nice to know if you are a trained surgeon, but really not that useful if you are not. They serve mainly to make people think they are suddenly good communicators.

My advice is to either let other people do it, or to ramp it up. By ramp it up I mean don’t attend one seminar on how to communicate, but ten. Not three or four, but ten. Don’t read the first four paragraphs of a commentary on communication in The Atlantic, but read five books. Not one or two books, but five books. Or seven,even.

You need to do enough study of the matter to go through the phase when you realize you know way less than you thought.

Pursuant to this effort, I hereby recommend a few items. These are not new, but they are current. Newness is not the key to success. One of the best references in how we communicate with words is well over 2,000 years old.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath*. Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus news stories circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians, and journalists—struggle to make them “stick.”

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the human scale principle, using the Velcro Theory of Memory, and creating curiosity gaps. Along the way, we discover that sticky messages of all kinds—from the infamous “kidney theft ring” hoax to a coach’s lessons on sportsmanship to a vision for a new product at Sony—draw their power from the same six traits.

How To Go Viral and Reach Millions: Top Persuasion Secrets from Social Media Superstars, Jesus, Shakespeare, Oprah, and Even Donald Trump by Joe Romm*. How To Go Viral And Reach Millions is the first book to reveal all the latest secrets for consistently generating viral online content—words, images, or videos that are seen and shared by hundreds of thousands and eventually even millions of people, something Romm and his colleagues in three different organizations achieve routinely.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff.* Ten years after writing the definitive, international bestselling book on political debate and messaging, George Lakoff returns with new strategies about how to frame today’s essential issues.

Called the “father of framing” by The New York Times, Lakoff explains how framing is about ideas?ideas that come before policy, ideas that make sense of facts, ideas that are proactive not reactive, positive not negative, ideas that need to be communicated out loud every day in public.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! picks up where the original book left off?delving deeper into how framing works, how framing has evolved in the past decade, how to speak to people who harbor elements of both progressive and conservative worldviews, how to counter propaganda and slogans, and more.

In this updated and expanded edition, Lakoff, urges progressives to go beyond the typical laundry list of facts, policies, and programs and present a clear moral vision to the country?one that is traditionally American and can become a guidepost for developing compassionate, effective policy that upholds citizens’ well-being and freedom. (NB: “All New” here does not mean all new now. It was all new a few years ago.)


** Pronoiunced “meem-ish” not “mem ish”.

Clicky and sticky: The secret to creating viral content

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.

Joe Rom's Book How to go viral and reach millions. Greg Laden's BlogToday 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?

Our conversation goes far and wide, and is not a systematic treatment of the book, so you will want to to both: buy the book and also listen to the podcast.

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.