Whether you’re trying to make an idea stick internally or sell your wares to the world, one-liners are useful in all sorts of business writing contexts.
But here’s my intelligent insight: they’re hard! You’re trying to boil a complicated message down to its simplest form. You’re trying to grab attention without losing meaning.
Conveniently for us all then, the queen of the one-liner – yes, that’s Taylor Swift – has recently released her ten-minute version of All Too Well. The lyrics are like a toolbox of techniques you can try to make your own lines leap off the page. From me to you, by way of Taylor.
1. Play with pace to pique interest
Let’s be honest, if you’re going to release a ten-minute song, you need to keep the audience’s interest alive – Taylor does it with pace.
Just look at how much she uses ‘and’ instead of beginning a new sentence: and I left my scarf there at your sister’s house / and you’ve still got it in your drawer even now. This is polysyndeton – where you repeat a conjunction to build a kind of climactic energy. A little like how Energizer say their batteries Keep going and going and going.
Or look at how she sprinkles iambs (stressed syllables followed by unstressed ones) through her lyrics like a heartbeat: a never-needy, ever-lovely jewel. This pitter-patter grabs your attention, same as when you hearSee it, say it, sorted on the train tannoy.
2. Strengthen your point with a parallel
All through All Too Well, Taylor contrasts ideas with each other – light and dark, chalk and cheese.
One of the ways she does this is with antithesis, flipping phrases around like you kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath. She’s hammering home her experience by pointing out its opposite. And brands use this same trick all the time too – maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline.
3. Think figuratively to stir feelings
Red Bull doesn’t ‘give you energy’; it gives you wings. Metaphors, similes and analogies add emotion that saying it straight can’t. Taylor isn’t ‘sad’. She’s a crumpled-up piece of paper lying here.
Cleverer still, this becomes an extended metaphor when she revisits the paper idea later on: maybe we got lost in translation? Maybe I asked for too much? But maybe this thing was a masterpiece until you tore it all up.
And here, we’ve got layered Russian Dolls of rhetoric – that expression of doubt (maybe.. maybe…) is called aporia, same as when Carlsberg say they’re probably the best beer in the world.
4. Make it memorable with sound
Taylor is a language lover. She’s said in interviews that when she hears a word she likes, she scribbles it down to play with later. And it shows.
She uses alliteration (so casually cruel) in the same way Odeon are fanatical about film. And assonance, too – the words long gone share a drawn-out ‘o’; sacred prayer repeats an ‘a’ sound. It stays in your head, like the double ‘i’ when Apple tell us to think different.
5. Create a connection with allusions
Or references, if you like – treating your shared knowledge with your audience as a little shortcut to meaning. It’s why the razors are called Venus; alluding to Greek mythology is quicker than saying ‘your legs will look like a goddess’ legs’.
All Too Well is packed with allusions. Sipping coffee like you were on a late-night show speaks to her ex-lover’s rehearsed charm; his ‘fuck the patriarchy’ keychain paints a picture of his precise breed of performativity.
But my favourite is when Taylor tells us all’s well that end’s well. Yes, it’s a pleasing echo of the song’s title. Yes, it alludes to a play with a plot full of fickle lovers.
But most importantly, it’s a reference to Shakespeare – a nod to one great writer from the pen of another. With a whole host of others like us cheering on… and taking notes.