1-Page Cheatsheet: Language Intelligence by Joseph Romm

Language Intelligence by Joseph RommYou’ll get a lot from reading this one: 1-page cheatsheet to Language Intelligence by Joseph Romm [Amazon Kindle].

Why Language Intelligence

It’s well-written, reads fast, and includes famous things like the Bible, Lincoln, Shakespeare, Lady Gaga.

Unless making a conscious effort, we tend to take language for granted. I use “language” here to mean the use of words in communication.

We write, we read, we speak, we listen, and like driving a car, 80% is done in a sort of cruise control. Yet those who are GOOD at controlling words wield enormous power. Romm explains WHO those people are, HOW they do it, and WHY it works.

Read his summary if you read nothing else:

1. Use short, simple words.
2. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is the essential element of all persuasion.
3. Master irony and foreshadowing. They are central elements of popular culture, modern politics, and mass media for a reason—they help us make sense of the stories of our lives and other people’s lives.
4. Use metaphors to paint a picture, to connect what your listeners already know to what you want them to know. Metaphors may be the most important figure as well as the most underused and misused.
5. Create an extended metaphor when you have a big task at hand, like framing a picture-perfect speech or launching a major campaign.
6. If you want to avoid being seduced, learn the figures of seduction. If you want to debunk a myth, do not repeat that myth.

From Romm’s Wikipedia:

Romm is an American author, blogger, physicist and climate expert who concentrates on methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming…Romm was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In March 2009, Rolling Stone magazine named Romm to its list of “100 People Who Are Changing America”. In September 2009, Time magazine named him one of its “Heroes of the Environment (2009)”, calling him “The Web’s most influential climate-change blogger”.

Lessons and Highlights

Insight #1: rhetoric is used by the greatest thinkers and in the greatest works of all-time

Similarly, every great songwriter—our modern bards—inevitably masters rhetoric since rhetoric itself came from the oral tradition of the great bards like Homer.

In ancient Athens, all citizens needed to excel at public speaking because every citizen was required by Greek law to speak in his own behalf in court.

The King James Bible (KJV) is a masterpiece of rhetoric:

That the King James Bible did become a textbook of rhetoric will soon be evident: Many of the most famous examples of every figure of speech can be found in its pages. That the Bible would be a textbook of rhetoric was ordained, since the translators were every one a university-trained language scholar with a far more extensive formal education in rhetoric than Shakespeare, who, after grammar school, was purely self-taught.

Among our presidents, Lincoln was the most active student of rhetoric:

Lincoln worked hard to teach himself elocution and grammar. He studied the great speechmakers of his time, like Daniel Webster, as well the great Elizabethan speechmaker, the Bard of Avon. Lincoln continued his passion for poetry and Shakespeare throughout his entire life. He spent hours reading passages from Shakespeare to his personal secretary, John Hay, and the artist F. B. Carpenter.

Insight #2: shorter words are better

“The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient,” as Churchill explained.

At the end of the debate, Reagan introduced a key question, a rhetorical question, that has since been repeated by countless candidates. He asked the audience to imagine itself at the polls and about to make the key decision. His words are worth repeating at length to hear just how much you can say with short words repeated often: “I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago”

Insight #3: repeat your words repeatedly; rhyme is sublime

The most watched YouTube video of all time is “Baby,” in which teen sensation Justin Bieber repeats the alliterative title an astounding fifty-four times.

Michael Deaver, the Karl Rove of the Reagan presidency, said in 2003 of the Bush White House: “This business of saying the same thing over and over and over again—which to a lot of Washington insiders and pundits is boring—works. That was sort of what we figured out in the Reagan White House. And I think these people do it very, very well.”

All these years after the 1995 O. J. Simpson murder case, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s phrase “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” still sticks in the mind.

It works brilliantly to rally a nation at war in Churchill’s famous 1940 speech: “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight … in the air…. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills….” We can hear these powerful words echo in our heads because Churchill understood that “every speech is a rhymeless, meterless verse.”

Perhaps the most elegant—and certainly one of the most popular—figures of repetition is chiasmus: words repeated in inverse order. Chiasmus is a great source of aphorisms. Mae West famously said, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” Ray Bradbury advised writers, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.”

Insight #4: great speakers and writers use irony, from Shakespeare to Seinfeld

4 types of irony: Socratic irony, Verbal irony, Dramatic irony, Irony of Fate (poetic justice)

Socratic irony is the strategy of the master orator who denies eloquence, claiming to be an ordinary Joe, a plain-spoken man of the people.

Cleverly, Antony himself uses the word “honorable” ten times in this one speech. He repeatedly says Brutus is an honourable man and that all of the conspirators are honourable. His irony is increasingly blatant: “When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept; Ambition should be made of sterner stuff: Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honourable man.” With this drumbeat, Antony convinces the crowd that there was no justification for killing Caesar, which in turns means the murder was a dishonorable act.

Dramatic irony applies mainly to audiences—such as theatergoers or TV watchers—who know (or are told) the significance of words and actions when the characters do not. […] For instance, Shakespeare’s Iago tells the audience plainly in several early soliloquies that he is a dangerous liar plotting to destroy Othello and the other major characters. So we hear dramatic irony each time one of those characters calls him honest Iago or trusts him. We, the audience, know what’s going on, but Othello and the others don’t.

Poetic justice of all kinds is extremely common in popular culture. At the most basic level, in the vast majority of TV shows, movies, plays, and books, good triumphs over evil. Good is rewarded, evil is destroyed, criminals are captured, boy gets girl.

Insight #5: foreshadowing works well because…well, keep reading to find out ;)

The golden rule of speechmaking is “Tell ’em what what you’re going to tell ’em; tell’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.”

Foreshadowing and ominatio are the foundation upon which the Bible’s scaffolding of rhetoric was built […] Jesus himself makes many prophecies.

Ultimately, the reason foreshadowing works, and the reason we can expect more of it in popular culture and political coverage is that we like to believe that people’s individual lives have a circularity, a consistency—a pattern.

Insight #6: use metaphor to enter the language Olympics

“To be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle writes in Poetics, is “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”

Metaphors are one of the best ways to verbally connect to visual people, and those with high language intelligence are good at painting pictures with words—the green-eyed monster that is jealousy. […] Metaphors aid in memory a second way: They require the hearer or reader to think more, to light up more brain circuits, to figure out the connections and what they mean.

Elton John says in his tribute to Princess Diana (a revision of his tribute to Marilyn Monroe) that she lived her life “like a candle in the wind.” Lady Gaga’s uber-hit “Poker Face” is an extended metaphor of love as a poker game.

Insight #7: use extended metaphor to win a Gold Medal

Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches. It pumps the life blood into Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

The Gettysburg Address may be the greatest extended metaphor in the English language, with Lincoln turning the bloody battle into a symbolic national crucifixion, although that facet of the speech is rarely taught.

In 2011, Lady Gaga explained her song-writing philosophy: “I just like really aggressive metaphors—harder, thicker, darker and my fans do as well.”

The power of frames and extended metaphors—the reason why smart orators use them—is that they cannot be overturned merely by presenting contrary facts. Let me repeat that: Facts cannot fight false frames. You must fight metaphorical fire with metaphorical fire. “One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors,” writes linguist Lakoff.

Insight #8: rhetoric – like all tools – can be used for “good” and “bad”

The dark side of rhetoric was well-known—and well-feared—in ancient Greece. The term “Sophists” originally applied to those who taught rhetoric (and other subjects) for pay. The Sophist Protagorus boasted he could make the weaker cause appear to be the stronger. Hence sophistry, the term for disingenuous arguments.

Seduction, like persuasion, is a two-step dance for a master of rhetoric. First, a seducer must convince you that he or she is a trustworthy person, a person who shares your values and speaks your language. […] Once a would-be seducer has established he is trustworthy, that he is a plainspoken, straight-shooting person who means what he says and says what he means, then he can safely start saying what he doesn’t mean.

Rumsfeld is particularly good at asking questions that he then answers: “Is it [post-war Iraq] going to be as efficient as a dictatorship? No. Is it going to be vastly more desirable? You bet.”

The authors found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. It takes a lot of message discipline to do this, but if you want to debunk a myth, you need to focus on stating the truth, not repeating the myth. Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook,” and only his final word still rings in our ears.

General tips

I’ve come to realize that the single most important part of any blog post is the headline.

The second most retweeted tweet of 2010 was from the rapper Drake: “We always ignore the ones who adore us, and adore the ones who ignore us.”

We should all minimize the use of negative suggestions in everyday life. […] when you make an important phone call to someone who is busy, don’t ask, “Are you busy?” or, “Is this a bad time to talk?” as the words “busy” and “bad time” will ring in their ears. Ask, “Is this a good time to talk?”

That’s it, folks

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