What’s the most famous quote from the OJ Simpson “trial of the century?” Those of us old enough to have watched it on TV, or at lease followed the news accounts, would no doubt come up with, “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit!” This phrase, or a variation of it, was used by Simpson’s lawyer, Johnny Cochran. During the trial, Simpson made a show of struggling to fit into a glove linked to the murder. Simpson was acquitted, of course, and Cochran’s defense earned most of the credit for that outcome.
While the trial hinged on far more than that one phrase, its memorability and power stay with us. And, that’s no accident – statements that rhyme are more persuasive than the same statements without rhyme.
In a paper amusingly titled, Birds of a feather flock conjointly (?), researchers from Lafayette College showed that subjects found aphorisms more believable when they rhymed. Indeed, some of the most persistent examples of aphorism are statements like, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” and, “Haste makes waste.” Not all aphorisms rhyme, of course, but we find those that do more likely to be true.
While rhyme may increase the memorability of a phrase, the authors of the paper attribute its power to our old friend, fluency (see, for example, Convince with Simple Fonts). Our brains don’t like to work, and things that are easier to process are preferred. In the case of the aphorism experiment, the apparent truthfulness of the rhyming statements was enhanced because they were more fluent – i.e., easier for the subjects’ brains to process.
Cochran may not have had access to that research, but he understood the power of rhyme. To offset his perception as an attention-getting, publicity-hungry lawyer focused on big-money cases, he once said,
“I work not only for the OJs, but also the No Js.”
That’s a particularly good turn of phrase, even beyond the prominent rhyme. “No Js” means nothing literal in English, but the listener immediately grasps the meaning, people who aren’t wealthy or famous. The use of an invented word or words used in an unusual manner shakes up our brain and makes us pay attention – see Shakespeare Copywriting.
Rhyming for fun and profit
When should you use rhyme in business or personal persuasion? First, like any verbal tool, a little goes a long way. One subtle rhyme in a slogan or a catch-phrase will make that phrase more believable. A rhyme could emphasize a product benefit or answer a common objection. You don’t want your whole pitch to be in verse – that will cause the listener to focus more on the mechanics of the delivery and wording rather than the message itself.
Here are a few ad slogans that incorporate rhyme:
Beauty outside. Beast inside.
(Apple Mac Pro)
I am what I am.
Grace. Space. Pace.
These may not sound like Robert Frost, but they are probably a bit more fluent and memorable than non-rhyming alternatives. Certainly, Jaguar’s phrase works better than the equivalent,
Poise. Room. Speed.
We normally think of rhymes as last syllables that sound alike, but there are other kinds as well. Rhymer.com describes first-syllable rhyming words as having, “initial alliteration (the repetition of initial consonant sounds), initial assonance (the repetition of initial vowel sounds), and front rhyme (the succession of beginning sounds of words).”
Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.
These less conventional rhymes weren’t tested in the study, but it would be no surprise to find that they enhanced fluency as well.