So, you wanna know how to write clever copy like Apple? Here’s the secret: rhetorical devices. These stylish techniques have been used for centuries by rhetoricians like Aristotle to persuade minds and move hearts.
In this article, I’ll show you:
- What rhetorical devices are
- Examples of Apple using rhetorical devices on their website.
- Research that demonstrates how rhetorical devices get attention and make you more persuasive
- A 3-step method for using rhetorical devices in your copy
This is a massive post, so get some coffee and hunker down. (Or Pocket it for later)
What are rhetorical devices?
Sometimes called “figures of speech” or “rhetorical figures,” rhetorical devices are “artful deviations” of language (Corbette, 1990).
Or, more formally, a rhetorical device “occurs when:
- An expression deviates from expectation,
- The expression is not rejected as nonsensical or faulty,
- The deviation occurs at the level of form rather than content, and
- The deviation conforms to a template that is invariant across a variety of content and contexts.” (McQuarrie, Mick 1996).
In other words, you use a particular pattern to say something in a relevant, understandable, but unexpected, way. And doing this gets attention (a key point we’ll come back to later).
You probably already know some common rhetorical devices, such as:
- Metaphor and simile
- Antanaclasis (OK, so maybe you don’t know that one…yet)
“Whoa, hold on. Puns? Son, I’m all about clear copy. That clever stuff does not belong in my copy toolkit.”
OK, before you hit the back button, hear me out.
Why clever copy isn’t (too) evil
First, clever copy certainly can perform well when done right.
For example, Lance Jones, CRO Consultant from Copyhackers A/B tested a “clever” headline vs. 2 super straight headlines, and the clever one performed better.
Second, who says clever and clear can’t go hand in hand? Lance concludes his article by saying:
“But once you have the essential messages in place…it’s okay to have some fun and let the creative juices flow. Chances are that if your message makes your target audience smile, you’re more likely to be remembered. And in a sea of Google search results,being memorable is a very good thing.”
Third, there’s a treasure trove of rhetorical devices out there besides puns. And, as you’ll soon see, they can seriously boost the power of your copy.
But, first, let’s establish that rhetorical devices are indeed a cornerstone of Apple headlines.
Examples of rhetorical devices on Apple’s website:
Here’s an example of antithesis, emphasizing an idea by contrast (“Massive”…”minimal”).
Starting to believe me now?
While this might seem cool, does it really matter? Do rhetorical devices do anything other than make you sound clever?
Heck yeah! We’ll let science show you the way.
Benefits of rhetorical devices, according to research
The effects of rhetorical devices often vary based on the type of device you use (we’ll get to the different types in a bit).
However, many devices offer these 2 benefits:
- Get attention
- Help you persuade
Which is pretty awesome considering a copywriter wants to do both of these things at the same time. Let’s dig into how these dastardly devices do this.
“The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern.” – Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick.
To understand how rhetorical devices get attention, you have to understand how attention works.
Basically, anything that surprises us gets our attention.You see, our brains are essentially “guessing machines.” They’re always trying to infer what will happen next by using mental patterns/schemas. But when a pattern is broken and our guesses are wrong, we’re surprised. And when we’re surprised, we pay attention and try to understand what happened and how it’s relevant to us. (Sperber and Wilson 1986).
Let’s pull this Surprise-Attention-Relevance idea together with an example.
When you go to a nice sit-down restaurant, your “schema” or mental model of restaurants tells you that the evening will go like this:
- The server first asks you what you want to drink
- Server comes back with drinks and asks if you’re ready to order.
- You order.
- Time passes and you get your food.
- After you finish eating, they bring out a check and you’re expected to tip.
Now imagine that, as soon as you order your food, they bring you the bill and ask for the tip—before you get the food.
This small break in the normal pattern snaps you to attention and you begin to wonder why this is happening and how it’s relevant to you. “Why are they asking for the tip now? If I don’t tip well, I hope they don’t spit in my food…”
Rhetorical devices work like that.
They get your attention because they surprise you by breaking a common pattern/expectation in language, causing you to search for meaning.
For example, how does this image’s copy break normal patterns?
First, the tricolon of 3 words isn’t a common way of speaking. Who talks in 1-word sentences?
Second, the climax betrays the pattern of adjectives. “Thin” and “light” are in similar categories. But “epic” belongs in a different category. So it deviates from what you’re expecting, but not so much that you’re confused.
We can also see how rhetorical devices command attention at the physiological level. Neurolinguists have found that parts of the brain light up and respond within a fraction to a second to “linguistic oddballs,” causing the recipient to stop and process what’s being said. (Coulson , King, & Kutas, 1998.).
Tl;dr: Rhetorical devices = artful language deviation = breaks the brain’s guessing machine = surprise = attention + search for relevance.
Makes you more persuasive
Rhetorical devices can create “truth illusions.” That is, they make an idea seem more true than it actually is.
Well, some rhetorical devices can, as you’ll see soon, make ideas easier to comprehend, reducing cognitive strain and therefore creating cognitive ease.
And, according to Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow “anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias belief,” and therefore create the “illusion of truth”.
For a rhetoric-specific example, Daniel Kahneman cites an interesting experiment where participants read dozens of rhyming aphorisms such as “Woes unite foes.” While other participants read the same proverb in a non rhyming version: “Woes unite enemies.”
The rhyming aphorisms were judged to be more insightful than the non-rhyming versions. This is also known as the “Rhyme as reason effect.”
Kahneman sums up his advice with by saying “put your ideas in verse if you can; they will be more likely to be taken as truth.”
Tl;dr: Rhetorical devices = Makes and idea easier to comprehend = Reduces cognitive strain = Makes your idea seem more truthful.
OK, enough theory. How can you reliably integrate these techniques into your copywriting? Let me show you a method used by many masters of persuasion.
How to use rhetorical devices in your copy in 3 steps
I’ve read dozens of copywriting books and have found a common thread to writing clever copy that’s ALSO clear. When stripped down to its core, the method works like this:
- Say it straight
- Create a core vocabulary
- Say it great using rhetorical devices
Let’s explore these steps in more detail.
Step 1: Say it straight
When you try to be clever first, you end up saying nothing at all. So, first, you need to find WHAT you want to say. What’s your promise or value proposition? This idea comes from many persuasion giants:
Luke Sullivan, author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This
“First, say it straight, then say it great. To get the words flowing, sometimes it helps to simply write down what you want to say. Make it memorable, different, or new later. First, just say it.”
Jay Heinrichs, author of Word Hero
“The Pith Method. Write down what you want to say, then find the two to three key words that sum up your points”
George Felton, author of Advertising Concept and Copy (Third Edition)
“Start by having something to say. You can’t stick mumbo jumbo into a parallel structure and expect an advertising miracle. Create a real distinction, benefit, or promise.”
Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
“There are two steps to making your ideas sticky—Step 1 is to find the core, and Step 2 is to translate the core using the SUCCESs checklist.”
If you don’t know what your core idea is, then you need to go back into your research phase before getting into the writing phase.
At the very least, you need to know:
- Who? – Who is the audience? What stage are they at in the funnel?
- What? – What are you selling? What is your main promise?
- Why? – Why should your target audience believe you? What points of proof do you have?
Let’s assume you’ve done your research. You can often organize what you’re trying to say with value proposition templates. Personally, I like to use formulas like this one: (Product/service) helps (audience) do/get (benefit or outcome) because (proof).
Now, before jumping into saying it great with rhetorical devices, you need to take this critical step:
Step 2: Construct your core vocabulary
To effectively “play with words” you to have plenty to play with. That’s what core vocabulary is for. The core vocabulary is a list of the words, phrases, cliches, and idioms related your product/service and its value proposition. If you think of yourself as a wordsmith who crafts sharp copy, think of the core vocabulary as the raw materials you use to do the smithing.
Don’t skip this step. If you do, you’ll be limiting your word choice to the value proposition and whatever randomly pops into your brain. And your brain is lazy, not doubt urging you to go with the tired, easy-to-recall cliches.
Creating a core vocabulary is an idea is espoused by many persuasion giants:
Bruce Bendinger’s, author of The Copy Workshop Workbook (Fourth Edition)
“You need to collect the vocabulary you’ll be working with:
- Nouns, verbs and adjectives
- Slang and jargon
- Interesting ideas
- Fact and figures
- And figures of speech
These are the building blocks for your copy blocks.”
Luke Sullivan, author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This
“Try writing down words from the product’s category….For me—let’s say we’re selling outboard engines—I start a list on the side of the page: Fish. Water Pelicans. Flotsam. Jetsam. Atlantic. Titanic. Ishmael. What do these words make you think of? Pick up two of them and put them together like Legos.”
Sam Horn author of POP: Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything
“WHAT core words do I use to describe my business or brand?” (Taken from her project worksheet.)
How to build your core vocabulary:
I create a core vocabulary similar to how SEO people research keywords: Start with a seed term and then create branches using various tools.
Here’s one way of doing that:
- Brain vomit. Re-read your value proposition and list the first words and cliches that come to mind. Keep going till you draw a blank. These are your “seed terms.”
- Do voice of customer research. Read customer reviews on Yelp, Amazon and wherever else and list key words and phrases customers use. These are more seed terms.
- Find similar and opposite words. Find synonyms and antonyms of the seed terms you have so far using a Thesaurus.
- List common phrases. Find idioms and cliches related to all your terms using the idiom dictionary. You won’t use the phrases raw. You’ll break them, transform them into something that betrays a pattern.
- Find rhymes: If I’m really aching for more, I’ll run a few seed term through Rhyemzone.com and see what pops up.
I often organize the vocabulary with the seed terms and put their respective synonyms, antonyms, and related phrases underneath those terms, like this:
- Plain Jane
- Set sail
- Hoist your sails
- Sail away
An alternate method to building the core vocabulary is mind mapping consequences of the value proposition:
- Put the proposition from step 1 in the middle on the map
- What could this lead to?
- What are the positive consequences of having it?
- What are the negative consequences of NOT having it?
- Expand your mind map, jotting down verbs and adjectives that pop up.
- Find idioms related to those verbs and adjectives.
These are just some of my methods. Any “brainstorming” technique will work in step 2.
OK, now you have a value proposition and you have your raw materials (vocabulary). You’re ready to say it with style.
Step 3: Say it great with rhetorical devices
“Once you know what to say, the problem becomes how to say it.” – George Felton author of Advertising Concept and Copy
It’s easier to play with words once you understand the basic patterns of rhetorical devices. The problem? There are so. Many. Stinkin’. Devices. Thankfully, there’s a way to classify them:
Source: McQuarrie, Mick 1996
Without getting into too much detail about this classification system, let’s just explore devices from the two major types:
- Schemes: Schemes are figures of speech that deal with word order, syntax, letters, and sounds, rather than the meaning of words.
- Tropes: Tropes are figures of speech with an unexpected twist in the meaning of words.
I’ll explain some commonly used devices in each category and provide examples, both Apple and non-Apple.
Note: i won’t be covering simple devices like rhyme or alliteration as you’re probably already familiar with those.
Parallelism – Puts phrases, clauses or sentences in similar grammatical structures and length. I would call this a “fundamental rhetorical device” because it often works with other devices such as punning, repetition of words and sound, and antithesis.
Use parallelism to:
- Tangibly connect a thing, feature or action to a benefit. Think of it as “This and that” or ‘This then that.”
- List certain attributes—often with a twist. This listing pattern would be “This. This. This.” or “This. This. That.”
Antithesis – Contrast 2 words, opposing ideas, features, or benefits. Usually expressed in a parallel form. Think of antithesis as opposing things like:
- Big vs. small
- Hot vs. cold
- Up vs. Down
- Before vs. After
- Us vs. them
- Parent vs. child
Easy to use once you take a core word and find its antonym.
Use antithesis to:
- Contrast the before and after of your service/product
- Compare your service/product to the competition
- Highlight an interesting contrast within the product/service itself (E,g,: “A small company with a big heart”).
“Start” contrasts “Finish.”
Anaphora and Epistrophe – Anaphora is a repetition of a word at the start of phrases, clauses or sentences. Epistrophe is a repetition at the end.
Use anaphora and epistrophe to emphasize a keyword from your core vocabulary.
Antimetabole – A phrase or sentence is repeated, but in reverse order. It’s the AB BA format.
- Simply Amazing. Amazingly Simple. – Apple iMac
- Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. – JFK
- Stops Sediment Before Sediment Stops Your Water Heater – Water heater maintenance
Metaphor/Simile – Substitution based on underlying resemblance. Use similes and metaphors to:
- Explain complex products/services with many features and benefits
- Reframe how people look a commodity
To use these devices:
- List the attributes of the service/product you’re describing
- Ask: What else has these attributes?
Pun – Substitution of meaning based on accidental similarity. As in, some words just accidentally have 2 meanings or accidentally sounds the same, so you use them together and wham, you have a pun! There are actually different types of puns. Let’s cover 2 useful ones in copywriting.
Antanaclasis – Repeating a word in two different senses.
Syllepsis – A verb takes on a different sense as the clauses it modifies unfold. Whereas the Antanaclasis uses a single word twice to means 2 different things, the syllepsis uses a single word once to mean two different things. .
- “Built to handle the years as well as the groceries” (Frigidaire refrigerator)
- “It’s too bad our competitors don’t pad their shoes as much as their pricing” (Keds Shoes)
Synecdoche – Synecdoche is a metaphor that substitutes a part for a whole or a whole for a part. Whenever you say, “Hey, nice threads,” you’re using threads (the part) to represent the whole (clothes).
I’ll add more devices and examples as I find them.
Bringing it all together: An example in HVAC
You might think this method only works for Apple because they have a well-established name and can afford to be clever. On the contrary, this method can be used anywhere. Let me show how this method could work in a super boring industry: HVAC.
Step 1: Say it straight
Here’s what I know from the researching the client:
- The service: Air conditioner repair
- The promise: They offer quick repairs while providing financing for any budget
- The audience: People who can’t handle a sudden repair costing over $300
- The proof: The repairs are usually performed the same day and they can provide a link to the financing service.
There’s nothing super unique here. But it’s what we have. And what you’ll often have as a copywriter.
At any rate, for step 1 I’ll usually come up with a quick command headline like “Get Same-Day A/C Repairs with Flexible Financing.” This is good enough to get me going to the next step.
Step 2: Build a core vocabulary
While looking at my headline I can see that “Same-day” could also be said as “today.” And looking through the idiom dictionary I see “Here today, (and) gone tomorrow.” Oh there’s some opportunity there! I check my list of rhetorical devices to see if anything works with that.
Step 3: Say it great with rhetorical devices
“Today…Tomorrow” Hey, that’s an antithesis!
Well, the repair could be today, but what would be tomorrow? We know that the full repair bill wouldn’t be there, because they’re getting financing. So I think of “A/C Repairs Today. Without the Painful Bill Tomorrow.”Then the body copy can expand on financing with a link out to another page if needed. This is just one version.
I can create a few others. But you get the gist. The method works, no matter the industry.
Want to learn more about rhetorical devices?
Here are some books I’d recommend reading:
- Word Hero: For beginners. Does not use the technical device names but rather gives you fun, easier to remember names.
- Writing with Clarity and Style: A Guide to Rhetorical Devices for Contemporary Writers: More technical, school type book. Introduces you to most contemporary rhetorical devices.
- Advertising Concept and Copy (Third Edition): Not mainly about rhetorical devices, but does connect some of the more common ones to copywriting and advertising.
- Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion: Advanced book on rhetoric. Has some great chapters on rhetorical devices.
If you’ve noticed copy anywhere that uses rhetorical devices, post them in the comments below. I’d love to use them as examples for future posts.