The Source Civil Engineering Magazine Review: How to persuade and inform

Review: How to persuade and inform

By Ray Bert

Make It Clear: Speak and Write to Persuade and Inform, by Patrick Henry Winston. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2020; 354 pages, $34.95.

We live in a time that is dominated by constant, relentless attempts to persuade using the written and spoken word. A time when, making use of omnipresent technology, the volume (in both senses) of those attempts is deliberately cranked high, creating a noisy machine designed to drown out or obfuscate competing messages as much as win a true convert.

But fear not, Make It Clear is not about the current state of our politics or our social media but rather about persuasion of the more “good ol’ fashioned” variety, the kind that focuses on creating clarity, being memorable, and making the best case for your ideas in the most honest ways possible.

Blue book cover with white lettering
(Courtesy of The MIT Press)

“You will learn how to speak and write well from this book,” Patrick Henry Winston writes in the prologue, a clear and bold statement that also neatly illustrates one of his dictums: that a presentation should start with a promise. “The return on the time you invest in acquiring knowledge about how to communicate will be bigger than the return on any other investment you make,” he continues.

As you might expect, Make It Clear could hardly be more so. The first section, Essentials of Persuasion, quickly introduces key concepts like “showing your hand” early in your talk — the persuasion equivalent of not “burying the lede,” as they say in journalism. Subsequent sections delve into the particulars of communicating via presentation, instruction, writing, and design. For presentations, he advises warming up your voice and making sure you have “news” to report, among many other tips. For writing, he notes the importance of providing “surface clues” that experienced readers seek out unconsciously: good illustrations and captions, summary paragraphs, good section titles, and more.

Winston, who passed away in 2019, was a revered Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor for nearly 50 years, his academic specialty being artificial intelligence and, more broadly, learning. In addition to writing seven textbooks on computer science and artificial intelligence, he gave a yearly talk called simply “How to Speak.” Conceived during a gripe session with an MIT colleague about bad lectures, the wildly popular session provided tips and techniques to aid in all manner of practical speaking situations. The seeds of Make It Clear —and Winston’s impressive expertise — are evident in that lecture.

Methodical and direct, leaving no small but important concept unremarked on, Make It Clear manages to be both plainspoken and engaging, its prose economical and effortless. You may catch yourself feeling like you just can’t help but learn from it — Winston’s promise, fulfilled.

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