Photo in public domain.
San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford ©Al Rendon

Hook Your Message to Make It Memorable

When we are good communicators, we shape our message to be memorable to the audience. The art of crafting communication is called, “rhetoric,” another of the academic disciplines that has been discounted by people who don’t want to think about what they are doing. I suppose they would prefer to receive a more natural, heartfelt, thoughtless expression from the people speaking to them.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Public Domain Photo, Library of Congress.

Rhetoric is my passion as well as my business. I thrilled to great words in church, from Dr. Seuss and Highlights Magazines from the moment I could listen and read. I memorized the Gettysburg Address in elementary school. I heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on television as I grew toward adulthood. Long after I moved beyond fundamentalist belief, I was entranced by the apostolic rhetoric of country preachers.

The Mexican Preacher

There was a church raising in Karnes City in 1980, put up in a matter of days by a large group of Baptists from all over Texas. I was editor of the Karnes Citation in those days, and covered the ordination ceremony.

The service featured a Mexican American evangelist, a good preacher who translated his sermon line for line. He used a refrain to fortify the congregation’s faith, a hook repeated again and again kept as a call to his litany of blessings we best retain: “Always remember and never forget,” he said, “Siempre recuerda y nunca olvides.”

Photo in public domain.

Command & Consequence

I remember this because it’s the finest piece of rhetoric I have heard live. “Always remember” is a command – it’s something a person has to intentionally commit – to bear the truth in mind as an act of will. And then, “never forget” – truth resonates in your mind as a natural, almost organic process. There are things you cannot forget, your synapses are seared by experience or enlightenment and hold the memory in their cells.

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

We recall the things we are commanded to never forget by repeating them: quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, historical dates of great meaning to your culture, classic math problems and scientific processes that inform your work and bring understanding to your world. We learn these things from teachers and media, and dutifully remember.

There are things we never forget because they are so visceral – the discovery of the Holocaust camps after World War II, the screaming young girl emerging from Agent Orange peppered jungles in Vietnam, the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, the crumbling World Trade Center. It’s not all tragedy – Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s Fur Elise, Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon – whether image or story, we are affected on a global scale.

The Noisy Rhetoric of American Politics

The practice of imbedding impressions has become political art in America. Our candidates and their communications machines learn “the message,” and repeat it. How many times during the 2010 debt crisis were we told that one party or the other felt the need for “adult conversation” in the struggle to find – or obstruct – reasonable compromise? And during the campaign we just completed, the competing messages were droned so incessantly the whole nation wept with four-year-old Abigael Evans in weary frustration over the constant coverage.

YouTube video

Now, Don’t Forget…

Repeating the party line and keeping the various spokespersons – sometimes in the role of impartial journalist – “on message” has become part of our political environment. Facts are shaded and gradated, shaped to the agenda and twisted with little regard because it is well known that perception trumps truth. We are commanded to remember, and we feel as if we have little choice as the message rains down upon us.

Can’t Forget

Some of the “never forget” memories reside throughout our culture, some are held within families or tightly-knit groups of friends, some are personal. We share our experience – always have – face to face, words on paper and screen, songs sung in concert or recorded, allegories in stories, books and films, signs and lines across the sky. We share so that we will not forget, we share because we cannot forget, we share and remember together.

In July 2011, young singer Sarah Bading lost her beloved, Thomas Ensley. Sarah is a prolific Facebook user, and she shared her funeral experience in a brief, but very powerful description: She “nuzzle kissed his forehead” at the New Orleans graveside. It was raining, of course, and she repeatedly refused an umbrella so as to be purified by the soft drops. “Soaking wet baptism while soul wailing graveside,” she wrote.

Won’t Forget

Life goes on. Sarah found new love and in recent days has given birth to a son. But her experience, shared in a number of posts, brings the evangelist’s phrase home to me every time I think of it. Sarah does not need the command to “always remember” – she and her friends who read her posts and heard her words will “never forget.” The memory is in her heart, never far from her singer lungs. She will tell that story to her son and grandchildren. And we will tell the story too, in the communal process of always remembering, never forgetting in the hope that we will learn and evolve toward a better way of living together.

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford shapes thoughts into words day in and night out. You can read more of his writing in his personal blog ( and on his company website, ExtraordinaryWords.comHis column, Every Word Counts, appears in the Rivard Report every weekend.

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