Rolling Stone has named Joe Romm “one of the 100 people who are changing America.” Time Magazine identified him as the “web’s most influential climate change blogger.” If you don’t follow his coverage of climate science, solutions, communications, and politics at, you should.

Romm’s latest book is about rhetoric. It’s a handbook for communicators. He wants environmentalists, climate scientists, politicos, and anybody else trying to do good in the world, to get better at speaking, listening and changing minds. He wants us to grab attention with the most “eye-popping headlines, catchy catch-phrases, and sweetest tweets.”

Why listen to Romm on rhetoric? He didn’t win his blogger celebrity by sticking to the communications norms of his fellow physicists—or fellow policy wonks for that matter! (All due respect to both!)

He knows how to get traffic and communicate complicated concepts in compelling ways. He attributes the disproportionate success of his blog—and especially his much-clicked and shared headlines and tweets—to his use of classical rhetoric’s figures of speech, including simple, short, declarative language, puns, irony, alliteration, sarcasm, repetition, and metaphor.

Of course, rhetoric gets a bad rap. Today, the word conjures negative associations to spin, big words and hot air. But, as Romm points out, rhetoric is simply language intelligence—the art of putting language to work to get attention and appeal to both the heart and mind with words. It’s going for the gut, not just the intellect. It’s telling the most credible, memorable, and persuasive stories and framing the debate on your terms by employing the right metaphors. It’s wowing people, “standing out like a peacock” in a world of information overload.

Anybody who regularly uses words to convey meaning can get better at it when we embrace “the secrets of…the twenty-five century-old art of persuasion, whose masters include Jesus, Shakespeare, the…Bible, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, and…song writers from Bob Dylan to Lady Gaga.”

I recommend the book. Meanwhile, here’s a snapshot of some of the key lessons:

A Quick Guide to Language Intelligence

  • Short, simple words win. To be or not to be. An eye for an eye. I have a dream. George Orwell said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
  • If you don’t repeat, you can’t compete. (Just such a rhyme is a memorable form of repetition). As Schwarzenegger says, in politics and bodybuilding, “it’s all reps.” NOTE: Don’t repeat the myths you want to debunk.
  • Paint a picture with metaphors—to make the abstract concrete, simplify what’s complicated, and connect what people already know to new ways of seeing the world and interpreting facts. Use extended metaphors to frame issues for the long haul. The iron curtain. A house divided. Poker Face*.

*Poker Face by Lady Gaga was the top-selling song of 2009. The video has been viewed online more than one hundred million times. It’s about love as a game of chance.

November 14, 2013