A5 – Arguing for attention

A few years ago, I came up with a cute little mantra that I love thinking about. It’s called A5:

A5: Argument by Analogy, Anecdote, Alliteration, or Acronym.

A5 1 represents the rhetorical flourishes we all use to make our points more memorable, our ideas a little stickier. I find it especially pleasing that “A5” is an A5 in more than one way.

The A5 mantra is a bicycle for critical thinking. When reading or listening, I sometimes find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s an A5.” Then I try to decide if their point is trustworthy, or if they are using marketing for cover.

Here’s a few examples of A5s:

Wait, Rhyme-as-reason?

Yup. A5 is also a great illustration of the dangers of slick rhetoric—it sounded pretty authoritative and it’s easy to rattle off, but it’s not exhaustive, not even close. Many other rhetorical tricks exist, I just haven’t found out how to cram them into the slick package.

But this also leads me to a deeper question: is it bad to make an idea more memorable?

“Marketing” can be a bit derogatory but, when communication is the goal, we need to maximize the impact of our ideas. Therefore, it’s in our best interests to make our ideas sticky. The very act of grinding away at an idea, making it sharper and stronger, will almost surely also teach the thinker better ways to communicate that idea.

Language also plays a role here. The words we know shape the way we think (linguistic relativity) and our experiences collectively shape language over time. So it makes sense that powerful ideas are more likely to find good rhetorical purchase—the language is primed to express them. But is this a double-edged sword? Are we limited by the language of our time? 4 I often wonder about powerful ideas being lost because we cannot express them (hypocognition). However, humans are pretty resourceful, and we have strong tools to help with this problem, such as mathematics.

Regardless, ideas should have an inherent quality or importance, but their fitness will also depend on their expression.

OK, that got deep for a second, and my thoughts on the interplay between language and thought are wholly unoriginal. But nevermind, the point here is A5—a sticky idea about sticky ideas.

By the way, dear reader, please let me know if you can think of a synonym for “Rhyme” that starts with ‘A’. Then we can give birth to A6! 5

  1. Not to be confused with the Audi luxury car, the Apple microprocessor, the ISO standard paper size, or the alternating group of degree 5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A5 ↩︎

  2. “Exploration-Exploitation tradeoff” is a powerful, fundamental idea, and is just expressed so exceptionally well. Chef’s kiss ↩︎

  3. Malcolm Gladwell’s entire career is basically argument by anecdote. ↩︎

  4. Yes, I’ve seen Arrival. ↩︎

  5. “Assonance” is close… ↩︎

Jim Bagrow
Jim Bagrow
Associate Professor of Mathematics & Statistics

My research interests include complex networks, computational social science, and data science.