Repetition, repetition, repetition

Evening News
London was soot and smog and ceaseless machinery, and Charlie was one of the many many boys fed daily to the machines.

Charlie, like a swarm of other ragamuffins, sold the ha’penny broadsheets over on Whitechapel for enough blunt for a chop, gin, and a bit for his mum.

Not the biggest or the boldest, his only advantage was a fair dash of cunning and a quick tongue. Competition was deadly intense: once Charlie managed to claim a prime corner and had a half-brick thrown at him.

So Charlie made do with a less ideal situation, and used his wits to shout out attention-grabbing slogans. “Ya don’t wanna look ignorant, do ya?” was not a huge success, but most did get him more sales than he would otherwise make.

Then one day he awoke with a nonsensical rhyme in his head. When he reached his patch he tried it. “‘Oos dead, ‘oos wed, ‘oo fell off a sled?” he chanted loudly while waving his paper. Doggerel though it was, the rhyme got more attention than usual, and more ha’pennies.

One posh gent in a frock coat and fob watch walking past said, “Who fell off a sled?” Charlie cheekily replied, “I dunno, guv, I carn’t read now can I?” The gent laughed and paid Charlie a whole penny. With that unexpected windfall and the rest, Charlie sold more than he’d usually get in two days.

The next day Charlie tried another new slogan, but it wasn’t doing anywhere near so well as the rhyme had. Shrugging, Charlie again chanted “‘Oos dead, ‘oos wed, ‘oo fell off a sled?” and sold papers. The gent exchanged another round of banter and another penny, and Charlie decided he was on a winner.

Month after month, Charlie used the same rhyme, with only occasional variations. (Once, topically, the rhyme became “‘Oos dead, ‘oos wed, ‘oo went off ‘is ‘head?”) He became a fixture, with more regular customers than a broadsheet seller can generally hope for.

And on his birthday, the gent gave Charlie a whole farthing. Charlie bought his mum new scissors, his sister a ribbon, and got knock-down-drag-out drunk on the rest.

The rhyme continued, a bit subdued, the next day… and every other day until Charlie went off for greater adventures.

The moral of the story

Repetition is criminally underused.

There seems to be a shared belief in the online world that repetition will make you dull and predictable and forgettable. But while repetition often accompanies dull forgettable content, it’s not responsible for it. Repetition, used well, can produce beautiful results.

Repetition builds trust.

When there are themes, words and motifs that reoccur on a regular basis in your content, they become familiar. YOU become familiar. And familiar lives next door to trustworthy.

Repetition creates community.

Ever had a moment where you and a near-stranger have sung a theme song together and them laughed as friends after? If that theme song had changed every week, that could never happen.

Pretty obvious, I grant, but so many of us seem determined to have nothing the same this week as last week.

Repetition creates rhythm.

This one often feels especially important online, where the barriers to entry are so low. We need to see that you’re you’re here to stay before we are likely to trust and invest with you. Rhythm is a dance with time, and demonstrates it beautifully.

Repetition is memorable.

Our brains love encountering information they’ve seen before: it reduces the cognitive load in processing. Repeated elements are more likely to be remembered than one-time ones. This also means that repeated information has more impact.

Repetition saves your brain.

If you have to create a new intro and signoff for every single email and newsletter and article and interview and podcast, or whatever, then you are monstrously inefficient. Worse, if you’re trying to make every single one of them interesting and memorable…

How to use repetition well.

Firstly, choose what you’re going to repeat. Here’s a big-ass list of options to get you started:

Words and phrases

Repeat as desired.

  • technical terms (especially your own)
  • endearments
  • intros
  • endings
  • metaphors
  • running jokes
  • quirky phrases
  • references
  • quotations
  • made-up and portmanteau words

Frameworks, formats and templates

The specific words change, but the shape is the same.

  • newsletters
  • product names (it works for Apple)
  • product descriptions
  • image captions
  • teleclasses
  • email signatures
  • e-books
  • autoresponders
  • article titles (“X ways to Y”)
  • the articles themselves
  • sales pages

Other stuff

  • visual elements
  • fonts
  • recurring characters
  • themes
  • colour schemes
  • topics
  • theme music
  • shared beliefs
  • stock photos
  • easter eggs

Second, experiment until you find what suits you and your audience.

(For example, I play around with words constantly. “Squoodles” was added to my regular vocabulary after four different people emailed me just to say how much they loved that word.)

Then there are two ways to implement the repetition.

Set it in stone and do not alter it unless absolutely necessary.

This works best for elements that exist in specific times and places, like intros and outros. (Edward R. Murrow wasn’t the only reporter to use the same sign-off line at the end of every show, but he’s a beautiful example of doing it well.)

Use it as a motif.

You can use the melody, or a variation on the melody. For example, if you address your readers as “mewling minions”, then a) that is awesome, and b) you don’t have to use the exact phrase all the time if you don’t want to. (You could also call them “subaquatic slimebags”, if you like.)

Then the most important part: stick to it.

The more consistent you are with this, the more clear the impression will be.

You’ll notice it happening, as your readers quote you to each other, or describe something to you in your own words, or reference you to someone else as an example of a particular feel, or regard you as the go-to on a topic you revisit often.

Yes, that is exactly as awesome as it sounds.

A little less conversation, a little more action

If you want to start using repetition in your communications, then today:

  1. Decide what you’re going to start repeating.
  2. Create a repository, if needed (a notepad, a spreadsheet, a template).
  3. Use it today.
  4. Use it next time.
  5. Repeat.
Any other repetitions to add to the list, or thoughts on when they do (and don’t) work? Tell us in the comments.

If you don’t know what to repeat because you couldn’t describe your audience at gunpoint, then have a look at Goddamn Radiant. We’ll get you describing your wonderfabulous readers with spot-on repeatable prose in no time.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Andrew Stawarz

18 thoughts on “Repetition, repetition, repetition

      1. In neurology terms its the creation of a synaptic path between neurons that strengthens every time you have that same experience.  Add emotion and smell to that repetition (say incense and a strong feeling of peace) and you have a very strong bond…if only we could add smell to the internet and our marketing messages would be unforgettable 😉

  1. Never really thought about repetition this way, at least consciously, but now that you mention it, I think I did subconsciously recognize it. With that said, I think the more predominant feeling in my mind was this: “repetition often accompanies dull forgettable content”. Seems like it’s a fine line to walk, finding a way to balance the consistency of the thing you choose to repeat against creating good dynamic content. But then I guess if it was easy, everybody’d do it, right?

    Thanks for another great post, Catherine! And I, too, like the word squoodles. 🙂

    1. Of course you love that word! Who doesn’t?

      It’s interesting, and I should maybe have added a list of Things Which Must Never Be Repetitive. It’s… not a very long list, in my opinion. But there are a few, like Thou Shalt Not Rehash Old Content Without a New Perspective or Deeper Exploration… 

      What would you put on the Do Not Repeat list?

  2. Yes! Hence, sitcom catchphrases. “Whatchu talkin’ about, Willis?”…”Ayyyyyyy”…”That’s what she said!”…”That’s not peanut butter” (mine, I’m trying it out.)

    People love feeling like they’re in the know.

  3. Love it. I’ve heard lots of people using the word ‘amazeballs’ lately … and while I am not sure it came from you Catherine … it makes me think of you every time!

    1. Ha, it’s not even my word! But since I do use amazingpants and wonderfabulous and a few others, it’s not surprising. Also, clearly I am good at marketing, which is… well, pretty important considering that’s my job. 🙂

  4. YAY I love this. I have decided that #1 my house needs a name (like Havi’s Hoppy House) and thus I shall now refer to it as “The Menagerie” which is, of course, a fancy word for zoo lol.

    I often refer to my clients, followers, etc as “my lovelies”, and I think I need a sign off phrase.

    So much fun stuff to think about!

  5. I’ve actually started doing this unconsciously; didn’t realize it until I read through this.  There are a few things I’m still playing with and a few more that will start to fall into place as I work through Foundations, but I can spot the consistent repetitions already. w00t!

  6. I was drawn to reading this article as my biz partner and I have been discussing the balance between repetition and overdoing it – so I loved reading this. Part of my fear around too much repetition is about putting people off and having people unsubscribe (shock, gasp) but I also realise as you say that repetition is about building familiarity, carving out your brand and your niche, and if the result of that is some people deciding they dont’ want to keep following you, thats a good thing cos they weren’t meant to be part of my tribe anyway!

    1. Beautifully deduced, Jo. 

      As for the fear of overdoing it – write a list of all the elements of one article: title, theme, topic, tone, length, structure, close, call to action, tech terms, endearments, images, etc etc etc. 

      And then put them into three categories: Repeat Always, Repeat Sometimes, Repeat Never.

      Things like the theme should be repeated (or re-explored) consistently but not in every article, while the specific topic – like using repetition! – should be re-used very, very rarely.

      And then you can choose what to put into the Repeat Always category!

      Does that help? 

  7. As I read this I realized how incredibly repetitive I am with my best friends– like some other folks have mentioned, catchphrases, in-jokes and weird words always repeat themselves when I’m with people I love.  So Catherine’s point about how familiarity and trust are next-door neighbors rang true to me.  This also led me to think about how affection can simply be a by-product of repeated exposure to the same person.  As can annoyance.  Hm. Need to suss out this theory a bit more.

    1. The Dude and I have been joking for years that we could never be replaced by a clone or Cylon or whatever – in the absence of the ten zillion in-jokes and references the clone would be spotted pretty much instantly.

      It’s an interesting thought to play around with, no?

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