Here are the four parts of my persuasive writing masterclass in one article. Mix it up, take what you need. Your situation is unique and your appeal will be too.
It was astonishing to hear a spokesperson from the Donald Trump camp question whether a ‘fact’ even existed anymore.
Her argument that ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder is a disturbing sign of the pervasiveness of spin, and it is complete rubbish. In the world that the rest of us inhabit, facts matter. While the Opera House can shimmer with a mermaid’s green scales during Vivid, its tiles are still cream and white.
In a relatively short piece directed to a general audience—it might be a blog piece, promotional copy or a direct appeal such as a letter—keep these points in mind.
- Get it right. If you are wrong on something that a reader can verify with a few clicks on Google, your credibility is gone. Any interest that you may have generated will be wasted. If you know your product or service, and have something to shout about, this is easy. If research is required, find some verifiable sources (hint: don’t rely on Wikipedia)
- Not all facts are of equal importance. Rather than crowding your piece with a mass of information, choose the facts that are most relevant to your argument and what your reader needs to know.
- Don’t mistake facts for argument. You need both. Use your facts as a platform on which to build your supporting argument. Argument is the ‘why’ and provides powerful context.
Once you know what you want to say and can support it with the right facts, demonstrating understanding is critical. Your words need to ring with confidence. You are building trust with your reader.
If you are going to persuade, expect to defend. And you will find it hard, if not impossible, to defend an argument that you do not understand.
When writing briefs for the Premier of NSW as a graduate policy officer, I was expected to be able to explain anything that I had passed up the line. If I did not understand it, I needed to make the right calls to find out how it fitted into the bigger picture. What did it mean?
Understanding something operates on two levels.
First, you need to know what you are talking about. Understanding the information is different from making sure your facts are right.
If you don’t understand it, neither will your reader and you have a snowflake’s chance in hell of persuading them to come down on your side.
Apply these rules:
- If there is complexity or ambiguity in your argument or in the resources you are working from, find another reference. Ask an expert. A CEO I worked for was never afraid of asking the ‘stupid question’. If you are unsure, others will be too. Trust yourself.
- Don’t let complex material languish on its own. Illustrate it with a story, or by expanding on the context. This will show your confidence with the subject. Confidence is catching.
- Think about the most rational outcome. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious. Even if powerful vested interests are dominating the debate, flagging the common-sense solution can be powerful.
You feel this. It has touched you. Appealing at a basic, human level will elicit a basic, human response from your reader. The gut.
Make it real. Include real events or scenarios. This does not need to be lengthy. In fact the shorter the better. An historian I once read called it ‘corroborative detail’. It will stick with the reader. Some things to remember:
- Give your reader a sense that you are a real person. How would they feel if they were in your place? Can you imagine and describe different outcomes?
- People, especially in bureaucratic organisations, are inherently conservative and afraid of change. What are your readers’ fears? Can you pre-empt them?
#3 Motivation—yours and theirs
The core of any half-decent piece of persuasive writing is the why. If you are looking for an outcome, you have to keep this front and centre. What will make your reader do what you’re asking? It’s both carrot and stick. These things will keep you on track.
Where is the power?
Even if you have influence and can wield it, this is rarely the best option. Especially not if you want to draw on it again. It is a blunt instrument and often resented. If you have any clout or leverage, use it sparingly.
Think about what will make your audience sit up and take notice. If you are not able to wield direct power, how will you get to them?
Who has a stake in the outcome? The most effective strategy for getting something done, that you can’t do yourself, is to make the other party want it as much as you do. Once your problem is theirs too, you may find them willing to help.
When you have identified who is involved, think about their situation. If there is more than one, are they united, or do they have different objectives? Can you play one against the other? Remember, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Find out who could be adversely affected by a decision. It might not be immediately obvious.
Where are they vulnerable?
If you want to change somebody’s mind, you need to know their pressure points. Their weak spots. If you don’t know, you can indulge their vanities, flatter them. While on one level we all know what’s happening when we’re being sold something, we still have an innate human desire to be seen, to be understood. Use this.
Pick your battles
How often would you make an appeal like this? Think about how badly you need it and keep your powder dry for these times. When I worked in grassroots advocacy, I’d have several tiers of appeal. First up was the killer approach. This was for a case that had our strongest support. I would write a personal, tailored submission that went to the heart.
But if I had pulled this on every one of my caseload, nothing I wrote would have been taken seriously.
Then there was the ‘individual but muted’ appeal which made the case without significant investment. Finally, cases that were less plausible or less serious received a more formulaic approach. Using language to signal your commitment gets the best result when you know your reader, but it is useful to manage workload in any high-volume environment. Set your own tiers and codes to escalate urgency.
Your appeal will be stronger if you can follow up. What are the possible outcomes and how can you plan for them? How will your reader interpret your approach? Do they know what your next steps are too? Be one step ahead.
#4 Structure and tone
How you put your pitch together is crucial.
You need to get the structure and the language right if you want to turn your reader’s head and keep them looking. Don’t blow your opportunity for a result with poor construction.
Start strongly. You need to make an impression from the beginning. Imagine you have only 30 seconds of their time before they put your appeal aside. Maybe they’ll pick it up later, but maybe they won’t. Don’t take that risk.
Using what you know of your reader, think what would work best as an opener. A fact? A personal anecdote? A direct appeal? If you know what they are used to seeing, perhaps try something different. You want it to register.
Choosing and placing words
Keep your language as simple as possible. It does not talk down to your audience. Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood and to generate a response. If your subject is technically difficult, instead of tricking up language with jargon or density, give it space to let the reader reflect. The more complex the topic, the plainer the language needs to be.
Use a mix of short and long sentences. This allows the reader to absorb detail without being overwhelmed. A full stop is a chance to rest. The sentences should follow each other, linking logically. Similarly, paragraphs—look at the final sentence of each paragraph and make sure it links to the first sentence of the next. Keep paragraphs short and be sure to only introduce one concept or cluster of ideas in each.
Let your reader see what lies ahead. Helping them to link the elements together draws them inescapably to the conclusion, your conclusion. Build your momentum. Repeating a phrase or term is a good way to do this. You want your reader to think ‘Yes,’ or ‘I see it,’ or ‘This makes sense,’ by the time they reach the end.
Keeping your reader onside means no surprises. You don’t want to trigger anxiety. And you are not writing a whodunit so leave your reader with closing words which recap your position.
Finally, keep it clean. Grammatical mistakes look careless. And you care. If you can’t be sure about getting this right, find a second opinion or a fresh set of eyes.