Could the ancient Greeks help us with our social media skills? It’s a question I was encouraged to ask after reading Mark Forsyth’s recent book ‘The Elements of Eloquence’. Forsyth delights in revealing the rhetorical tricks behind our most memorable poems, plays, novels and speeches. Nevertheless, some of his examples suggest the ancient Greeks could also lend a helping hand with less wordy forms of communication. Here are five figures of speech that might enliven your next Twitter campaign, Facebook update or press release quote.
Repeating the same initial letter sounds in a sentence is one of the easiest rhetorical devices to use. The result is a short, sharp, shock that the reader will not easily forget, which is why newspapers love alliteration. Their world is one where a tanker driver strike and a tax on takeaways lead to ‘Pasties, petrol and the politics of panic.’ In fact, alliteration can be used to make any point you want. CND wanted to ‘ban the bomb’ and animal rights activists to ‘stop senseless slaughter’ but the government, and tea-cup manufacturers, still urge us to ‘keep calm and carry on’.
The use of a question to make a point rather than elicit a specific answer is particularly effective for appealing to shared interests or perceptions. Anti fracking campaigners might ask, ‘What part of turning water into toxic sludge makes sense?’ just as a Democrat poster campaign in the 1960 US Presidential election used the slogan ‘Would YOU buy a used car from this man?’ together with a photo of the Republican candidate Richard Nixon. But you had better be sure that the audience shares your answer or you might face the same problem as John Cleese in the film Life of Brian when he asks ‘What have the Roman’s ever done for us?’
If the point you’re trying to get across includes a list, keeping it to three things will make it more memorable. The old construction industry safety slogan, ‘A fall, a slip, a hospital trip’, is still remembered because it rhymes and contains three elements. Including both ‘a fall’ and ‘a slip’ is perhaps a bit redundant but a list of two things is not enough; just as four is definitely too many. In the Second World War, Winston Churchill warned the British people that he could only offer ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ but he needn’t have bothered because today we only remember ‘blood, sweat and tears’.
The order of words is also important. If one element of the list is longer than the rest, it’s best to leave it to the end, as in ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ The same is true for any element of a list that breaks the pattern established by the other two. Left to the end, the element of surprise can add humour, as in ‘Lies, damn lies and statistics’ or urgency as in ‘One world, one future, one chance’.
If your aim is to point up similarities or differences, an effective way to do it is to use two clauses that are grammatically parallel. Whether it’s, ‘Have a break. Have a Kit-Kat’ or, ‘The future’s bright. The future’s Orange’, advertisers love to use the trick to imply some link between a desirable activity or quality and their own product. However, the isocolon, as the Greeks called it, is just as useful for social campaigners. ‘Think global. Act local’ is simple and memorable while who could argue with Susan B Anthony’s ‘isocolonic’ even handedness, ‘Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less’.
Finally, if you want to inspire a bit of thoughtful reflection or reciprocity, why not try Chiasmus? This Greek term for inverted parallelism is ingeniously simple and simply ingenious. All you need to do is repeat the same words, grammatical constructions or concepts in reverse order in the same or a modified form. The symmetry encourages us to see the same situation from a different perspective, as President Jimmy Carter did in his farewell address; ‘America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense human rights invented America’.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that how you say something is the only thing that counts. Content matters. If you don’t have something to say in the first place, no amount of rhetorical tricks will save you from sounding like Rowan Atkinson’s Sir Marcus Browning