“Language Intelligence”, Joe Romm: Rhetoric

cover image of language intelligence on rhetoric by joseph rommLanguage Intelligence is the latest book by climate blogger Joe Romm. It is a guide to rhetoric, “the art of persuasion through the systematic use of the figures of speech.” To be more precise, it is a powerfully written and invaluable guide to rhetoric. Whether you cross swords on Q&A with Nick Minchin, speak to groups of school students, or write emails for mass consumption, this book can make you better at it. Hell – you should even read it if you are serious about winning games of Risk.

Romm’s blog, Climate Progress, was a haunt of mine in my early days of climate campaigning. His writing had an analytical zest that appealed to the mind of a soon-to-be Engineering student. He also, as has become more apparent, has a deep understanding of how to write and communicate effectively, which has informed and enhanced his own blogging. This particular book, Language Intelligence, I saw in my Facebook newsfeed (I’m a fan of Climate Progress’ Facebook page). I know Romm’s work and bought myself a copy without hesitating.


The first step to good oratory: facial hair.

Romm has written Language Intelligence so that people can communicate better. He is clearly frustrated with the terrible persuasive efforts of many, particularly climate scientists, Barack Obama, and progressives. This book is his gift to modern communicators, collating the knowledge of past centuries so that we can be more effective. This knowledge that he gathers underpins sensational works such as the King James Bible and those of Shakespeare, and an understanding of it (subconscious or otherwise) can even be seen in the work of modern day mass communicators such as Lady Gaga and Bob Dylan.

Why is rhetoric even important? Because people are irrational and because people are lazy. Persuasion isn’t about convincing an audience with a rational, fact-based argument. On the contrary, decision-making is an irrational, largely subconscious process, and rhetoricians recognise this and modify their persuasive efforts accordingly. Facts don’t persuade people, people persuade people, and rhetorically effective people persuade people best of all.

The fact that people are lazy makes it especially important to have an ability to express ideas pithily and stickily, to capture complex ideas in a few verbal brush strokes, like the minimalist Japanese painting that depicts a whole landscape. According to Language Intelligence, “Newspaper readers read 56 percent of the headlines, but only 13 percent of the stories are at least half-read”. Rhetorical skill enables you to craft an interesting and informative ‘headline’ (or subject line!) in a minimum of words, adapting to the fleeting attention span of the audience. Further, an understanding of rhetoric provides inoculation against the efforts of our would-be seducers, who will use their own rhetorical wiles to win us over. In short, rhetoric makes you better at both conveying your ideas and understanding others’ efforts at persuasion.

Romm covers a range of figures of speech and rhetorical devices. The two I’m most inclined to discuss are repetition and metaphor.

Good rhetoric uses repetition to make ideas memorable and believable

“The AYCC is Australia’s largest youth-run organisation.” I trot out this phrase on the phone, in conversations, in workshops. So do other AYCC members. We’re trained to. Things got a bit awkward, however, when one AYCC member was in a tute group with a member of Oaktree (another Australian youth NGO) who claimed the same honour for their organisation! Discussing this afterwards, I noted that it’s not truth as such that matters in this case. As long as we stick to our guns and keep repeating this message, it’s going to be accepted as truth.

Repetition makes ideas memorable and believable. There are a number of things going on here, various cognitive biases that make repetition rhetorically effective. They all come back to the same thing: repetition makes ideas memorable and believable. Romm refers to studies finding that “repeated exposure to a statement increases its acceptance as true”, basically giving empirical weight to the statement that a lie told often enough becomes the truth.

In high school we learnt that effective writing is varied, that we shouldn’t reuse adjectives or turns of phrase. When it comes to rhetoric, the reverse is true. Speaking or writing persuasively requires us to hammer ideas home. And you can’t put a nail in with a single hammer strike. “Simply repeating the same thing over and over again is the top strategy of every master persuader.” Repetition makes ideas memorable and believable.

Good rhetoric uses metaphors to make it easier to understand and remember ideas

Metaphor is crucial to persuasive communication because metaphor makes ideas more enduring. It’s also critical to facilitate understanding. It’s a linguistic and neural reality that humans make sense of abstractions – time, love, speech – with reference to more literal phenomena: “virtually all of our abstract conceptualization and reasoning is structured by metaphor.” So, to put it metaphorically, if you don’t use this device, you are a turkey.


The turkey is widely known to eschew the use of metaphor.

Writing previously, I’ve pointed out that “metaphor enables you to explain something unfamiliar by comparison to the familiar.” Romm is more precise: “a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” Words are not containers, yet we can put things in them. Ideas are not pictures, but we can see them. Superiority is not elevation, yet we can rise to the top. This understanding of metaphor is in many ways more nuanced and more intricate than what is used in high school poetry. Metaphor is fundamental to and implicit in all communication, not just the poetic. It’s precisely the ubiquity of metaphor that compels an effective rhetorician to understand and practise it.

This is somewhat counter-intuitive. You might think that getting at an idea obliquely is rhetorically ineffective, that the best way to convey ideas is to make them as plain and literal as possible. You might think that – but you would be completely wrong. In fact, research indicates that “metaphors are easier to understand than literal statements with the same meaning.” They “make it easier to understand and remember prose”. This is for various reasons. Metaphors require more mental effort for their meaning to be understood, and this act of decoding enhances not only memory, but also the attitude towards the idea. The more a listener is involved in making sense of a message, the more the message “sticks”. Because metaphors unite disparate concepts they are also lodged in more places in the brain, strengthening retention. Finally, visual metaphors are effective for persuading visual thinkers, who are prevalent in our society. Painting pictures with words, using visual metaphors, helps to persuade people who think in images.

Language Intelligence can help you communicate better

Romm’s a climate blogger and he isn’t writing Language Intelligence just for shits and gigs (an abbreviation of “giggles”, not “gigs” as in “speaking gigs”). He gives specific examples of how various individuals or groups consistently fail to use rhetoric effectively. Scientists, for example, tend to be highly literal and shy away from repetition. Obama, for example, lacks an extended metaphor for his presidency. Progressives, bless their infuriating commitment to failed methods, often rely on facts to persuade.

Romm is writing this book because climate activists are being beaten by a rhetorically superior opponent. And let me say, Language Intelligence is long overdue. Too frequently climate campaigners commit the most basic offenses against effective rhetoric, whether repeating their opponents’ language, expressing their ideas in the negative (“carbon pricing won’t hurt households”), or speaking literally.

The good news is that most of us are so crap that it would be very easy for us to get significantly better. Romm’s book is the first rung on the ladder and, should you let it be, the second, third, fourth. His book makes the case for pursuing better communication, and outlines how it can be achieved. Language Intelligence is a worthwhile read for anybody. For climate campaigners, and particularly those working in communications, it is invaluable.


4 Responses to ““Language Intelligence”, Joe Romm: Rhetoric”

  1. Nice work Joel. I’ve been struggling for inspiration in writing a literature review on communicating climate change risk and uncertainty. I went Facebook trawling and found this – something actually relevant! Some good points, spoken with clarity amongst the overload of information I’m currently trying to assimilate.

    • I’m glad to have helped! This book could be a great thing for you. Communicating risk and uncertainty is such a nefarious area; Romm has talked alot about relevant figures, and also supplied some useful metaphors. My favourite is the loaded die.

  2. Thanks Joel, I’ll try to pick up a copy soon.

    The worrying thing about this is that the idea that people are inherently “irrational and lazy” pitches the whole debate as a gamble. It’s like flipping a coin, hoping that the persuasive person who is batting on the side of reality will win rather than the persuasive conspiracy-theorist. And this goes well beyond just climate science. I struggle to understand how the multitude of complex, global problems can be solved without an appreciation of the “facts” which ultimately determine the outcomes.

    That’s a first reaction anyway, without having read the book yet.

    • Interesting comment Tom. It’s not something I’ve really thought of before.

      I think you’re right to ask what place facts have in this. My thinking is that they are certainly foundational: you gotta know the facts. Ideally, what you are trying to convince someone of is true. But I think the biggest lesson for all communicators (but the Right is far less behind on this) is that facts alone aren’t enough. Facts don’t persuade people except if they are communicated in a way that is persuasive and memorable. And that requires a variety of skills, including rhetoric. So, in thinking about global problems, incl. climate change, I think people who can offer us facts still need to invest in how they communicate those with a wider audience.

      Thanks for making me think about this. Another thing: the idea of people being irrational, which is something I’ve talked about quite ab it, isn’t just Romm’s or mine. I’m not sure if there is a shift, but there seems to me a large body of research and thinking which discusses how humans make decisions, and it’s only rational maybe 5% of the time.

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