The Secret To Being Memorable And Persuasive

This is a piece I did for CAREEREALISM, which is an excellent website for anyone looking for a job or thinking of changing careers.

Few skills are more important for success at work and life than the ability to be persuasive and memorable. And yet the tricks for effective speaking and writing, which have been known for twenty-five centuries and verified by modern social science research, are hardly taught today.

As I explain in my book Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga, those tricks are the figures of speech, originally developed by the ancient bards like Homer to help them remember their epic poems and to make sure audiences would remember them.

Systematic use of the figures is the best way to be both pithy and profound. In this world of information overload, you have to capture people’s attention. In this media menagerie, you have to stand out like a peacock. Mastering the figures will help you grab people with the most eye-popping headlines, the catchiest catch-phrases, and the sweetest tweets.

Modern corporations have spent billions trying to hone in on which words will persuade people to remember and purchase their products. Their expensive studies have shown that the use of the figures “leads to more liking for the ad, a more positive brand attitude, and better recall of ad headlines.”

Advertising research finds that for certain figures, such as puns or metaphors, the act of decoding the figure, of figuring it out, “is necessary to produce its positive incremental effects on attitudes and memory.” The subtext is as important as the text.

Studies reveal that “virtually all of our abstract conceptualization and reasoning is structured by metaphor.” A single, well-crafted metaphor, like a well-crafted building, can endure for ages, as when Churchill said in 1946, “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

Lady Gaga, the first musician in history to reach one billion views on YouTube. Half of those views were from two songs, “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance,” which, not coincidentally, are both extended metaphors.

The most important figures for making phrases memorable are the figures of repetition, especially rhyme and alliteration. This key goal of repetition has been understood for millennia, hence the Latin expression Repetitio mater memoriae, “Repetition is the mother of memory.”

Studies suggest that if a phrase or aphorism rhymes then people are more likely to view it as true. People more readily believe “woes unite foes” describes human behavior accurately than they do “woes unite enemies.” Another study found that repeating something 3 times has 90% of the persuasive value of 3 different people saying it once.

All these years after the 1995 O. J. Simpson murder case, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s phrase “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” still sticks in the mind. It hardwires what the jurors saw in the courtroom—when Simpson tried on the bloodstained “murder gloves” they didn’t fit—with the verdict Cochran wanted and ultimately won for his client. Repetition remains powerfully persuasive.

Popular songs have a catchy “hook” or phrase that is repeated many times. Last summer’s monster hit “Call me maybe” has one of the cleverest, hardest-to-get-out-of-your-head hooks you can squeeze into three words, “Call me maybe.”  The words “me” and “maybe” have both rhyme and alliteration.

You may wonder if you can learn how to be more persuasive and memorable from a book. After all, one common myth is that people are born with “the gift of gab.” It isn’t true.

In his autobiographical novel, Winston Churchill wrote of his hero, an eloquent politician: “These impromptu feats of oratory existed only in the minds of the listeners; the flowers of rhetoric were hothouse plants.” The garden of eloquence requires close cultivation.

Bob Dylan visited the New York Public Library again and again to read pre- Civil War newspapers. Dylan said in his biography he was “intrigued by the language and rhetoric of the times.”

Anyone can master language intelligence through study and practice. Studying the figures would benefit everyone: tweeters, bloggers, lawyers, politicians, managers, writers and songwriters, teachers, public speakers of all kinds—anyone who must make a persuasive case to customers, clients, co-workers, bosses, voters, friends, or lovers.

The figures have helped my blog, ClimateProgress, become the most retweeted climate blog in the world, which Time magazine named one of the web’s twenty-five best blogs in 2010.

The century-old words of a precocious 22-year-old Winston Churchill in his essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” are truer than ever: “The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to a very few.”

It’s a “Brand-You World,” proclaimed Time in 2006 in a punning headline. If you want to create and sustain a personal brand, if you want to be noticed and remembered, if you want to write wowing headlines or tweets, you’ll have to use more figures of speech. You’ll need language intelligence.



23 Responses to The Secret To Being Memorable And Persuasive

  1. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    You are a hero of mine, Joe, but sometimes your headlines are less than memorable, less than rivetting, even though you claim to be pretty darn good at this kind of thing. But I find they can be a little bit overworked, especially when you run them over two lines and we have to spend a minute or two trying to understand what you are saying.

    So, yes, please keep up the good work, but could we have fewer of your promotional pieces for your book? It’s beginning to look like your main objective is to make shed-loads of money, and that’s not a good look, Joe, for someone who is trying to save the planet.

    Have a good one, still with you there, all the way! Happy Easter.

  2. ThisOldMan says:

    If this be the means by which our fate is to be cinched, I fear our goose is cooked! (am I doing ok?)

  3. Joe Romm says:

    I guess you’ve never written a book, or you’d realize one doesn’t make “shed-loads of money.” And “main objective”? — I do what, 1 post ever couple of weeks on the weekend? Seriously. And I have hardly ever run a headline over 2 lines in the past couple of years, so I kind of question how much you actually read the blog anymore. I mean I’ve written maybe 5000 headlines in the past 2 years and I doubt you could find even 5 that run over two lines.

  4. Bill D. says:

    Taking nothing away from the value of using language effectively or the book, unless a person has something important to say, it matters very little how glib or polished they might be as an orator or writer. Style without substance is little more than grandstanding and it’s exactly what led humankind to the precarious place where we find ourselves today.

    As for the dire threat of global climate change, we can hardly count on having enough time to persuade the villagers via memorable metaphors that their house is burning. Their reluctant flight to reality will be not be motivated by clever words, but only by the existential shock of a clear, present and undeniable danger.

  5. Nell Reece says:

    I think this is apropos:
    Isn’t it time we stop calling solar, wind, geothermal etc. alternative energy and instead call fossil fuels alternatives?
    After all, solar, wind, geothermal etc. are in fact primary energy, and fossil fuels are indirect, so more appropriately labeled alternative.
    Make sense?

  6. BobbyL says:

    I think your thesis about what it will take to motivate people to respond to climate change is supported by the lack of a sufficient response during the past 20 years and lack of plans to respond adequately in the near future. This is not surprising. People have long predicted that there would not be Pearl Harbor moment when it came to climate change and that therefore an adequate response was doubtful. Has Obama formed a task force to make plans for 4C and beyond? If he hasn’t he should.

  7. Is there anything more ill-mannered than using words badly to insult someone for using words well?

  8. Joan Savage says:

    Good for a laugh, at least for me.

    If I were to tighten a horse’s cinch only to see a cooked goose appear, perched on the saddle, I’d want a credible witness.

  9. Michael Dowd says:

    My science writer wife (and a former science editor at Columbia University Press), Connie Barlow, and I both read Joe’s book and then I also listened to the audiobook. It’s fabulous!

    Language Intelligence is a “must read” for all who hope to influence others and make a real difference in the world.

    It’s an essential primer on the subject: Rhetoric 101.

  10. Jan says:

    I partly agree.

    This headline seems, ironically, to be the opposite of memorable or persuasive to me, because it reads just like so many dubious advertising claims. “Buy my … and you’ll know the secret to …”

    What convinced me to get the book were the excerpts.

    Were it just for the marketing rhetoric and endorsements, I would have forgotten about it.

  11. Jan says:

    “Hence, the first rule [of good style] … is this, that the author should have something to say.”

    (Schopenhauer, On Style)

    Another interesting work on rhetoric, if a bit older and mostly an entertaining blasting of the journalism of his time

  12. Joe Romm says:

    Different folks are persuaded by different things. Since only a tiny fraction of people who read a post will buy the book, the primary purpose of this post was to be useful as a standalone.

  13. Richard L says:


    I found your book to be invaluable and life changing. Thanks for writing it and promoting it. I am an engineer by training. My speech followed many of the bad patterns you described. Since becoming aware and often fixing much of my speech, my marriage is improved, my relationships with others are better, and I can share my concern on climate easier. And because of your well chosen title, I can recommend your book to folks who are tired of hearing me talk on climate. I tell them what I just said above, about communication, and they become interested in your book. Thanks again, Rich

  14. BobbyL says:

    I believe several years ago the Sierra Club dropped the term “alternative energy” and replaced it with “clean energy.” The reason was the term “alternative” was too closely linked with “alternative lifestyle” (hippies, vegans, etc). So basically now there are two forms of energy according to the Sierra Club, clean energy (no greenhouse gas emissions) and dirty energy (fossil fuels). Nuclear I guess is in a separate category because of the associated dangers.

  15. Mark E says:

    Let’s see…..

    1) Stellar free service that has no real comparable substitute…..

    2) Fulltime labor to make it happen….

    3) Constantly carrying the burden of the most current politics & projections with hardly a break…..

    >>>>> Shame on anyone who uses this site but complains about Joe mentioning the ideas in his book — because Joe deserves every royalty dollar he gets, many times over. As a matter of fact, I haven’t bought the book yet… but I’m going to!

  16. Joe Romm says:

    You should post that as an Amazon review!

  17. Dick Smith says:

    Just don’t drop “must read” from your headlines. That tells me…slow down, read for content, and think deeply about how this connects to something…so you’ll remember it.

    As for style, aside from repetition and analogy, you write economically. You get clarity by writing declarative sentences in the active voice.

    But most importantly, you add value. You never just give us facts (or numbers). You always explain the significance of the facts. And, that’s where you excel. Your ability to correct other articles that miss–or mis-represent–what’s really important is a lot more important than any style skills. As Jan said above (citing Shopenhauer)– you have something [interesting] to say.

  18. Jake says:

    There was a second comment on here which noted annoyance with the pitch on a climate site. It was not approved. Nice one Joe.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’d prefer ‘clean’ to ‘alternative’ any day. The mugs have been relentlessly brainwashed to hate anything labeled ‘alternative’ with Pavlovian reliability, so it plays into the enemy’s hands. The ‘alternatives’, so they have been told, are dirty, ‘free-thinkers’ who get more sex and enjoy it more that ‘regular’ folks, who aren’t even regular, because, unlike the ‘alternatives’, they eat too much meat and not enough lentils. Clean is simple, direct, not too pushy. One might say ‘non-lethal’ or ‘non-destructive’ but that might frighten the horses.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Ill-bred-most decidedly.

  21. Calamity Jean says:

    I like “renewable” energy. “Alternative” is definitely out.

  22. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Hi Joe, – Well, I visit the site daily and I read almost all of your pieces, at least in part. And on my computer almost all of your headlines run onto a second line, perhaps because I enlarge them to read them. But don’t worry. I was just having a bad day, and I should have just kept my mouth shut. I’m sorry.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes, indeed. And how about ‘inexhaustible’. ‘Clean, green, inexhaustible and renewable energy’. To be played through the head-phones of climate denial criminals at night, to lull them off to sleep, after a hard day’s labour planting trees and making biochar.