Revolutionary Words — How rhymes make your messages stick.
“Listen, my children, and you shall hear. Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere...”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The American celebration of independence seems an appropriate time to ponder the opening line of Paul Revere’s Ride. According to Longfellow, Revere raised the alarm and became a hero of the Revolutionary War.
Unfortunately, this isn’t true. It’s true that he made the ride, but his role has been exaggerated.
“The most glaring inconsistencies between the poem and the historical record are that Revere was not the only rider that night, nor did he make it all the way to Concord, but was captured and then let go (without his horse) in Lexington, where he had stopped to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the impending attack.”
— Maine Historical Society
To make matters worse, four years after his arrest by the British, Revere was court-martialed for cowardice and insubordination¹ for his actions during the Penobscot Expedition, an American naval attempt to reclaim Maine. It’s a largely forgotten incident during the war, where a fleet of three British warships and 700 men withstood the largest amphibious assault by American forces prior to D-Day. Lieutenant-Colonel Revere served with the militia forces as commanding officer of artillery and was charged with refusing direct orders and leaving his position without a direct order.
Although Revere was later acquitted, his actions and trial forgotten, his ride to fame on the back of a poem is legendary. That points to the power of words, and in particular, rhyme.
How did this transformation occur? The answer lies in the rhymes of our friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. When Longfellow ended his poem with, “Through all our history, to the last…The people will waken and listen to hear…the midnight message of Paul Revere,” he framed Revere in a heroic light. The poem, penned nearly a century after Revere’s ride, provided an alternate, albeit sensational, version of a key moment in American history. Longfellow’s words were catchy and told a better story than the truth, a recipe for a permanent re-creation of Paul Revere’s legacy.
Rhyme and Truth.
What Longfellow knew, and what admen and lyricists instinctively know today, is that if you can put some rhyme into your words, they get stickier, like an earworm sucking on your brain. If you are old enough to have heard them, who can forget Timex’s “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking” or “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”?
But rhymes are more than memorable; they are believable. So say the researchers behind the intriguingly titled paper, Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly² (how rhyming can make messages stick). According to the authors, psychologists Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh, we are persuaded by rhyme not just because it’s memorable, “that earworm stuck in your head”, but also because it sounds true.
They took aphorisms, such as “what sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals” and asked volunteers to rate them for accuracy. As a control, they used non-rhyming replacements, like, “what sobriety reveals, alcohol unmasks,” and compared the reported levels of believability. Their findings? A significant advantage in favor of rhyming aphorisms.
Aphorisms can be found everywhere from the courtroom to the boardroom. Perhaps the most infamous example is Johnnie Cochran’s, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!,” a phrase that helped clear O.J. Simpson in his murder trial. In the business world, who hasn’t heard, “no pain, no gain” when faced with a change initiative, or a list of goals labeled “strive for five?”How about the call to action in a turnaround as a “move from worst to first” or old business saws like, “hire slowly, fire quickly?” The point is, turns of phrase and catchy rhymes are both interesting and useful, two positive effects that cannot be ignored.
How do you get better at this?
Don’t take the 4th of July as a period to work on your rhyming skills. That’s not the point. The point is to practice playing with words. Your talent will only get you so far. How you package that talent, in words — the way you write and speak — will get you farther.
I wouldn’t recommend that rhymes be used everywhere, but in a business presentation, judicious use of rhymes may help. Remember, if what you say is true, people will be sure to remember you.
Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience.
Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic.
Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.