It surprises me that the subject of rhetoric, the art of persuasion, doesn’t crop up more frequently in marketing conversations.
To the ancients, rhetoric was a wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary mindset that encompassed the art of public speaking, logical argument, literary composition and much more.
It went without saying that winning a debate in the senate, getting a case settled in your favour, or winning supporters to your cause (classical conversions, if you will) relied not just on having good information or reasoning, but on understanding how best to arrange and present your material to most persuasive effect.
Things were pretty much the same come the Renaissance, with its love of all things ancient. Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have studied rhetoric extensively, learning how to deploy the classical figures or devices, and practising how to argue for and against the same point at school.
The old boy’s plays are full of rhetorical devices. ‘Is this a dagger that I see before me, / The handle towards my hand?’ is an instance of polyptoton (the hand/handle play). ‘Something wicked this way comes’ is hyberbaton (deliberately scrambled word order). ‘So fair and foul a day I have not seen’ is paradox, alliteration and hyperbaton all in one.
To the modern mind, however, rhetoric is the sort of lowdown dodgy trick we associate with the likes of politicians and, er, advertisers and marketers. A google search for the phrase ‘empty rhetoric’ yields 302,000 results.
But of course, we still make use of the devices and methods of rhetoric all the time, albeit by different names. And the ancient terms are beginning to enjoy something of a comeback, though, thanks to popular primers like The Art of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth and You Talkin’ To Me? by Sam Leith (both great reads that wear their learning lightly by the way).
If the more recondite rhetorical devices have been relegated to cryptic crossword clues and University Challenge, it’s not hard to see why. The likes of hyperbaton and syllepsis (‘Mr Pickwick took his hat and his leave’) live half-lives of richly deserved obscurity.
But many others, such as metaphor, paradox and antithesis, prosper still, and whether we know it or not they are often the secret weapons that help us to communicate with more grace and impact.
Here are three classical rhetorical devices that strike me as particularly relevant to digital copywriting…
Alliteration and assonance
It’s one of those funny things, but we all just like things that alliterate. They’re easier to remember, easier to process, more fun to read or say.
· ‘Postage and packaging’
· ‘Lock and load’
· ‘With the right iPad accessory, you’re covered. Or connected.’
· ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle.’
The marriage of harmonious sounds and strong semantic complementarity – a marriage of ‘form and function’, no less – confers a powerful sense of rightness that seems to satisfy our lizard brains and higher functions alike.
Why say ‘ingenious and straightforward’ when you could say ‘smart and simple’? And don’t forget assonance, the vowel version – ‘on brief and on time’, ‘experience and expertise’….
Avoid alliterating for the sake of it, though. Sometimes it’s tempting to shove in another word to create or extend the alliteration effect, but if the terms don’t fit, the effect can be diluted. ‘Simple and straightforward’ is teetering dangerously towards tautology, for instance.
Or consider the headline, ‘How to transform your boring bedroom into a bourgeois boudoir’ A bourgeois boudoir? Really? OK, it’s French and it’s another B, but isn’t ‘bourgeois’ often synonymous with ‘boring’?
Ah, the magic of the number three. The classic three-act structure. Three wishes. The Holy Trinity. Three little pigs. Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Faith, hope and charity. Location, location, location. Liberté, egalité, fraternité…
Things that come in threes just seem to have sort of primal power to them that things in twos and even fours can never quite match. There are lots of split tests in which sales copy with four benefits or two gets trumped by the version with the three bullets.
Visually, one is just a dot, two is a mere line, but three is a triangle. The rhetorical deployment of three related elements is known as a tricolon.
As Mark Forsyth points out, this device is so powerful that even when people don’t use it, we like to think they did. So Churchill actually promised ‘blood, toil, sweat and tears’ – a dull foursome – but we all remember it as ‘blood, sweat and tears’ – an elegant tricolon.
Three benefits. Three simple steps. Three sections to your speech. Whether at the level of an entire campaign or within the syntax of an individual sentence, three is structural gold.
There are several types of rhetorical question, and this one refers to the practice of anticipating and answering questions before they are raised. In debate, this gives your audience the impression that you have thought all round the issue and can take the wind out of your opponents’ sails.
Online, it’s a very effective way of expressing how digital content should work.
When we land on an effective website, we have the sense of being anticipated. As Ginny Radish writes in Letting Go of the Words, we should see our website as one half of a conversation with a busy person.
The reasons someone is on our site can usually be framed as a series of questions; the job of our content is to anticipate and address these questions clearly and credibly.
The anticipatory Q&A format is the standard way to present FAQs, of course (‘Why don’t you deliver to the Isle of Man?’). More widely, it’s a widely applicable and much-underrated structure for content designed to brief people on new information.
See, for instance, this Guardian guide: How does pension auto-enrolment work? It’s a good idea to start with the broader questions and work towards the more granular and complex, pyramid-style.