There's wisdom in children’s books.
When Winnie the Pooh uttered “I am a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me.” he launched a thousand self-help ships. Legions of blogs and books celebrate Winnie’s wisdom courtesy of A.A. Milne. To me that boils down to being understood, being persuasive, and being expansive.
Let’s dig into Part 2 of our journey — persuasion.
Persuasion — the noble art of allowing someone else to have it your way, takes its roots from the Greeks and Romans. Young men were taught to stand in the forum and persuade. Their tool was rhetoric, and their professors some of history’s great philosophers and persuaders.
One of them was Quintilian.¹ He advised avoiding excessive slickness, smoothness, or polish, because excessive gloss “makes the judge suspicious” and more likely to get forensic with your statements.
2000 years ago the Greeks and Romans anticipated the guidance of Pooh. Long words hinder persuasion.
They had their own term for what we call ‘baffling with bullshit’ — ‘Skotison’. The ancient Greek word meaning ‘to darken’. It meant deliberately trying to tie the audience in a knot with lots of unlovely jargon— a foul move in the game of persuasion.
Here instead are a few rhetoric-approved ways of persuading that would be Pooh-approved as well.²
Sometimes, there’s no better word to use but the technical term.
Take “Cognitive Dissonance”. It’s one of those phrases that creeps into conversation but not everyone understands. When you need to use such a phrase, and can’t think of a simpler form, nail it down. Otherwise, you cause your audience to feel cognitive dissonance 😀, and by that I mean the suspicious feeling you get in your mind when things just don’t add up. (nailed it!)
Make life easy for the audience, and if a word or phrase benefits from being neatly defined and nailed down, get out the nails.
Supreme Court Justices are (rumored) to have a sense of humor. They ‘Bob’.
Many judges and lawyers do it.³ ‘Bobbing’ is the practice of slipping a few Bob Dylan lyrics into rulings. The late Justice Scalia was fond of “Times, they are a-changing”, and even Samuel Alito was recently caught slipping a quick Bob into a case on religious liberty.⁴ When you quote a famous lyric, you access the goodwill felt for that performer, make yourself appear more human, and make the audience more open to your case.
The pattern doesn’t just apply to Justices quoting music legends. Authors, business leaders, and (respected) world leaders can be usefully quoted too.
How did you sleep last night? — like... a log? A baby? The dead?
Human speech is peppered with similes and metaphors. They make our language visual, easier to understand, and pleasing to the ear. The trouble comes, when we stand to ‘make a presentation’, — that natural human warmth evaporates. We speak like robots, as stiff as boards, and as bland as rice.⁵ We also suffer an urge to impress the audience by trotting out as many long words as possible.
If pictures paint a thousand words, a few well-placed similes or metaphors make sentences simple.
I used to get this on my mathematics (I’m English) homework at school — “Show your work”. (This was always a relief because the alternative would be “See me”).
As well as simple words being an important part of persuasion, simple transparent logic is essential too. If you see the audience counting on their fingers and toes, trying to disentangle your line of logic, then you might not be winning the argument.
You can untangle your argument for them.
The simplest way to do this is to make a statement, and then ask out loud and of yourself, “Why do I say this?” You get to answer your own question.
For example: “Simple words and clean logic are the best persuaders. Why do I say this? Because when speakers and ideas are easy to understand, audiences become more open.”
Let’s leave the last word in this argument to one of America’s great persuaders — Benjamin Franklin. “...nothing should be expressed in two words that can be expressed in one… but that the whole would be short as possible, consistent with clearness.”
Even geniuses, it would seem, follow the wisdom of a bear with very little brain, and that will bring us next week to our final blog, and how to be expansive.⁶
¹ Educated under Nero, and then appointed tutor to the Imperial Household, the ability to be persuasive was a life and death matter during the time of Quintillian.
² The four different ‘rhetoric-approved’ ideas we’re going to talk about are all taken from WordPlay, a deck of 52 different persuasive and ear-catching ideas for messaging, whether written or spoken.
³ “Bob Dylan’s Words Find Place In Legal Writings.” NPR, 10 May 2011.
⁴ “Alito quotes Bob Dylan on Religious Freedom: “It’s Not Dark Yet, But It’s Getting There” CNS News, 17 Nov, 2016
⁵ OK — probably best not to overdo it as I am here, but you get the idea.
⁶ Lupton, Christina. Sincere Performances: Franklin, Tillotson, and Steele on the Plain Style JSTOR. 12 Apr. 2022.