There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed — Ernest Hemingway
Writing is hard. Writing to sell is even harder. Words must be written, read, rewritten and coaxed until they arrange themselves in a way that persuades.
However, a while back I stumbled across something: a lot of persuasive copywriting share similarities. Some in how they sound, others in how they feel.
It turns out, there are indeed patterns which make writing more persuasive and memorable. They even have a name — rhetoric, and curiously enough were quite popular back in the 4th century bc.
Rhetoric in copywriting today
While not common knowledge today, rhetoric is still used by the best copywriters, and is often what makes an ad work. The one below for instance.
50 Years, forever young — notice how the words stop & pull you in, how they roll off the tongue.
Imagine if it said 50 years, forever classic. Not quite the same, is it? That’s the power of alliteration, a rhetorical device in which similar sounds are repeated; the sound of the y in this case.
Here’s a few more examples. Once you see how it works, you start seeing them everywhere.
Apple, in particular, loves rhetorical devices. They even have a favorite—the tricolon—a device where 3 similar phrases are repeated in quick succession.
Here’s the banner on the apple mac pro page. Notice anything?
More power. More performance. More pro sure sounds a lot more powerful than the most powerful computer you can buy.
You don't even need full phrases.
However, not all rhetorical devices play with sound. Synaesthesia, for instance, mixes up the senses—colours as smells, sounds as tastes, tastes as touch—in a way that pleasantly surprises your brain.
Here’s coca-cola using synaesthesia with taste the feeling
And skittles asking you to taste the rainbow.
Occasionally though, you spot an antithesis – a device where contrasting ideas are placed next to each other. Nike, the original warrior brand, uses it to great effect below.
Ironically, for brands that scream how unique you are, nike, adidas & under armour are strikingly similar in their fondness for the antithesis.
And that leaves us with one last device to talk about today: the one that gets all the likes, and takes home all the awards — the visual pun.
The visual pun is a device where the imagery & words mean more than the obvious. Here's that other cola brand, Pepsi, dressing up for halloween.
Visual puns often require cultural context in order to appreciate them. Here's one final ad from India's original food app – zomato.
I hope these devices help you get started. For a more complete list, here's something i made for myself: Felix's mostly-complete list of rhetorical devices for use in good & bad times alike.
Now, go forth and write world-class copy, dear reader.
- Rhetorical devices work because they are interesting. They are interesting because they are surprising. And surprising because they reveal unexpected patterns.
- Consequently, the more you overuse them, the less effective they become; rhetoric loves moderation.
- Surprise is a common element of art, stories and jokes — visual composition, the story arc and the punchline all work because of surprise. In a sense, all information is surprise.
- The elements of eloquence is the best resource i’ve found on rhetorical devices. It helps that the author is witty. Wodehouse witty, even.
- Rhetoric doesn't excuse the need to address your customer's underlying needs. First say it straight, then say it great.
- Rhetoric helps communicate a specific message. But brands still need to have a consistent, differentiated place in your mind across messages – that's something archetypes and cultural branding help with. Follow the rabbit hole – this stuff is fascinating and useful.