When Persuasion is Poetry

When it comes to getting through to your audience, channel your inner poet

In October 2008 my wife and I drove west along America’s historic Route 66 between a ghost town named Seligman (the inspiration for the movie “Cars”) and the town of Kingman Arizona. At its apogee, Route 66 was the keystone of the American Interstate system and was known variously as “The Mother Road” or “Main Street America”. Every 10 miles or so, the monotony of the vast and featureless Mojave Desert was punctuated by small clusters of red and white road signs placed roughly 100 metres apart. They were mouldering advertisements for Burma Shave, a brushless shaving cream launched in the 1920s. The brand soon became America’s second-biggest shaving product though by the 1960s was slowly fading into obscurity. Most people agree that what propelled Burma Shave to number two in the market was the brand’s innovative road sign advertising. It was a simple formula: six consecutive signs that combined to form a humorous rhyme.

Some sequences were direct plugs...

Every shaver / Now can snore / Six more minutes / Than before / By using / Burma-Shave

...while others were placed strategically as a public service

Past / Schoolhouses / Take it slow / Let the little / Shavers grow / Burma-Shave

Older generations fondly remember Burma Shave not purely out of nostalgia for the road trips they made on Route 66, but also because of the brand’s playful tone of voice. This recall has to do with something neuroscientists call “Processing Fluency”. Dan Pink, a former White House speechwriter, says that Processing Fluency is “the ease with which our minds slice, dice, and make sense of stimuli”. It is particularly strong when something rhymes because, in Pink’s words, it “tastes great and goes down easily”. Put another way, Burma Shave’s puckish sextets (or, as linguists might call them, “epigrams”), not only had “rhyme”, they had “reason” as well.

And then there are aphorisms - short pithy sayings that express some truth about life. Aphorisms don’t have to rhyme but the best ones invariably do. Like epigrams, aphorisms are powerful weapons in the influencer’s toolbox because, while brief, they freight an enormous payload of meaning. “They are the final link in a long chain of thought,'' wrote Marie von Eschenbach, a 19th-century Austrian author. Who, for example, would doubt the validity of the following Chinese proverb?

“The years say well what the days can’t tell”

There are a thousand ways to describe the importance of experience but none quite as pointed or economical as this one! And perhaps nothing carries a warning about the folly of overindulgence than the following:

“What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals”

The power of such contractions was explored by researchers at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College in 2000. Armed with a list of 50 rhyming aphorisms as well as a corresponding list of non-rhyming versions, they asked two sets of respondents to judge the statements for accuracy. The rhyming aphorisms were rated as significantly more accurate than non-rhyming ones. Yet when researchers asked people whether the first list described reality more accurately than the second, the overwhelming answer was negative.

It is this unconscious attribution of validity that makes some people very uneasy with these lingual sidewinders. For example, the American writer Susan Sontag once described aphorisms as “rogue thoughts”, no doubt because their verbal smoothness is so seductive that we are helpless in resisting them.

Take, for example, the O.J. Simpson murder trial that dominated the headlines in 1995. Among the evidence the jurors had to consider was a bloodstained glove found at the murder scene. The prosecution said it belonged to Simpson and, as such, it was their proverbial “smoking gun”. But when Simpson was asked to put the glove on, it didn’t fit. Much later in closing arguments, Simpson’s lawyer Johnnie Cochrane pounced on the apparent misstep, protesting his client’s innocence with a nimble yet pithy turn of verse:

“If the glove doesn’t fit...you must acquit”.

The now infamous throwaway masqueraded as an encapsulation of all the prosecution’s apparent inconsistencies. Because of its elegance, it pierced the mental filters of an already exhausted jury and, according to some experts, was instrumental in Simpson’s acquittal. (It was not the end of Simpson’s legal woes however: a year later, the former NFL hero was found guilty of wrongful death in a civil trial and ordered to pay $33m in damages to his victim’s families)

In a world of information overload and declining attention spans, perhaps influencers should be making more strategic use of rhyming epigrams and aphorisms. But then again, given the ethical issues, perhaps not. Moreover, as one of the Lafayette researchers so wisely cautioned, their use might prompt your audience to scrutinize your argument more closely, to make sure it's as pleasing to the intellect as it is to the ear.

"Forewarned is forearmed"

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