How to Craft a Memorable Catchphrase

A memorable catchphrase can be the difference between sccess and failure in a presentation, speech, or even your business. The Public Speaker shares the latest research on phrase memorability and offers great tips for creating your perfect presentation mantra. 

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #270


  • “Start with why.”

  • “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

  • "Development is evolutionary, not revolutionary."

In an earlier episode called Why Everyone Needs a Good Catchphrase, I used these examples to show why a well-built catchphrase, or mantra, is a public speaker’s best friend..

In today’s episode we’ll look at what research tells us about memorable phrases and discuss the key elements of a well-crafted mantra.

What Makes a Catchprase Memorable?

Last year, researchers from the Department of Computer Science at Cornell University published a paper titled “You Had Me at Hello: How Phrasing Affects Memorability.” The goal of this study was to understand what information gets retained by the public and why. They looked at how phrasing (that is, sentence structure and word choice) impacts information retention.

The researchers created an analysis framework that allowed them to look at a broad set of movie quotes where some were memorable and some were not. They found major differences between quotes that stick with us and those that don’t.

What were some of the differences they discovered? Turns out, there are 6 key components of catchphrases that stick with us. They typically:

  1. Use distinctive words. Memorable quotes are more distinctive than non-memorable quotes. Research showed that the less likely a phrase was to show up in “common language,” the more memorable it was.

  2. Use common syntax. You might think non-traditional sentence structure would make a phrase stand out. But the data showed that simple, common syntax (the type of language used in everyday speech), is more memorable.

  3. Can be used in a different context. Memorable catchprases use phrasing that can stand alone. They phrases aren’t tied to the content they’re introduced with.

  4. Avoid personal pronouns. Since personal pronouns usually refer back to a specific person mentioned earlier in the talk, the phrase won’t make sense without it. It’s ok to use the second person pronoun “you” because it’s generic and not referring to a specific individual.

  5. Use present tense verbs. Past tense verbs usually point back to a previous event so they don’t work well in a phrase that needs to stand alone. Use present tense verbs to create a memorable mantra.

  6. Use more front-of-the-mouth sounds, like the letter “L” and less back sounds, like the letter “U.”

One word of caution here: While I do think this research is useful, it is certainly possible to overthink this. My advice is to come up with a few ideas first, then you can apply these findings to help fine-tune it. But I wouldn’t lose sleep over the fact that your new mantra uses more “U” sounds than “L” sounds.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.

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