To dee-dum or dum-dee that is the question.
Words are musical. When we read a book, we don’t just absorb the meaning – we hear a voice in our heads making sense of things. If your copy has a pleasing rhythm, it’s easier and more enjoyable to read.
This idea goes back thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks didn’t even really distinguish between words and music in their dramas. In fact, our word “chorus” comes from the group of performers who narrated the action. Zooming forward a bit, Stephen King, the great man himself, writes to rock music – some of his favourites are AC/DC, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Rolling Stones. If his novels are infused with the spirit of Angus Young, it’s no wonder they’re so intense. Rhythm gives words power. And emotion. It can make or break your copy. It can be the difference between an engaged reader and someone bored out of their minds. And the difference between a sale and a lost customer. Hint: if you don’t want to learn why the tips work, head straight to the section at the end for a summary of our quick tips you can use straight away.
Dee-dum dee-dum ker-ching
In school English class we learned that rhythm starts with meter – units of syllables. Syllables can be stressed or unstressed. When we combine those metrical units into sentences and paragraphs, we get rhythm. Poets use all sorts of different meters but the most common in English is the Iambic Pentameter. An “iamb” is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (dee-dum). Iambic pentameter is dee-dum repeated five times. The regular pulse of iambs are comforting to listen to and can persuade us that the words are meaningful. Iambic pentameter is so common that it flows off the tongue easily:
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me; I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee, And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep, And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep; (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Here’s a contemporary use of iambic tetrameter (dee-dum x 4) in this memorable ad for The London Underground. The beating pulse sounds like a train. Or is it just too cheesy?
While too much regular rhythm can be a bit much for headlines, it’s a very powerful technique for straplines. Here are a few memorable iamb-based gems: It’s good to talk (BT) For mash, get Smash The future’s bright. The future’s Orange. The best a man can get (Gillette) Tip number 1 If you’re struggling to come up with a catchy headline or a stand-out slogan, try limiting yourself to a specific metre. But Iambic Pentameter is just the start of our exploration of rhythm. Even Shakespeare liked to play around with his favourite metre. Like adding an extra unstressed syllable at the end to make characters sound thoughtful:
To be or not to be: that is the question (Hamlet)
Tip number 2 Try ending your sentence or paragraph on a stressed syllable to give it an extra boost. Or a weak syllable to make it trail off. Shakespeare shows us you don’t have to stick to rules. Change the rhythm to get different effects for your copy. The best way to keep your reader interested is to add variety. Tip number 3 Variety keeps things interesting. Written a couple of long, complicated sentences? Mix it up. Add a full stop here. A shorter word there.
With me so far?
Time to forget your Iambs and your Trochees
The problem with thinking of language in terms of poetic metre is that people don’t speak in verse. If you’re writing a sales email you don’t need to start counting syllables. And it’s definitely not a good idea to use lots of lines of exactly the same length. But it’s still useful to think about which parts of your copy are stressed and which aren’t. Take Winston Churchill’s famous speech:
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.
It’s not possible to define a particular metre for the speech. But read through it and you’ll see that the stresses pick out some powerful words like fail, sink, dark. Everything else around these words just fills in the gaps. If your copy doesn’t have enough oomph, read through to see where the stresses are. Try changing words around or altering the structure to give it more impact. Tip number 4 If there’s something you want to emphasise, try to arrange your sentence so the stressed syllables highlight it.
When strong words aren’t enough
Sometimes just stressing words doesn’t make enough of an impact. Luckily we’ve got another rhythmic device up our sleeves – repetition. Read through JFK’s famous speech at Rice University:
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because the goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others too.
There’s a lot of repetition – any more and he’d end up in some kind of infinite loop. But it worked. And his speech became one of the most famous of the 20th Century. Repetition is used everywhere to reinforce a point. I challenge you to not want some Green&Blacks chocolate after reading this:
There are plenty of ways to use repetition, from Alliteration (Peter Piper picked a peck…) to Diacope (Bond, James Bond). But a really easy tool is The Rule of Three. From the moment we were born, things that come in threes have some kind of magical power over us. Three blind mice, three primary colours, three wise men… So when things come in sets of three we tend to pay attention. Tip number 5 For extra impact, use repetition and the rule of three. Repetition makes something stand out. Doing it three times will burn the idea into the back of your reader’s mind:
What mood are you in?
So now we know that stressing powerful words and repeating things can make your writing bold. But what if you’re after a different effect? Tesco ran a great ad campaign that used really short disjointed rhythms:
The staccato sentences sound pared-down, no-fuss – exactly like the product they’re talking about. Think about the purpose of your copy. Then explore different rhythms to find something suitable. We don’t recommend writing an instruction manual in trochaic octameter (like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven) – but being creative with rhythm can really help get your point across. Say you’re trying to surprise your reader. Dixons did this successfully by contrasting two different styles:
The long intro full of adjectives makes us think of a luxury brand. The ending is so abrupt and simple that we instantly realise buying it online from Dixons is the easy, common-sense option. Tip number 6 Rhythm can set a mood. Short sentences add drama and tension. Unusual rhythms can be mysterious or jarring. Long words and complex sentences can sound thoughtful (or boring).
Last but not least
Rhythm creates forward motion. And forward motion implies a destination.
If you’ve crafted a beautiful rhythmic piece of copy, the most powerful bit will be the end. Good stories always build up to a conclusion. Like Tim Vine’s award winning one liner:
I’ve decided to sell my Hoover… well, it was just collecting dust.
A punchline, a plot twist, a happy ever after – they only work because they come at the end. So think carefully about the ending of your sentence/paragraph. It’s all well and good front-loading content, but if someone reads every word of your copy, the bit they’re most likely to remember is the final word or sentence. So make it good. Tip number 7 Think carefully about structure. Beginnings are important, but save the best ’til last.
Too lazy to read the whole thing?
Our top tips for harnessing the power of rhythm in your copy:
If you’re struggling to come up with a catchy headline or a stand-out slogan, try limiting yourself to a specific metre.
Try ending your sentence or paragraph on a stressed syllable to give it an extra boost. Or a weak syllable to make it trail off.
Variety keeps things interesting. Written a couple of long, complicated sentences? Mix it up. Add a full stop here. A shorter word there.
If there’s something you want to emphasise, try to arrange your sentence so the stressed syllables highlight it.
For extra impact, use repetition and the rule of three.
Rhythm can set a mood. Short sentences add drama and tension. Unusual rhythms can be mysterious or jarring. Long words and complex sentences can sound thoughtful (or boring).
Think carefully about structure. Beginnings are important, but save the best ’til last.