During the height of the Greek and Roman Empires, public speaking was a key skill that anyone who wanted to be successful had to learn. They paid staggering sums in order to be trained in poetry, learning how language works, and how to debate. These ‘Sophists’ gave us many of the rules of rhetoric we know now—rules that make writing and speech more engaging, memorable, and compelling.
In fact, once you know how to recognize them, you can see them everywhere – from Shakespeare to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Here are some quick ones to learn and remember when you’re writing copy:
- Use imagery. By using metaphors and similes, you can infuse emotion into your argument, often without even seeming to. Great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato hated the use of emotion in arguments, because it can make even a weak argument seem much more powerful.
- Use a catchphrase. I’m a Brit who recently visited Canada before Justin Trudeau was elected. The only thing I remember from ads on the TV while I was there were some anti-Trudeau ads that declared that ‘Canada is just not ready.' The ad copy wasn’t fancy, but it got the message across simply and instantaneously. In fact, the simpler the phrase, the better: people will remember it. Such was the effect of that campaign on me that, as a foreigner who didn’t follow the politics, I was surprised when Trudeau was elected!
- Groups of three. When you’re making a list, groups of three can be surprisingly effective. In fact, I’ve already used it twice in this article so far. The fact is, humans find groups of three more memorable and impactful than groups of two or four. Just think of famous quotations like this one from Shakespeare: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” In fact, that whole speech is masterfully written from the point of view of rhetoric. It crops up often in fairy tales and children’s rhymes as well, because it’s easy to remember.
- Repetition. It’s so simple, and that’s what makes it versatile. You can use it to emphasize an idea—like repeating a catchphrase—or to subtly undermine it. If you repeat something in the right way, you can evoke skepticism. Consider this example from the same famous passage of Shakespeare’s work:
“For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man."
Those last two lines are repeated throughout the speech, but contrasted with the speaker’s own view of Caesar. In the end, we get the impression that Brutus was quite the opposite of honorable.
- Have you thought about rhetorical questions? Rhetorical questions don’t need an answer, but all the same, they provoke the reader or listener to think about the question. Do you use rhetorical questions in your articles and copy? Is it a good way to make people think about what they’re reading?
- Sourcing. You can lend yourself authority by referring to experts. I’ve mentioned Shakespeare, Plato and Aristotle to support my arguments, giving them the weight of history!
- Hyperbole. It took me days to write this article. Well, actually, it hasn’t, but now you get the idea that it took longer than expected, that I might have found it difficult, and that I may have put a lot of research and thought into it. You should be careful with hyperbole in that you shouldn't promise something that clearly isn’t true. While most intelligent people can instantly recognize hyperbole, it can still influence their thinking. Catchphrases can do this. Take ‘Canada is just not ready’ for example, with the way it makes a statement about what ‘everyone’ is thinking. It's clearly not the case, but it still makes a strong impression.
You probably already use some of these techniques in your work, but once you recognize them, you’ll know how to use them more effectively. Good luck!