Catchphrases are powerful tools in the hand of a public speaker—they can help cement an idea for years to come. We all remember phrases such as “I have a dream” or “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.
You can use catchphrases for important speeches, product slogans, advertisements, campaign mottos, and more.
Let’s look at what makes a good catchphrase, how to come up with catchphrases, and how to use catchphrases you’ve coined.
Principles of a good catchphrase
- Must be short and simple (usually around 10 words or less)
- Must avoid awkward wording
- Must be memorable and pleasant to the ear
- Must evoke some kind of emotion or agreement
A catchphrase is meant to stick in the head of the audience, so that when you’re done speaking, they can mentally repeat it to themselves.
While not all catchphrases are used to reinforce a point or as a slogan, that’s the kind we’ll be focusing on. (In other words, we’re not talking about catchphrases such as “I’ll be back”).
What makes a catchphrase pleasing to the ear or memorable?
- Rhyming (Click it or ticket)
- Alliteration (Cook up a catchphrase)
- Tone of voice when delivered (Sing songy and light, in some contexts)
- Parallelism (Having an equal amount of syllables before each rhyme. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” vs. “If it fit, you must acquit”. Although the second one is incorrect, it’s more pleasant to the ear.)
- General application (shouldn’t be hyper-specific. Avoid past tense, use more “a/an” vs. “the”, and avoid specific pronouns such as “he” or “she”.)
- Figures of speech (see below)
- Distinctive words (see below)
Figures of speech
I just want to briefly highlight a few figures of speech that can make your catchphrase stand out.
Starting two or more phrases, sentences, or verses with the same words. Example: Start thinking. Start acting. Start now.
Although two works fine, three is the most pleasant to the ear.
Using two contrasting ideas, words, or phrases together. Example: That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
Example from the Bible: Many are called, but few are chosen.
Words or phrases reversed. Example: Many youthful men long for fame, and many famous men long for youth.
Obviously, a lot of these devices are difficult to coordinate unless you’re spending time making catchphrases when you write the speech. It would be hard to make a catchphrase during an impromptu speech.
A research paper from Cornell found that most catchphrases have distinctive, uncommon words in them. Ex: the word “leap” vs. “jump”.
That said, successful catchphrases generally use common phrase structure, and simple words. In other words, they’re generally unusual but still easy to understand.
How to brainstorm a catchphrase
While different people generate ideas in different ways, here is a method I used that worked well for me.
1. Think of the topic/argument that you want a catchphrase for.
2. Write a list of words/phrases that match the topic.
For example, if the topic is an agency that is ineffective, come up with a list of words like this:
Useless, ineffective, feckless, reckless, failing, fruitless, unprofitable, inadequate, trash, unsuccessful, inept, lame, awful, incompetent, weak, feeble, unfit.
Google synonyms if you’re having trouble coming up with them. If you want, you can also search for synonyms for each of the words and generate a larger list.
3. Try putting the words together into a catchphrase.
If there are any words that rhyme or work together well, see if you can make them work together.
One idea that popped out to me is using feckless and reckless. Although I’m trying to get across that the agency is weak, I found a different use for these two words.
Let’s say the popular opinion is that making the agency stronger would result in chaos/reckless actions. I could use a catchphrase that highlights that the agency is simply weak, not necessarily irresponsible or reckless.
So I’m re-purposing these two words into a new catchphrase: “The [agency] is feckless, not reckless.”
By throwing word combinations around, you’ll eventually find something that sounds pleasing to the ear.
4. If nothing comes to you yet, use a rhyming/alliteration dictionary.
The alliteration finder is actually more useful than you’d think, because it prioritizes words that rhyme or sound really good with the word that you search. Both of these tools are fantastic for generating ideas.
The way I use these tools is by taking the word I want to use (eg. reckless), and trying to see how I can fit it, along with a word that rhymes with it, into a catchphrase about the topic.
Note: don’t forget that near rhymes and multi-word rhymes are just as valid as perfect rhymes. “Wreck us” rhymes with reckless if you deliver it correctly.
Use multiple different rhyming dictionaries because you’ll get different results from different ones. Don’t just look in the section of “perfect rhymes”, sometimes what a dictionary counts as only a partial rhyme sounds like a perfect rhyme. (Eg. “breathless” and “reckless” sound good together, but all the dictionaries I saw listed them as end rhymes).
When I was in debate, one of my cases dealt with an agency that frequently had vote deadlock. So when I searched for rhymes, I found the word “wedlock”. Instantly, I had an easy catchphrase. “The [agency] is in wedlock with deadlock”. Judges would usually smirk or laugh, and proceed to write it down.
The phrase isn’t particularly brilliant (and it’s pretty cheesy), but it is certainly more memorable than most things that are said in debate rounds.
5. If all else fails…
If you’re having trouble coming up with a specific catchphrase, come up with something more generic. It could be one that applies to the underlying concept instead of the specific issue at hand.
For example, if you want a catchphrase about the Iraq war, you might come up with something that applies generically to wars, instead of a catchphrase that is specific to the Iraq war.
6. Don’t settle for the first draft!
Try to improve on each of your catchphrases. If they’re missing one of the “pleasing to the ear” principles, see if you can fit it in.
For example, can you make it shorter? Make it more memorable? Add alliteration?
Lastly, make good use of it in your speech
In another article, I break down how successful speakers use catchphrases to their advantage. In fact, every world champion of public speaking uses a catchphrase in their speech.
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