How to Grab (and hold) Your Reader's Attention

I have been doing university study for three years and, in that time I have only come across a few set readings that held my attention all the way through. So, imagine my surprise when recently, amid strolling through a weekly reading (a chapter on writing ‘appropriate content’ for your audience), I came across a phrase which pulled me from my daydreaming and made me take notice of what I was reading.


That phrase: “and that’s when the vaginal thrush returned.”


The reason this phrase stood out is that it didn’t belong there. But, it is also somewhat taboo and, let’s be honest, humorous. The authors knew that they might have been losing their audience by this stage of the text, so they used a rhetorical device to pull their audience back in. Rhetorical devices are plentiful and effective, and if you are a reader of any of my blogs (this personal blog or any I write for my clients), you would know that I am a huge fan of using rhetoric. So, let’s take a walk through some of the top devices you can use to grab your reader’s attention and hold on to it.


First off, what is a rhetorical device? Well, rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing, and the art of persuasion. So rhetorical devices are your ‘tools’ for persuasive writing (so to speak). I like to think of them as my secret weapons in my writing arsenal. The ‘vaginal thrush’ device, for example, is called carnivalesque writing. This style of writing is known to be shocking or taboo. It is mostly used in storytelling when the authors want to cover topics which are sometimes considered inappropriate to discuss. The authors of the article I was reading used carnivalesque as a means of persuading the reader to keep reading the text (b.t.w. it worked).


The rhetorical device which I use the most in my professional blogs is the rhetorical question. This device is especially suitable for business writing, advertising and even blogs on business pages. It is a good way to sell a product to someone, who may not know they need that product. Infomercials use it all the time!


Anaphora is another frequently used device of mine and is just a fancy word for repetition. The best example of the effectiveness of anaphora is in the O.J. Simpson trial. In that trial, Simpson’s legal team consistently repeated the phrase


‘if it don’t fit, you must acquit’.


They said it throughout the trial, and in the closing statement, so when the jury went into deliberation they had that phrase locked in their mind, and eventually did acquit Simpson. Obviously, Simpson’s team also used rhyming to make their catchphrase extra sticky. You can use anaphora and rhyming to get your point across in any style of writing.


Metaphors, similes and idioms are also rhetorical devices which help create vivid images in the mind of any reader. I use these in my professional blog writing as they are light-hearted and have the right tone for many audiences.


My final, and favourite, rhetorical device is the use of pathos. The word originated in ancient Greece and translates in English to ‘pain and suffering’. But as a form of creative writing, it means to stimulate emotion. When you are reading something which tugs at the heartstrings (see my use of idiom there), you are more likely to keep reading and see how it ends. Pathos can take many forms: I have used it in speech writing to draw on people’s sentimentality by reminding them of the sights, sounds and smells of playing Saturday morning netball; and I have used it in blogs targeting frustrated parents by relaying my own experiences. I believe that pathos, when done right, is the most effective tool in my writing arsenal.


These are just some of my favourite rhetorical devices. Not all of them are going to be suitable for every context, and they are dependent on your audience: I wouldn’t recommend using ‘vaginal thrush’ in your church newsletter! But, what I hope you take away from this is that professional writing doesn’t have to be stiff, and when writing for advertising, in particular, you don’t always need to go for a hard sell because rhetorical writing is just as effective.

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