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Explaining things to people who don't know what you're talking about isn't easy, but it can be done. We can generalize about political advocacy directed at the masses by analyzing how to transmit other kinds of information to those who have little or no context for the topic at hand.

DailyKos diarists are preaching to the choir. We expound on topics where our own views are, for the most part, in sync with those reading the diary. The tone and expository technique for such writing is informal and telegraphic. One doesn't have to set the context, give much deep background information or even explain most of the ideas one is presenting. Readers already "get it", so it isn't necessary, or advisable, to beat them over the head with the message.

But, what happens when the audience isn't as similar to the writer or speaker as Kossacks are to each other? How do you get your message across to people who may not even know what you're talking about, let alone have any sympathy to your point of view? What do you do when you've barely begun speaking and the listener stops you cold? That is, you've gotten just one or two sentences into your carefully crafted oration and he says, "You've already lost me." What you do at that point says more about you than them. If you mock or denigrate them for their stupidity, it shows that you don't appreciate that everyone isn't like you and can't be expected to take your basic assumptions at face value. If you patronize them by "going back to square one" and stating the obvious, then you reveal your disdain and alienate them, precluding any chance of persuasion.

The problem of persuading those who didn't share my passion of the moment has confounded me my entire life. As a teenager, I simply couldn't understand how my object of desire could possibly refute the airtight logic of my argument for our becoming lovers. Later, I started arguing politics with self-styled "conservatives", and was as aghast at their inability to grasp the simplest basic truth as I was at their facile and preposterous rationales for their absurd point of view. During my career as a computer programmer, I would roll my eyes and mutter, "Never mind," when what I thought was a simple explanation of something related to my work was met with a blank stare or the ubiquitous disclaimer, "I don't know anything about computers." From the age of 14 on, I've struggled with seeming futility of explaining anything at all about a foreign language to a monophone. Until quite recently, when met with such conversational roadblocks, I would quickly abandon the discussion. It just wasn't worth the effort to me and I had other fish to fry.

For the last decade or so, I've taken it upon myself to revisit persuasive speech on certain topics for a variety of reasons. I had to make an effort to relearn the art of seductive patter after my second broken marriage required me, at 50, to once again do more than grunt and shell out money to get sex. (Married guys understand how this works: Don Rickles described Jewish foreplay as a trip to the jewelry store followed by two hours of begging.) When friends and acquaintances pick my brains about computer-related issues, I help them to the extent I am able, even if it is more than they want to know, because it's an excuse to expound on technical topics that interest me. Guitar playing and singing karaoke have stirred up past memories and instigated lengthy, opinionated soliloquies about music when I am into my cups. However, my most egregious personal excess is my penchant for provoking heated arguments in bars by championing liberal and progressive stands on social and political issues. It's this sort of thing that eventually led me to become a DailyKos diarist. Here, I can fulminate without fear of getting beaten up. I've been challenged to fisticuffs and nearly been assaulted more than once by self-righteous jackasses who wanted to shut my commie mouth up.

My failures in this last area of discussion have given me pause. I began to ponder the "pearls before swine" conundrum and have developed a theory about how to succeed where I used to give up in despair. After much deliberation, I've come to the conclusion that the trick to successful rhetoric is to (1) "spoon feed" information to the audience only where they need it, (2) avoid topics they can never hope to understand, and (3) to draw parallels to things with which they are already familiar.

To test these precepts, I tried them out in areas other than politics. One of the techniques I learned in business school is the Harvard Business School case study methodology. To demonstrate a concept, one gives a detailed description of a real-life business story. To demonstrate my concept of measured, controlled advocacy, I'll give two case studies.

Case 1: Transliterating Arabic to Roman characters
Recently, I did a piece mostly about why I think the surname of the recently deposed Libyan dictator should be rendered as "Qaddhaafiy".

  • Controlled spoon feeding: I didn't talk about the Arabic characters not used in the name nor about the peculiarities of the Arabic language. Who cares? I was only trying to explain my transliteration. I gave the minimum necessary for the reader to follow the discussion, and no more.
  • Excluding arcane topics: My discussion of Arabic spelling did not show individual Arabic characters. Instead, I used the phonetic transliteration of each character's Arabic name, knowing that Arabic script is a mass of incomprehensible squiggles to anyone who can't read it. If I was going to talk about spelling, I had to make reference to the characters in some fashion, but did not need to show them in their native form. Doing so might have turned people off and caused them to quit reading. The idea of actually reading Arabic seems to freak a lot of people out. More than once I've tried to show someone something about Arabic spelling and had them put their fingers in their ears and shout, "Stop! I can't handle this! It's too weird and makes my head hurt!"
  • Parallels to the familiar: When discussing the sounds of phonemes, I compared them to phonemes in English words instead of using IPA symbols or some similar convention. Everyone reading the piece knows English, but very few can decipher IPA symbols.

Case 2: Promoting contemporary music to seniors
I am the nominal "leader" of a guitar activity group at a senior center. When I began coming to the weekly sessions three years ago, there were no contemporary songs in their repertoire. The group had been started a couple of years earlier, purportedly as a bluegrass jam session, but the songs were mostly Appalachian folk songs and gospel tunes, with a smattering of popular songs from prior to 1940. They played and sang songs about hillbillies murdering their lovers, about Jesus, and the kind of retro stuff favored by Leon Redbone and his ilk. I hated most of these songs. We were encouraged by the leader to bring in new songs, so I began working up lyric-and-chord "cheat sheets" for those of my favorites that I thought the other people in the group might like.

At first, I just brought in songs that I liked that were also easy enough to play by strumming a few standard chords. I didn't put any more thought into the selection process than that. Some were complete disasters, not because they were incapable of playing or singing them, but because they were resisting the song for some peculiar reason that wasn't revealed to me until I brought it in and it met with their disapproval. Other songs were "hits", and I was often surprised at which ones they took a shine to. The main discriminator was prior familiarity, but negativity and resistance also hinged on whether or not they thought the song was "weird" or somehow not deserving of consideration as "real music".

This was clearly unwarranted prejudice and called for education. Such an effort entailed more than just supplying information they lacked. I also had to convince them that there has been a lot of significant, worthwhile music produced in the latter half of the previous century and the first decade of this new millennium, and that this song in particular was part of that body of "good new music". The rhetorical aspect included other factors, like convincing them that the song is approachable by amateurs or that they are not precluded from doing the song because they are not African-American or the least bit "hip".

While there had always been nodding assent to these ideas in general, they still had to hear anew how each new song I brought in was significant or worthwhile. Otherwise, they were likely to dismiss it as "modern crap". At first, they laughed openly at new songs I submitted, thinking it ludicrous that I would ask them to do any song they had never heard before. Bear in mind that they were scoffing at songs 30 to 40 years old that most people now consider classics. I persisted, though, and found myself building a case for each song as if I were presenting a judicial nominee to a diffident legislature for confirmation.

To get these advocacy points across, I had to do more than bring in the song sheet in and say a few quick words before I started playing it. When I did that, my remarks were generally ignored as the guitarristas struggled to play the right chords. I started sending the song sheets out in advance as email attachments to give them a chance to practice the song on their own before we tried it in the group. The message begins with a brief history of the song and the artist who wrote it or made it famous. Next, I explain why I think the song is worthy of our attention.

The most important part of the email is a list of links to YouTube videos of performances of the song as practice aids. These are invaluable to those who are not familiar with the song, and still very useful to those who are. I try to always list first an album track "rip" of the original hit song as a reference. Recordings of live performances give a deeper understanding of how one should go about performing the song. Sometimes, you can even see a guitarist's left hand, which is a great help in getting the chord changes in the right place.

It's been a hard sell, but I have developed some guidelines for presenting new material that are consistent with my proposed rhetorical tenets.

  • Controlled spoon feeding: Song sheets have the lyrics, chord changes and minimal indications of timing as too much detail tends to confuse them rather than help them play the song. The email contains tips about using the videos for practice, but no exhaustive detail. The notes about the song and the artist are intended as an attempt to establish their credibility, not to make the reader an expert about them. Sometimes, I mention awards, such as a Grammy, made to the songwriter or artist. When I discuss sales rankings, it's to show that the song is not inconsequential fluff, but real music whose artistic merit will be discussed by musical scholars in the future. If I lapse into gossip, it's because I find such anecdotes interesting and helpful in understanding the song. I try to keep such excursions short and snappy to increase the chance that they will be read and absorbed.
  • Excluding arcane topics: I don't create or distribute full-scale sheet music with notes on a staff. I use tablature sparingly to show important riffs, but generally don't include any if I can avoid it. There's only one person in the group, and it's not me, who can sight read staff notes or guitar tablature. While a few of us can use such notation to learn songs, most of the people in the group cannot. All but one of us finds it harder to do a song from sheet music than from a simple lyric sheet with indications of where to play chords, so that's what I produce. Lyrics in a foreign language are the kiss of death. Even if you transcribe the lyrics phonetically, monophones will not sing them. They just won't. (Example: I worked up Dragostea din tei and they hate it.)
  • Parallels to the familiar: Whenever a song has the same chord progression or rhythm as one they already know, I mention that fact and discuss how to use that information to more quickly become at ease with the song.

Here's most of what I wrote today for a new song.

Fleetwood Mac's Rhiannon is one of their most popular songs, which was something of a surprise to everyone, including the members of the band, because it was a distinct departure from their earlier works. People born between 1960 and 1975 or so really love it and recognize it immediately when they hear the opening riff. There is now a second generation of people who love this song, the children of those first fans whose parents played it incessantly during their childhood and who may have conceived them as it played in the background. As such, it is an iconic work, one that cannot be ignored. In other words, you're out of touch with popular music if you are not familiar it, as much as if you told someone that you had never heard of Elvis Presley. Elvis has been dead for over 30 years and a lot of people in their twenties barely know who he was, much less have any familiarity with his oeuvre. (Almost no one does Elvis songs in karaoke now, which was not the case 15 or so years ago when everyone did them.) Groups like Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles are now considered "old people's music", as the people who first liked these groups as youngsters are now over 50. We had best get with it.

Since Rhiannon is so easy to play, everyone thinks they can do it, and I think we can too. We can nail this song if we work on it, and do just as well as we do on Daydream and Someday Soon, two songs that many of you had never heard before I brought them in. Rhiannon is considered "rock", not country or folk. We're breaking into new territory here, which is long overdue. (The song has been out for 36 years.) We can be rock stars and blow a lot of people's minds. I'm completely serious about this, so take out your axe, put the lead sheet on the music stand or table, cue up a video and start flailing those three chords!

Please try to watch a few of the videos to get a feel for the song, even if you are already familiar with it. In practical terms, this means getting a strum going that coincides with the rhythm and sticking with it. It's snappy, at about 128 bpm, so mind the tempo and stay with it. Now that you have the lead sheet and can play along, you should find the song really simple. It's a three-chord special, so no whining is allowed. If you can only watch two of the videos, watch the the first one (the original album track) and the seventh one, the cut from the 1997 live album. These two will bracket the range of how this song should be done. If you've got a lot of time and want to watch all of them, that's OK. However, try not to waste time watching amateur cover versions on YouTube. These will distract you from getting the song right and most of them really suck anyway. You won't learn much from them.


Fleetwood Mac - Rhiannon
THIS IS THE REFERENCE VERSION! If you can only watch one video, this is the one!
This is a rip track from the original recording on Fleetwood Mac (1975), known by some as "the white album", not to be confused with the Beatles' nameless album which shares that appellation. It was the group's second eponymous album, but the first with lead guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and his girlfriend Stevie Nicks, two Americans who had just joined the originally British blues band. The group was working in Los Angeles and needed a lead guitarist. They recruited Buckingham, who refused to join the band without Nicks. She was viewed by the remaining original members as an amateur who had no place on the stage with them. She couldn't play an instrument and didn't sing all that well, but she was cute and they had to bring her in to get Buckingham. They handed her a tambourine and had her front the band as "lead vocalist". They thought she would suck and would quit, but she surprised them by becoming the public face of the group and writing their biggest hit, Dreams, as well as this hit song.

Fleetwood Mac-Rhiannon w/ lyrics
This is another rip track with lyrics in the text below the video in the comments, not in video itself, which is a slide show of still shots.

Fleetwood Mac 1975~ Rhiannon Live
"This is a song about a Welsh witch." At first, Stevie used to explain the song with this line in all live performances during the second time through the song's main guitar riff in the introduction. She quit doing that when the song became such a big hit that people began cheering as soon as they recognized Lindsey's unique riff.

Fleetwood Mac "Rhiannon"
Fleetwood Mac on The Midnight Special, 1976.

Fleetwood Mac - Rhiannon Live 1976
The tempo is very quick, as if they wanted to get through it. Stevie has already started playing around with the lyrics and reinterpreting it.

~Rhiannon~ Fleetwood Mac Live 1982
Note the alternate melody lines she sings, possibly necessitated by the deterioration of her voice. The guitarist, Buckingham, takes a completely new, somewhat odd, solo. Then, there's Christine McVie's piano background where Stevie goes nuts improvising with the ending. This shows how many different ways there are to do the song, and that you probably shouldn't do a lot of drugs.

Fleetwood Mac Rhiannon Live
THIS IS THE BEST LIVE VERSION! If you can only watch two videos, this is the second one! This live version is on the album The Dance (1997). I've got this album. It's considered one of the best versions of the song. Stevie got dried out and had become a much better musician by this time.

Stevie Nicks - Rhiannon - Soundstage 2008 - HQ part 9
(long, extended, slowed-down, live, solo version) At this point, Stevie had been performing the song for 33 years. Notice the changes she's made to the lyrics reflecting her life experience. Also, note the alternate melody lines she sings, demonstrating her development as a singer, not just the deterioration of her voice.

Conclusion: Applying these ideas to political diatribes
This is what I try to do now when engaging in political debates in public.

  • Controlled spoon feeding: I cite statistics, but only those that have are likely to have immediate personal resonance with the listener. (Example: For the middle class and the working poor, real income in inflation adjusted dollars has remained stagnant for about 30 years now. Is your family better off now than when Reagan first took office, about the same or worse off?)
  • Excluding arcane topics: Most people don't know diddly squat about economics, statistics or any math beyond simple arithmetic. In conversation, I avoid any argument that relies on an understanding of the basic principals of these disciplines. In writing, I never use graphs because most people ignore such information, relying instead on what the speaker tells them the graph means.
  • Parallels to the familiar: To counter litanies of Republican generality talking points, I challenge my adversary to reconcile their purported philosophy with the reality of their personal experience. (Examples: Do you get all the health care you need, or is it rationed to you by an insurance company? Do you find yourself rationing the care you seek because of the per-incident, out-of-pocket cost?)

Originally posted to DisgruntledCurmudgeon on Thu Sep 08, 2011 at 09:23 PM PDT.

Also republished by Protest Music, DKOMA, and Community Spotlight.


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