By Craig Engstrom, Ph.D.

Did you click to read this article because of the title? If yes, then perhaps you are a student and want to learn the basics of PR writing. Perhaps you are a recent graduate and feel like you are still trying to hone your writing craft. Perhaps you are shrewd and recognized the double entendre. No matter your motivation for clicking, keep reading if you want to decorate your or your clients’ speeches, social content, or stories with elements of style.

In this post, I present a case for using figures of speech in writing. I list examples of how to use figures in everyday writing scenarios. Finally, as a bonus, I throw in my favorite figure to use in speaking scenarios. Application of what you learn in this article should leave you figuring out public relations writing.

The Case for Using Figures of Speech

I will make a case for figures with an analogy between home building and writing because some philosophers argue that the world in which humans dwell is built by the language we use. Want an ugly dwelling? Use ugly materials (language).

Any PR or writing instructor will lecture that the foundation of quality writing is a focused topic. The frame of quality writing is an organizational pattern. The walls of quality writing are accurate punctuation and grammar. Regarding foundations, frames, and walls, simple is better. A single topic. A three-point outline. Short, simple sentences. Once these are in place, you can take this functional design and make it aesthetically pleasing by adding some decorations. The décor of quality writing—what makes it appealing or exciting—is figures of speech. They will give tone to your writing and amplify your voice.

Do figures matter? Well, you tell me. Thus far, in sequential order, I have strategically used the following figures (and more) to organize ideas and build a rhythm:

  1. Anaphora: Repetition of perhaps you are in the first paragraph;
  2. Sibilance: Repetition of ‘s’ in speeches, social content, or stories;
  3. Alliteration: Repetition of ‘m’ in no matter your motivation (instead of no matter your reason);
  4. Mesodiplosis; repetition of the phrase of quality writing in the middle of clauses in the fourth paragraph.

Suppose I have failed to convince you with my attempts at style. In that case, you can find research supporting the value of persuasive devices—like figures of speech—in Dr. Michael L. Kent’s Public Relations Writing: A Rhetorical Approach.

There is also a steady stream of scholarly research in marketing, consumer behavior, advertising, and public relations on figurative language’s positive effect on attitudes and behaviors. Here is a reference to an article I have recently read:

Pendleton, Susan C. 1999. “‘Man’s Most Important Food Is Fat:’ The Use of Persuasive Techniques in Procter & Gamble’s Public Relations Campaign to Introduce Crisco, 1911-1913.” Public Relations Quarterly 44 (1): 6–14.

Having made a case for using figures, let us now look at a few practical examples so that you can begin using these figures today.

Examples

To immediately start hanging figures of speech on your everyday writing, focus on titles of presentations, email subject lines, social media posts, opening lines of presentations, and transitions in long documents.

Titles of Presentations

Which presentation would you attend? The one with the alliteration or the one without?

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Email Subject Lines

Which email will you open faster and inspire you? The one with the emoji, pun, idiom, and rhetorical question or the one that is boring and sounds like more work?

  • Is something fishy going on in the break room? 🐟
    (Body: The breakroom is getting messy and the fridge is a little funky. Want to join the crew that’s going to keep it clean between janitorial visits? Email Phil.)
  • We need volunteers to help keep the breakroom clean
    (Body: Email Phil if you are willing to join the crew that will keep the breakroom clean between janitorial visits.)

Social Media Posts

Which post do you think will do better in an A/B test? I hope you choose A, the one with antithesis:

“Patience is bitter, but it has a sweet fruit.” – Aristotle

If you are patient, you will be rewarded. ­– Probably somebody.

Opening Lines of Presentations

In his Y Combinator demo day pitch in 2015, founder and CEO of HigherMe, Rob Hunter, opens with this catchy line: “HigherMe helps retailers and hourly employers hire better employees.”

This example, which uses alliteration and consonance, is superior to “HigherMe can be used by retailers to hire employees.”

Transitions in Long Documents

Regarding lengthier prose, such as emails, speeches, or press releases, drop figures in at various intervals. For example, in a 10-minute presentation with three topical sections, you might include one figure in the introduction, two in each topical section, and one in the conclusion.

Of course, you can overuse figures or use them poorly. A good rule of thumb, which I have found to work for my clients and me, is to employ fewer than two obvious figures per section. I have found that beginning, ending, and transitioning with figures is most effective.

My Favorite Figure to Use in Speaking Scenarios

I often get asked to share my favorite figure of speech. I have recently launched a series on my YouTube channel called “Figuratively Speaking.” I would say I am covering my favorites there. It is hard to choose just one.

Because I have mostly covered figures in writing, I will share one I love to demonstrate in live presentations as a spontaneous demonstration of the power of figures of speech.

I will have the audience give me two topics or words of their choosing. For example, let’s say they gave me “molecular biology” and “Wikipedia.”

I know nothing about molecular biology. Molecular biology is a challenging subject to learn. Learning about it is easy on Wikipedia. Wikipedia may not be considered a highly credible resource of information. But information needn’t be credible when someone is learning the basics of topics like molecular biology. So I recommend beginning your basic introduction to molecular biology on Wikipedia.

As you will notice, I have not said much of substance. But to a live audience, it will sound like a profound insight on these topics. For this reason, I often use anadiplosis–the repetition of the same word at the beginning of a class from the preceding clause–in interviews when I cannot think of an excellent answer to a question.

Conclusion

Have fun with figures! The worst that can happen is your supervisor scratches them for being too flowery or they fall flat with an audience. But like anything in life, practice will lead to improvement. You will get the hang of using them by using them. Remember that if you have a quality foundation, frame, and walls, your readers will understand the message even if you are not a great decorator. Readers will appreciate you put effort into building a lovely home and decorated it nicely for their brief stay with you.

Dr. Craig Engstrom is an associate professor of business communication at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He offers communication and career consulting services through Communication@Work LLC. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.