To Communicate Ideas on Liberty
DECEMBER 01, 1982 by ERNEST ROSS
Mr. Ross is an Oregon commentator and writer especially concerned with new developments in human freedom.
There’s an old, obscure saying attributed to an Oregon backwoodsman, who, after listening to a flowery speech by a stumping politician, remarked, “I think I’d've agreed with him if I knew what he said!”
When confronted with new ideas, most people are like that backwoodsman. They will accept concepts only if they are sure of them. If not, they will continue to hold their old ones—even if they are wrong. In a way, you can’t blame them. One should not make it a habit of accepting ideas he does not fully understand. To do so prevents the development of any sort of integrated world view, turning one’s mind into an intellectual feather, forever buffeted by the winds of fashion and accident. While there are always those who find such a flighty mental state attractive, the majority of Americans do not. They want to anchor their lives to solid ideas. Consequently, they will not pull up anchor and drop it in a new location unless the new location is convincingly more secure.
Above any other, this is the attitude advocates of liberty must be prepared to deal with. It is the paramount obstacle to be overcome if one is to sell people on the benefits of freedom.
Therefore, if one is to persuade people of the value of freedom, the first rule must be: address issues as clearly and cleanly as possible.
There is no way you will be an effective communicator of liberty—especially to laymen—unless you can put your own ideas into either spoken or written language straightforwardly and unambiguously. If you can’t state your own views clearly, how can you rationally expect someone else to understand them, much less accept them? If you can’t clearly state what you mean, others will assume you don’t know what you mean—or worse, are trying to fool them. In either case, by using confusing language, you undercut others’ confidence in you. That makes it even more difficult to gain their attention in the future.
Of course, it is easier to tell people to speak clearly than it is to do it. To do it, and do it well, some simple but crucial guidelines are needed. You must have standards of clarity, standards by which you can objectively judge your own statements before you present them to others. This will help you eliminate embarrassing errors and pitfalls.
Four Rules of Clarity
The first rule of clarity in communication is clarity of thought. You will never be able to state anything well if you haven’t spent some time thinking about it. And the most important guideline for obtaining the clear, crisp thoughts that will eventually translate into clear, crisp statements is this: Always ask yourself, “What is the essence of what I’m trying to say about this subject?” Using this guideline forces your mind to focus.
Focus enables you to weed out those things which are peripheral or irrelevant to the subject matter. This, in turn, gives your thoughts and statements much more efficiency. Side issues and irrelevancies are like nicks and dull spots on a knife blade; a sharp knife always cuts better. If you’re going to try to persuade someone on the virtues of deregulation, for example, keep your thoughts focused on that subject; don’t wander off into a diatribe on Aristotle’s ethics or taking sarcastic pot shots at political opponents—those are subjects deserving their own arena.
The second rule of clarity in persuasion is to write and speak simply. Thoughts simply put are more likely to be absorbed. The human mind is an integrating organ; it must put things together one step at a time. Simply-stated thoughts help the mind to do this, presenting neat little mental “bites” that can be easily taken in and swallowed.
The third rule of clarity in communication follows directly from the second: Present your ideas as logically, as non-contradictorily as possible. If your readership or audience is at all perceptive, contradictions are like a rancid odor on food for thought. If those to whom you are appealing smell a contradiction, they will very likely immediately stop swallowing your arguments. It is as natural for the mind as it is for the body to balk at the smell of contaminated material. Succinctly put, in trying to persuade people of the benefits of freedom, don’t use arguments which advocate premises or means which undercut freedom.
The fourth rule of clarity derives from the close relationship between thinking and words: Write down your thoughts as often as you can—make it a habit. As the great communicator, Jacques Barzun, once said, “the act of writing is itself an exercise of thought.” (Simple & Direct, Harper and Row, 1975, p. 118) Writing things down will help you put your thoughts into order in a way impossible by mere reflection. As Barzun put it, as your thoughts are written down and “are added, one by one, they will so clearly show up gaps, inconsistencies, confusions in the sequence of thoughts—all quite hidden before you wrote—that you will inevitably come to see how writing is an instrument of thought.”
Of my four rules of clarity, this has perhaps been the most difficult one to convince people to follow, especially those who are not professional writers. But the fact is, any advocate of liberty—anyone who intends to be an active communicator on behalf of liberty, whether he is a layman or professional in another field—will find writing to be a sure way of sharpening the knife-edge of his thoughts, and thereby enhance his abilities of persuasion. The best argument I can give to encourage people to get into this valuable habit is this: Words are objectified thoughts, thoughts brought into permanent form and laid bare for you to see, whenever you wish, exactly as they were when you first came up with them.
Using Examples and Analogies
As smart as we humans are, we cannot hold more than a few items in conscious awareness at any one time; and we forget a lot. Writing out your thoughts helps to overcome these ]imitations. By putting thoughts to paper, our minds are freed to concentrate on new thoughts—without the fear of losing old ones. It enables us to locate, and rapidly explore, the nooks and crannies and side-tunnels of previous thoughts—and thereby examine, compare, unify, and improve them. Writing out your thoughts on liberty—even if no one else ever reads them—will make you a more effective communicator with friends, acquaintances, business associates, politicians, and anyone else you might wish to influence.
While clarity is the cardinal rule of effective communication, there are other major tools which the advocate of ideas on liberty ought to use:
Factual examples. It has been said that nothing persuades like the truth. I would refine that statement to read, “Nothing persuades like the truth—backed by concrete examples.” If you wish to advocate the truth that lower taxes enhance the freedom of the individual, for instance, show specifically how this works. You might, perhaps, list all of the things a family could buy—video tape decks, books, better schooling for the children, new furniture, works of art, higher quality food, more clothing—with the money it would save from a thousand-dollar tax reduction. Concretizing the truth brings it home to people, turning an otherwise abstract statement into a living, breathing reality. People do, after all, live in the tea! world; you must show them how principles of liberty are specifically applied in their world.
Analogies. An analogy is an illustration of how something works or looks by showing how it is similar to something else. For instance, Isabel Paterson wrote an entire book (The God of the Machine) showing how similar the workings of a free society are to the workings of different kinds of machines. An analogy in this vein would be: Just as a car can only continue to run if it has an open fuel line and will roll to a stop if the line is blocked, so a market can continue to run only if its trading remains free and open and will come to a stop if trade is blocked.
You can make the analogy shorter by using similes and metaphors. A simile would be: When freedom was curtailed, the market rolled to a stop like a car with a blocked fuel line. A metaphor would be: The market was a car, rolling to a stop, its fuel line of freedom blocked. Similes use “like” or “as” to make the point; metaphors are more poetic, saying that something is or was something else, even though it’s obvious it is really not that thing.
The reason analogies are good, basic tools of persuasion is because they tie something unfamiliar to something familiar by showing their similarities. Again, as with factual examples, analogies bring the point or principle into the real world.
The Optimism Factor
And now a word about something you won’t find in most “how to” books on effective communication. It is an idea tailored specifically for the purpose of selling liberty. From my experience in writing thousands of radio commentaries on liberty, I consider this one of the great overlooked devices of effective communication and persuasion.
I call it The Optimism Factor.
The optimism factor appeals to people’s desire to improve their condition in life. They will listen to someone who can tell them that. The optimism factor also appeals to people’s desire to look up to something—especially to achievement and what makes it possible.
To take advantage of the optimism factor, you must, quite simply, look for and collect success stories—stories of the success of freedom. These stories then become a powerful portfolio with which to illustrate the concrete benefits of liberty. Items in the portfolio can become a special classification of factual examples which inspire, spur, and stimulate your readership or audience.
As a whole, I personally believe that speakers and writers on liberty dwell too much on the bad effects of statism (the political system opposite liberty). Certainly, there is a place for detailing the horrors of circumvented freedom. But as someone once said, fear is a poor motivator—especially for Americans. The American spirit looks upward and forward; it is a positive spirit. Americans like to hear about how to make things right. They will acknowledge horror stories you might tell them about systems which abrogate freedom, but then they will want to know how freedom can do a better job. If you can tell them this—with optimistic, factual illustrations—you will take a giant step toward winning your case and their minds.
The power of certainty. This is the last of the major points with which I wish to leave you in this thumbnail sketch on effective communication.
If you are going to persuade other people of the value of liberty, you must act, speak, and write as though you are already firmly convinced of its value. Naturally, the indisputable prerequisite here is that you are convinced! But, you must also strongly convey this to others. You must be confident in your approach, otherwise, in ways both subtle and overt, you will surely give the person you’re trying to persuade the impression that you harbor doubts about your own position. That is disastrous to persuasion. If your listener or reader does not think you firmly believe in what you’re saying, he’ll automatically question either your sincerity or the quality of your ideas and evidence.
Speak with Conviction
So, how do you convey certainty?
There are several ways.
First, know your case; knowledge is the best promoter of certainty.
Second, don’t equivocate with language; make your words ring with directness.
Third, and too often by-passed, speak in the active voice, rather than the passive. Say, “I believe this,” rather than, “This is believed by me.” (When you use the active voice, you always give the impression of moving forward; the passive voice connotes retreat and even reluctance to assign or take on responsibility.)
Fourth, when speaking, practice (into a tape recorder if possible) saying things firmly, in a strong, assertive (but not belligerent or strident) tone. If you are going to do a lot of verbal communication, this speaking practice will be very valuable. People read a lot into voices. Whether you are born with a good voice or not is irrelevant; people are less concerned about the esthetics of your voice than with the certainty of conviction behind it. You can and should develop this sound if you will be doing much speaking, especially public speaking. Points presented in a weak, hesitant, or passive manner are points just as well never made; they will simply not be respected nine times out of ten.
And finally, one of the best ways of conveying certainty is to practice speaking up. This is most applicable to that kind of communication in which we all find ourselves engaged throughout our lives: persona] conversations, direct “one-on-one” communication at parties, business meetings, conventions, seminars, and so forth. Make it a habit of not letting attacks on liberty slip by. If you disagree with someone, say so. If you do this regularly you will create a deserved reputation as a person “who knows his own mind.” This will gain you respect as a communicator of liberty; you will be building a track record of conveying certainty, a record which will carry over into future efforts of persuasion.
Know whom you are addressing. This does not mean you have to have detailed knowledge of everything about everyone you address—it means only that you should be careful to write or speak in ways you know are likely to be accepted by the listener or reader given his general background. For example, don’t use metaphysical technical terms with an audience of lumberjacks, or, conversely, backwoods language when addressing a distinguished group of philosophers. Don’t use examples, language or anything else likely to be outside the experience of your audience or readership. Above all, always assume that your audience is intelligent; talking down to people is a communication killer!
Know Your Audience
One more word on this subject. When I say to write or speak in ways likely to be accepted by those you address, I do not ever mean to suggest that you should compromise your principles—I simply mean that you are better off not ignoring the cultural, professional, or educational make- up of your audience or readers. It means to retain an awareness of (to use a currently popular parlance) where those you address are coming from—for it is only by starting from where they are that you will be able to lead them, through effective communication, to where you want them to be.
There are many other, more detailed or specialized points about effective communication and persuasion. But they are basically matters of “fine tuning” the fundamentals outlined in the preceding pages. One could talk about tone, diction, the composition of outlines of articles and speeches, the use of visual aids of various kinds, and so forth. But the purpose of a thumbnail sketch is to provide a handy guide dealing with the things most needed. Without clarity of thought and word, without attention to logic, without the use of factual examples and analogies, without the optimism factor or the power of certainty and an awareness of those you address, all of the fine tuning in the world won’t help youto communicate your case for liberty.
Much in the way of fine tuning can be ignored without fundamentally impairing your persuasive efforts; it is the essentials of communication which will, when ignored or forgotten, be most likely to cause your efforts to fail. So, stick first to the essentials; they will make you into a much stronger advocate of liberty—which is, after all, a cause eminently deserving a strong presentation!