Making Things Memorable

An introduction to why memorability matters, and how great people achieve it

Importance of Memorability

One thing that is really important when attempting to persuade someone of something is memorability. If you don’t make your argument memorable, your audience is going to struggle to attribute importance to it, particularly when they hear counter-arguments or alternative opinions. It is impossible to be fully persuaded of an idea if you can’t remember it.

Have you ever gotten an advertisement stuck in your head? Perhaps it is a jingle or something really unusual – like a dancing meerkat. The reason why advertising companies do that is because you will continue to think of their product. Even if you don’t need a pizza or car insurance, if Dominos’ or Geiko is stuck in people’s heads, when you eventually do, they’ll be the first ones to come to mind.

Importance of Repetition

Although some of what we remember differs from person to person, there are also proven psychological methods for making something memorable. For example, the human brain is better geared to remembering things that have been reinforced several times.

Think back to some of the greatest speeches. Can you identify any instances where they have reiterated the same point repeatedly, either with the same or different phrasing?

One example of this comes in Winston Churchill’s June 1940 speech to the House of Commons. In that speech, he repeatedly uses the phrase “we will fight them on.” The effect of this is that, when you finish listening to the speech, the message continues to ring in your ears. Even after you are no longer listening to Churchill’s speech, you are still being persuaded of wartime Britain’s desire to fight.

By using repetition, you are not just able to persuade people that you are right in the moment, but you are able to keep persuading them even after you have finished speaking. In fact, Napoleon said that repetition was the most important element of rhetoric.

Science of Repetition

However, memorability is not just an empirical concept: it has science behind it too. In 1977, psychologists from Villanova studied what is known as the Illusory Truth Effect[1] which stated that, if you repeat something enough times, people will think it is true.

In their experiment, they repeatedly showed statements to subjects, who were then asked whether or not they thought they were true. For example, they might have told people that Britain uses 20 million rolls of toilet paper a week. The more often individuals had been exposed to an idea, the more likely they were to believe it. 

Surprisingly, this study has also since been proven with outlandish facts. In 2015, researchers in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that, after repetition, subjects would instinctively believe repeated statements that they knew to be false. For example, test subjects were told that “a sari is a plaid skirt worn by the Scots.” Even the subjects who were able to correctly state that saris are not worn by the Scots before the start of the test would believe that it was true after they’d heard it enough times.

Tricolon

Nonetheless, there are different ways of repeating content. One key way of repeating an idea is through the tricolon. A tricolon is when you are using a list of exactly 3 elements to express your point – statistical analysis suggests that the human mind chunks lists into groups of 3.

In giving advice to his son, the US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famously said “be brief, be sincere, be seated.” Here the grouping of ideas into 3 makes them memorable in relation to each other.

Similarly, Julius Caesar famously said “I came, I saw, I conquered” in a letter back to the Roman Senate. The purpose of this tricolon was to definitively cement Caesar’s reputation as a successful military general. By getting people to remember his singularity of purpose, he was able to reinforce his political status.

When trying to persuade someone of something, attempt to point into threes.

Anaphora

Another rhetorical technique that can aid memorability is anaphora. This involves repetition, always at the beginning of multiple clauses in a row, and is effective because it creates a rhythmic impact when read aloud, which leads to it becoming more effectively stuck in the part of your brain that responds to rhythm.

One great example of anaphora in action is Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Amidst a background of hostility toward the civil rights movement, King’s speech managed to turn civil rights from an issue of fear to one of hope.

In that speech, the repetition of “I have a dream” at the start of each sentence allows him to push home to his audience that his core idea is one of hope because the word ‘dream’ draws connotations of optimism and idealism. In addition, the fact that the sentence simply begins with the phrase rather than being encompassed entirely by it allows him to refine and modify his dream. Through anaphora, King is able to paint a compelling picture.

Antimetabole

Another key technique used to make things memorable is antimetabole. This is the repetition of a word or phrase but with an inverted order. This often creates a direct contrast between an unfavorable option and its antithesis, which is more favorable.

One example of this comes from the 3 musketeers, who have the motto “all for one, and one for all.” Here, the inversion demonstratively shows that this is a 2-way relationship. Rather than just giving to each other, the musketeers also receive. Similarly, St Francis of Assisi, who was a prominent Christian orator, said that “it is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned.” In using antimetabole, St Francis is showing the 2-directional nature of his transaction.

A more recent example of antimetabole as an appendage of rhetoric comes from the inauguration of President Biden. He said “we’ll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” Unlike the above examples, this is not simply transactional. It teases the expected trope, but instead then pulls it away to reveal a better alternative.

Epanalepsis

While antimetabole occurs when you end a phrase with the opposite of what you started it with, epanalepsis is when you finish a passage with the same phrase as you started. This allows for you to repeat it, but also for that to appear as the foregrounded message.

Think back to any time you’ve read an article. Did it begin with an introduction and a conclusion? The reason it does this is so it can put the main message, the most important content, in the foreground. Epanalepsis does this, but on a much smaller scale.

One example of this comes in the traditional monarchical coronation rites. When the monarch dies, the pronouncement is typically ‘The King is dead. Long live the King.’ Here, the repetition of the phrase ‘the King’ serves to exemplify the continuity that exists.

Another way in which epanalepsis can be used is to emphasize the meaning of a phrase. For example, the activist Ralph Nader famously stated that “a minimum wage that is not a livable wage can never be a minimum wage.”

Epistrophe

Another rhetorical technique that can be used is epistrophe. This is when the same phrase is repeated, but it is always used at the end of the clause. This is effective because it shows an inevitability to the sentence.

One example of this comes in a speech from the American President Lyndon B Johnson. He said that “there is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” Here, the repetition of the word ‘problem’ at the end of each sentence shows it to be an inevitable product of the words before it. In doing so, he is pushing for unity by stating that it is impossible to blame any one group for its foundation.

Similarly, in a speech campaigning for an end to the apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela states that “the time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.” Here, the repetition of the phrase ‘has come’ shows that change is inevitable and, therefore, should not be resisted.

Epizeuxis

Epizeuxis is perhaps the most obvious example of rhetorical usage. This is when a word or phrase is repeated in direct succession. The impact of this is that, even if an audience member is distracted in their listening or reading, it is impossible to miss because it is so unusual.

One example of this comes from the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who stated that “our top priority was, is, and always will be education, education education.” This draws attention unequivocally and attempts to show that Blair’s focus is undivided.

Another example of this comes from the real estate industry. As early as 1926, real estate agents said that the top priority when buying a house was ‘location, location, location.’ This serves to get that key concept stuck in the minds of the buyers so that they attach importance to it.

Asyndeton

Although it is the repetition of a grammatical feature rather than a single word, concept or idea, repetition can also appear through lists. There are 2 types of list that we are going to look at as rhetorical features: asyndetic lists and polysyndetic lists.

Asyndeton is when you remove the final ‘and’ from a list so that each individual element, including the last one, is simply separated by commas.

One example of this comes from the American President Dwight D Eisenhower. In his speech criticizing the Military-Industrial complex, he referenced “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired.” Here, the impact of using an asyndetic list is that it makes it seem like there is no final weapon, making it seem endless.

Polysyndeton

The other type of list that can be used is a polysyndetic list. This is when each individual element of a list is separated by an ‘and’ in order to make the list seem longer than it is.

One example of this comes from the American author William F Buckley, who wrote that “in the years gone by, there was in every community men and women who spoke the language of duty and morality and loyalty and obligation.” Here, the impact of the polysyndeton is that it truncates the rhythm when reading the sentence, making an audible reader breathless or a visual reader tired. As a result, the list appears longer than it actually is. 

A common use of this technique is to make lists of reasons for supporting an idea or belief longer than it actually is.

Metanoia

Have you ever heard someone slip up in a speech and then correct themselves? Have you ever considered that they might have done it on purpose?

Sometimes, when giving speeches, someone might correct themselves. This is because they want to plant an idea in your head and then surplant it. For example, if the CEO of a banana growing company told you that they were the greatest farmers in the world, you might think that it’s pretty cool. However, if he says “we’re the greatest farmers in Brazil, nay, the world,” it seems even more impressive because he’s given you something to compare it to. The world is made to seem bigger by the fact that Brazil was the initial expectation set in your mind.This technique is called metanoia, and it can be a powerful way of showing things to be big or important.

Gimmicks

A slightly more difficult to define rhetorical technique is that of the gimmick. This is when a speaker attempts to become memorable simply by their plea toward absurdity. Because what they are doing is so highly irregular, it will stick into people’s brains.

For example, when Sacha Baron Cohen was invited to give a commencement speech at Harvard University in 2004, he did so entirely in character as ‘Ali G.’ Moreover, he opened the speech by saying that university was a complete waste of money. Since this was so unusual, he was able to be remembered because of it.

However, it is important to note that the gimmick is not always the correct feature for usage in a public speech. Sometimes, gimmicks undermine the credibility of the presenter or the seriousness of your point. There is, therefore, always a difficult assessment to make about your audience and the context of your communication.

Concealed vs Revealed Premise

One gimmick that is particularly popular is that of the concealed premise. This occurs when, rather than outlining the purpose of a speech or piece of writing at its beginning, it is hidden and then revealed.

One famous example of this occurred in Steve Jobs’ 2007 launch of the Apple iPhone, to which reporters were invited without being told its purpose. For the first 3 minutes of his presentation, he didn’t mention to the audience what device they were presenting. Instead, he told them that they were launching 3 different devices: a web browser, a communications device and a music player. However, after 3 minutes, Jobs revealed that these 3 devices were in fact a single device.

The shock of this moment allowed for his message to be singularly memorable. As a result, the rhetoric he used in attempting to persuade people to buy an iPhone was even more effective. Even though he didn’t use repetition, which is the primary method of making a speech memorable, he was able to achieve his goal using a concealed premise.

Sources

[1] https://www.wired.com/2017/02/dont-believe-lies-just-people-repeat/

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