13 July 2021
Communicating with the purpose of persuading someone to not just think differently but also act in a particular way is no easy task. And with today’s audience, which is more informed and has a short attention span, communicators need to sharpen their persuasive writing skills even further.
‘Persuasion’ as a craft has been in the making for more than 2,000 years. Ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers have written on persuasive communication practices in speech and writing. Both have laid considerable stress on the ‘good character’ of the person doing the persuasion. The Chinese added another dimension to it – the importance of understanding the ‘social status’ and ‘background’ of the audience.
Today’s marketing axioms may at first glance seem like a far cry from these principles, but on a closer look you will find that they are quite the same. ‘Good character’ is nothing but credibility and trust that buyers look for in a brand. The ‘social status’ and ‘background’ of the audience refer to the listening and profiling of readers or customers before we decide how to persuade them.
Persuasive writing is action-oriented. Firstly, it must express, impress and, especially in business, motivate the reader to act in a desired way. Secondly, it should be able to do all this even with the writer remaining anonymous in most cases. Thirdly, it must be able to do this subliminally through text that cajoles, but never coerces, the reader.
Reviews, criticisms, blog posts and editorials are some common forms of communication designed to lead a reader to adopt a certain position on a subject matter. How much readers concur with what’s in the copy depends on how powerfully the writer puts forth the argument.
Persuasion takes place in degrees. You may be persuaded to open an email with a subject line that says ‘limited offer’ as it piques your curiosity. But you may not find the email body text convincing enough to sign up for that offer. If you are the sender of the email, you may argue that the communication succeeded in crossing the first threshold. And is hence, partially successful. But someone else may argue that since the email failed to elicit the response you aimed for, the exercise was a total failure.
This is an insightful article that analyses the persuasion techniques. This was employed from time to time by those who worked closely with Apple founder Steve Jobs to convince him to rethink his position.
Communication that only impresses but does not elicit a response is not persuasive writing. Inspirational yes, but not influential. So what must your writing contain to rise above the mediocre and drive someone to change her mind or take an action?
Greek philosopher Aristotle pointed to three intrinsic characteristics of persuasive writing – ethos, pathos and logos, or credibility, emotion and logic. They are not mutually exclusive characteristics but they supplement one another in ways that may not be immediately apparent.
Let’s take a case study as an example. A case study must follow a logical flow of thought – a problem, followed by the approach adopted, the solution and benefits – to make an impression on the reader’s mind. Now if the case study includes the name and testimonial of the customer rather than keeping the customer name confidential, it becomes far more convincing. That’s because the name adds credibility. You can also add an emotional touch by reporting the day-to-day difficulties that the customer’s team faced before they implemented your solution. Also highlight how their day at work is far more productive and fulfilling now.
Like writer Maya Angelou says, “The idea is to write so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”
Read our previous blog on how brands are using storytelling to create an emotional appeal in their communications.
Persuasive writing is a tedious exercise. There is no set mechanism or universally applicable methodology to follow. To draw as well as sustain reader engagement, writing must constantly evolve to fit the task at hand. Here are a handful of tactics to strike the right chords.
In this earlier blog post, I wrote about listening being one of the basic tenets behind empathetic communication.
Whether it is in business or academics, there are several myths about persuasive writing. We will bust a few of them here:
Persuasion is a tool that no business can ignore. A lot of what we know about persuasive writing today has been handed down to us through the works of writers and philosophers. But it is a craft that communicators need to constantly learn, unlearn and relearn as they go. Know the basic rules of communication, be open to experimenting, and observe and fine-tune based on your experience.