Must-read: Van Jones and the English language
I’m a big fan of people who are persuasive advocates for clean energy — and an even bigger fan of those who keep trying to improve their language skills.
And that brings me to Van Jones, founder of Green for All, an organization promoting green-collar jobs and opportunities for the disadvantaged (and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress). He is the subject of a must-read New Yorker profile by Elizabeth Kolbert, “Greening the Ghetto: Can a remedy serve for both global warming and poverty?”
This is the part that got my attention:
He spends a lot of time listening to speeches — the way most people download Coltrane or Mozart, he’s got Churchill and Martin Luther King on his iPod.
“Ronald Reagan I admire greatly,” he once told me. “You look at what he gets away with in a speech — unbelievable. He’s able to take fairly complex prose and convey it in such a natural and conversational way that the beauty of the language and the power of the language are there, but you stay comfortable. That’s very hard to do.”
Precisely. We are constantly being told people have the “gift of gab” as if it is something you were born with. Facility with persuasive language is a skill that is developed and improved through practice and study.
Lincoln didn’t become our most eloquent president through happenstance. He consciously decided to educate himself in rhetoric. Indeed, much as Van Jones listens to Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr., Lincoln studied, listen to, memorized, and recited the works of the greatest master of rhetoric in the English language — William Shakespeare.
Churchill himself studied the art of rhetoric and the figures of speech all his life and at the age of 23 wrote a brilliant, unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” that explains:
The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to very few … [T]he student of rhetoric may indulge the hope that Nature will finally yield to observation and perseverance, the key to the hearts of men.
The New Yorker article is chock-a-block with examples of persuasive language and anecdotes that anyone seeking to make an impact in the field could learn from. Here’s my favorite:
In February, 2007, Nancy Pelosi, who had recently become Speaker of the House, scheduled a meeting in San Francisco to discuss measures to combat climate change. Jones was one of forty or so people who were invited to attend. A few days before the session, he received an e-mail about the agenda. Everyone, it said, would be given a chance to briefly introduce himself. “It was like capital-letters ‘briefly,’ bold, italics, underlined — ‘briefly’ introduce yourself,” he recalled.
At the meeting, Jones was seated near Pelosi, and he was the first person asked to speak. “My introduction was ‘My name is Van Jones. I’m from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. We work to get kids out of jail and into jobs,’ ” he said. “I figured, that’s pretty good. It would be very hard to get more brief than that. Then the next person says, ‘Madame Speaker,’ and I think, I kind of left that part out. That’s not so good. He got me. That’s probably better. And then he just starts talking and talking. The guy talks for two or three minutes. I’m looking around like, this guy can’t read or something. And then the next person talks for five minutes and each person is talking longer and longer, and by the time we get back around the meeting’s over.” Jones could see that Pelosi had a sheet of paper in front of her with all the attendees’ names listed on it. Next to every name except one, she had taken copious notes. Next to his name, the sheet was blank.
“I knew I had to do something to get the room back,” Jones told me. Pelosi said that they had to leave for a press conference. Were there any last questions? Jones raised his hand. “I said, ‘My question is: Will you say four words at the press conference?‘ And she just kind of looked at me. So of course at this point everybody in the room started to lean away from me.
“I said, ‘If you say these four words, I guarantee you that you’ll keep the Democratic majority in the House for the next twenty years. If you say these four words, you’ll expand the coalition around global warming in a way that nobody even thinks is possible. If you say these four words, you’ll give help and hope to people who haven’t had any for a long time.’ Finally, she said, ‘Well, what are the four words?’ I said, ‘Clean Energy Jobs Bill.’ “
A little while later, at the press conference, Pelosi called Jones up to the microphone. “We’ll say it together,” she said. “Clean Energy Jobs Bill!“
Notice the repetition and use of simply words. Those are two of the most important elements of persuasive language — and the two most lacking in the public speech of scientists.
As an aside, whatever your discipline or career path, you are constantly going to find yourself in similar positions as Van Jones was here — one of many people in a large group trying to persuade a senior person who has the influence and connections to make things happen. This is the moment that rhetoric shines. Most of the people in the room will be smart and substantive. But it is only those who are pithy and persuasive who will stand out.
I recommend reading the whole article and listening to Van Jones whenever you can. You can hear Van Jones — and Labor Secretary designee Hilda Solis — speaking on the Green Collar economy here at YouTube, which has many of his speeches.