Why Everyone Needs a Good Catchphrase

Admit it, you can’t get that catchphrase out of your head. The Public Speaker explains how a good slogan or mantra helps get your message across. 

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #254

  • “I have a dream . . .” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • "It’s the economy, stupid." - James Carville, strategist for the Bill Clinton campaign

  • "You had me at hello." - Dorothy, in the movie Jerry Maguire

What do these 3 phrases have in common?.

These lines are so memorable, you can probably tell me who said them instantly. In the communication world, we call this a catchphrase, a slogan, or a mantra. I believe when it comes to memorability, the catchphrase is king.  Why?  Because they’re simple phrases that are meaningful and repeated.  Catchphrases make your message memorable. 

OK, before I go on, think of a catchphrase that you remember hearing when you were a kid. It could be a commercial jingle, a politician’s favorite phrase, or something your teacher or your mother always said to you.

I’m going to date myself with this story, but I occasionally still find myself saying “Don’t bring home the bacon, bring home the Sizzlean." (Feel free to YouTube that one if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I also sometimes sing, “I am stuck on Band-Aid brand, cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me” when putting on an adhesive bandage!  A friend tells me her mom used to always quote motivatational speaker Zig Ziglar when she complained of being bored. She'd say, “If you act enthusiastic, you will be enthusiastic!” and I hear myself repeating two household catchphrases, "In or out, but shut that door!" and "Girls, remember, laughing leads to crying!" 

Some phrases stick with us forever, and some just don’t. In the world of public speaking, you can drive your point home and engage your audience if you find the right mantra or catchphrase to present your message.

I recently interviewed Jeremy Donovan, author of How to Deliver a Ted Talk about catchphrases. Donovan told me that if you can’t express your message in under 12 words, then you don’t know what you’re speaking about. And I agree! He also said that the catchphrase is by far the best way to get your point across. Why? Because it’s short, simple. and easy to remember. 

"The best talks have a repeated catchphrase," Donovan says, noting that this catchphrase isn’t too-often repeated, but instead sprinkled through the talk at the beginning, middle. and end.

Catchphrases or slogans make political speeches more powerful and corporate presentations more memorable. Use catchphrases, because simple is awesome, when it comes to memorabiity. 

Let’s look at Simon Senek’s TED talk titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Jeremy Donovan recommended this talk when I asked him for an example that makes good use of a mantra. Sinek makes use of two mantras to get his point across:

Example #1: “Start with why”

Sinek’s premise is that great leaders and innovators don’t start with “What” or “How” - they start with “Why.”

“Why” is Apple so innovative?

“Why” did Martin Luther King, Jr. become the leader of the civil rights movement?

 “Why” did the Wright Brothers succeed at human flight when other, better funded attempts failed?

Sinek drew a diagram that had the words “How” and “What” in rings in a circle with the word “Why” in the middle. Throughout his talk he pointed to the word “Why” over and over, giving us a visual representation of his mantra.


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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