The secret isn’t an idea at all.
It isn’t how to game LinkedIn’s new algorithm, either.
No, the biggest secret — as Joe Romm puts it in his 2018 book “How to Go Viral and Reach Millions” — is a secret because…nobody reads Aristotle anymore:
The most viral messages have always been stories told with the figures of speech that trigger key emotions and stick in the memory such as metaphor, irony and repetition, but also others such as hyperbole and apophysis (pretended denial), two of Donald Trump’s favorites.
(I’m quoting Romm there, not Aristotle. Aristotle was good, but not good enough to predict Trump as master rhetorician.)
Romm, a climate scientist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, founded Climate Progress, the longest-running and arguably most influential climate science blog ever.
I should say straight out: I’m not a big Climate Progress fan. I find it shrill, browbeating of the slightest disagreement, and catastrophist. However, it’s been damn effective.
And through running Climate Progress, Romm has learned a ton about how to combine the ancient wisdom of figures of speech with contemporary digital testing practices and other marketing methods.
His books on rhetoric and communication for scientists (both “How to Go Viral” and 2012’s “Language Intelligence”) are terrific resources that researchers and research communicators should fast-track to the top of their to-be-read piles.
The biggest takeaway for researchers from “How to Go Viral”: You’re in a war of ideas — and if you’re not triggering emotion in your audiences, you’re going to lose.
It has taken me a quarter-century to unlearn almost everything I was taught about communications on my journey to get a Ph.D. in physics, particularly the notion that educated people should be as unemotional and literal-minded as possible when writing and speaking.
In my experience, asking researchers to be emotional themselves in public is often a non-starter — which is one of my main beefs about the storytelling craze.
Instead, the emotion you want to be evoking is in your audience, not necessarily yourself.
Here’s a quick example from a pundit — a passage from New York Times columnist David Brooks, writing earlier this month about the Green New Deal and what he sees as its untenable centralization of power in the hands of US federal agencies, on a scale parallel to the state mobilization of resources necessary to fight in World War II:
But the underlying faith of the Green New Deal is a faith in the guiding wisdom of the political elite. The authors of the Green New Deal assume that technocratic planners can master the movements of 328 million Americans and design a transportation system so that “air travel stops becoming necessary.” (This is from people who couldn’t even organize the successful release of their own background document.)
They assume that congressional leaders have the ability to direct what in effect would be gigantic energy firms and gigantic investment houses without giving sweetheart deals to vested interests, without getting corrupted by this newfound power, without letting the whole thing get swallowed up by incompetence. (This is a Congress that can’t pass a budget.)
It’s Brooks’ use of the rhetorical device of antithesis in those last lines in each paragraph that lands the punch. Regardless of what you think about the Green New Deal, it’s hard to get those images out of your head and the feelings they evoke.
That’s why Brooks’ column has set the terms of debate on the American political right about the Green New Deal much as the Green New Deal is setting terms of debate about climate policy on the left and in the Democratic Party.
One more example: The Georgetown computer science professor and productivity pundit Cal Newport writing in The Chronicle Review (“Is Email Making Professors Stupid?”).
Early on, Newport introduces us to Donald Knuth, a Stanford emeritus professor of computer science who stopped using email in 1990:
Knuth’s approach to email prioritizes the long-term value of uninterrupted concentration over the short-term convenience of accessibility. Objectively speaking, this tradeoff makes sense, but it’s so foreign to most tenured and tenure-track professors that it can seem ludicrous — more parody than pragmatism. This is because in the modern academic environment professors act more like middle managers than monastics. A major factor driving this reality is the digital communication Knuth so carefully avoids. Faculty life now means contending with an unending stream of electronic missives, many of which come with an expectation of rapid reply.
When email first spread to campuses in the late 1970s, it simplified crucial tasks like communicating with distant collaborators, but as its ubiquity grew, it became a public portal through which the world beyond close colleagues could make increasing demands on a professor’s time and attention, making email into a kind of digital water torture for the scholar struggling to think without interruption.
I’ve bolded the metaphors, although they hardly need it. No academic wants to be known as a middle manager. No one wants to volunteer for water torture. These metaphors are so powerful that Newport hardly needs to use them again.
Once you’ve read them, if you’re a professor, you feel smaller and besieged by bureaucratic demands. The emotion dictates thought — and you won’t think about yourself or email in quite the same way.
Figures of speech are like Mag Dog 357 hot sauce — a dash will do nicely. If you’re uncertain about their application, work with your organization’s communications staffer or a consultant to test out different options.
But if you’re avoiding figures of speech in your thought leadership content because you think it makes you look like less of a credible researcher, don’t worry.
Odds are that, without them, no one will remember what you say anyway.