The jingle that you can’t stop humming. The lyric bouncing around in your head. The line of dialogue that makes you gasp, laugh or cry. These words have a profound effect on us. Neuroscientists are researching why specific tunes bury in our heads like an earworm. Psychologists want to know why certain statements (“If the glove doesn’t fit you must acquit.”) can turn an argument.
This isn’t new. Rhetoric, the art of persuasive language, has been around for thousands of years. However, today, rhetoric has a bad rap. We associate it with politics and ‘empty rhetoric’. We think of a dusty university class with a boring professor and strange sounding latin names. That’s a shame, because rhetoric is more relevant today than it ever was. If you need to present, use rhetoric. If you want to persuade, use rhetoric. If you want to cut through the noise, use rhetoric. People who excel at standing out — especially in today’s noisy, multi-channel, multi-screen, ADD world — are masters of rhetoric.
Rhetoric is Everywhere.
Take Simon Sinek. The man behind some of the most popular Ted Talks, he’s a sought after speaker and practiced presenter. He’s full of quippy quotes like,
“Leadership is not a rank, it is a responsibility. Leadership is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of those in your charge.”
Great quotes make use of rhetoric. Paul Rand famously said,
“Everything is Design, Everything.”
It’s not just the sentiment that gets you — you see design everywhere you look — it’s the sound. Everything is Design, Everything. The latin name for that is a Diacope. An A-B-A structure in a phrase. You’ve probably heard Austin Power’s more famous, “Yeah, Baby, Yeah.”
It Works on Humans.
A mounting body of research is examining why and how rhetoric works. It explains what the Greeks and Romans knew centuries ago. It shows why oratory gets people elected, and language persuades people to buy. The rhyming sounds of Alliteration and Euphony have a persuasive effect. Researchers found that when statements rhyme, we perceive them to be more accurate. While making things easier to understand increases the “truthiness” of the statement.
Changing language changes our perception of reality. One famous piece of research looked at the footage of a car crash. Interviewees watched the footage, and were asked to estimate the vehicles’ pre-crash speeds. The experiment showed that perceptions of speed were altered by how interviewers asked the question, “About how fast were the cars going when they __________ each other?” Different words were used — ranging from contacted (an example of Meiosis) through to smashed (an example of Auxesis). This changed the speed estimate by as much as 10 mph.
We’re on A Mission to Set Rhetoric Free.
Rhetoric is all around us, and is surprisingly effective. Mounting research in psychology and neuroscience points to this. Why does it have such a bad rap?
We’ve been working with communication coach and practiced presenter Peter Paskale over the past few months in an effort to increase the use of good rhetoric. We believe that writers, storytellers, marketers, admen (and ladies) can all enjoy rhetoric. The problem is it’s not easily accessible. We wanted a quick and dirty way to get people more familiar with key rhetorical devices, and give them a way to improve their speaking and writing. So we came up with Dirty Rhetoric.
It’s a set of cards that contain the major rhetorical devices. We’ve made them visual to easily explain the concept. We’ve replaced the hard to remember Latin names with easy to remember English ones, and we’ve supplied simple examples. Purists will hate us. But we believe (and it’s born out in early testing) that aspiring scriptwriters, copywriters, (anyone with writer in their title), and professionals who want to tell better stories and present better will love us. Look for early access to the cards through Kickstarter.
 McGlone, Matthew S., and Jessica Tofighbakhsh. “Birds of a feather flock conjointly (?): Rhyme as reason in aphorisms.” Psychological Science 11.5 (2000): 424-428.
 Reber, Rolf, and Norbert Schwarz. “Effects of perceptual fluency on judgments of truth.” Consciousness and cognition 8.3 (1999): 338-342.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.