Persuasive writing is an iterative learning process.
Whether composing a tweet, an email, a blog post, a business case, an essay, or a book, you must connect powerfully and viscerally to what reader stands to gain or lose by your proposition—real or imagined. Persuasive writing speaks to your reader’s visceral emotions, and more than just getting them to agree with you, it gets them moving in the same direction. Effectively, your idea becomes your reader’s idea and compels him or her to: start, stop, buy, act, change, invest, or avoid something you are saying. But how?
Four things to think about when writing to persuade your audience are:
- Ready—Have something to say, and empathize deeply with your audience
- Aim—Develop a forceful argument, tailored to your reader’s persona and motivations
- Fire—Send it
- Repeat—Gauge the reaction, and refine your message as needed
1. Ready: Have Something to Say—or Wait Until You Do
If your writing is not compelling, then your work will be just another proverbial fart in the wind. Before going any further, ask yourself: “Does this need to be said?” “By me?” “Now?” If you can’t answer yes to all three, then don’t publish—not yet. Let your argument incubate and mature into something that will make it worth your time to write, and your reader’s time to read. This incubation period can take days, or years.
How bright and vivid is your picture of the world you are trying to change or protect, or the results of the action you are asking your reader to take? Do you have a picture of it in your mind? Is that picture vivid, sharp and colorful? Can you describe it in detail? Could you write a poem about your it? Could you develop a healthy list of heartfelt terms that specify that future viscerally? If you can picture it, then spend some time writing about it in detail, and don’t forget the feelings you and your audience will attach to that future—good or bad.
Empathize Deeply with Your Reader’s Motivations
When writing to change minds, remember that your readers will always subconsciously look out for themselves, or others they care about. The basic algorithm of human life is:
What’s In It For Me (or Mine)?
People perform this calculus unconsciously, in the blink of an eye, all the time. WIIFM is the filter through which all mental phenomena are processed before your proposal is ultimately accepted or rejected. This is not to say that everyone is in-your-face selfish. Often the WIIFM is their higher purpose tied to goals, ideas, people, status, or things they love. You must appeal to that thing.
2. Aim: Generate and Direct the Force in Your Argument
Once you know what you have to say, and you understand your reader’s specific motivations, start building a more forceful argument. Persuasive writing should have a certain velocity and a certain mass to it. Together, velocity and mass comprise force needed to overcome inertia and resistance.
Velocity x Mass = Force
The same force can be delivered in small, fast-moving, rapid-fire packages, like hail, or in one big package like a freight train. You must decide how to deliver it best.
Do your homework. Know your subject. Add more signal and eliminate more noise. Check your facts and understand how those facts are rooted in context. What you say in writing is for all intents and purposes, discoverable. Truth has a of gravity of its own that works across space and times. Credibility favors those with truth on their side. If you don’t have all the facts, and you must fill in some blanks with your own conjecture, then say so, and why.
At the weightier end of the writing spectrum, consider The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose three massive volumes chronicled the lives of more than two hundred out of hundreds of thousands of petty criminals and political prisoners declared enemies of the Soviet state. His writing detailed the brutally oppressive, murderous conditions those prisoners had to endure in the labor camps. Solzhenitsyn wrote matter-of-factly, in secret, and was exiled after publishing, but his work finally escaped to become an essential element in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book was so poignant, so dense and massive, that it was apparent what had to be done, and millions of Russians’ lives were the better for it.
Add Your Own Conviction
Conviction can’t be faked—for long. If you don’t genuinely know that what you’re asking your audience to do must be done, then why should they take your word for it? Promote your proposition because you know how profoundly, how vital and urgent your message is.
Confidence without facts is hubris. Confidence backed by facts breeds conviction. Conviction is a truth multiplier.
Love or hate his positions, Christopher Hitchens was a highly capable writer and an even better live debater. He spent his adult life skillfully exposing abusive hierarchal authority in all its guises. He could quickly produce the facts he needed to demonstrate how his argument mattered, but it was the force of his conviction that added a tremendous punch to his work. 1
Use Force and Know Where to Direct It
Sometimes you must go head-on against opposing forces—as with karate—blocking and attacking. Or you can utilize those forces to throw your opponent—as with judo.
Understanding the directionality in your argument is incredibly essential when writing to persuade. Generally, those directions are:
- Something about the status quo needs to change
- Something about the current state needs to be preserved
Let’s take these one at a time:
Something Must Change
When writing to change the status quo, your primary goal is to move your audience toward a different future. Help your audience understand that things are not good, and your alternative future is better for them. Use your persuasive powers to create an aversion towards the present and an attraction toward the future. Provide the why, and how in terms that nudge your audience in that way.
Martin Luther King eventually became the face and voice of a movement that further advanced human rights by compelling his readers and listeners that things were terrible, that the time had come to change things, and that the future was brighter if they would fight for it. 2
Something Must Be Protected
When writing to preserve the current state, you aim to rouse your audience to fight to keep things the way they are. You must show the present state is right, or sacred, and is under siege from within or without. The future outlook is not good for them. The tools you use are effectively the same, but the direction of the force is reversed. You must help your audience understand how far off the threat is, and how fast it is encroaching towards them. The nearer and faster, the more urgent and the more willing your audience is to fight.
Sputnik was not just a dot in the sky—it was the first proof that an entire Western civilization was vulnerable from above. It spawned terror in the minds and hearts of Westerners on the ground and fueled a Cold War that produced tens of thousands of nuclear warheads that are still pointed around the world today. 3
Write for One Reader at a Time, Inhabiting One Role at a Time
You’re not taking a poll. You’re changing minds—one at a time. Even if your message is available to millions, reading is deeply personal. Furthermore, every reader inhabits multiple overlapping worlds in a given day, so to avoid confusion and diluting your message. Your writing must relate to the reader in one of those worlds at a time, such as:
- One’s Socio-Political self
- One’s Professional/Technical self
- One’s Social Group self
- One’s Private Self self
Write for one reader inhabiting one mode at a time.
Speak to Their Gut First, Brain Second
Should your message be delivered a suggestion or a command? Does your proposition need to be couched in soft, oblique language, or blunt directives? Does it need to be directed at the person, or told as a parable?
While incubating and perfecting your message, try out multiple versions of how to say it. Do some A/B testing on a small scale. Ask your friend or publisher which one works best, and why.
Make It a Story, Stupid
Never lead with facts. 10% of people remember statistics from what they read. 65% of people remember the stories they read. Tell stories, or go home.
3. Fire: Send It
OK. You’ve been working on what to say, whom to tell it to, and how to deliver it. It’s time to click “publish,” or “send.” But you’re not done.
4. Repeat: Persuasive Writing is a Process
Life is messy. There is always more to learn about how your reader thinks or reacts to what you hoped would be a perfect message, delivered to an ideal target audience, at the perfect time. NLP teaches that:
“The meaning of what you say is the result you get.” — Richard Bandler
Tweets and emails have responses, blogs have comments, books have editions—and that’s the way it should be. Test and refine your message before and after publication. Test your ideas with friends, editors, even people who oppose you, to create a feedback loop that will separate the gold from the dross. Persuasive writing is part of a larger dialectic.
When you publish something, and you don’t get the reaction you hoped for, take it as feedback, and keep working on your message. Keep what works, throw away what doesn’t. Try a different demographic, a different channel, a different delivery, different supporting facts, a different voice.
Make it your habit to keep learning from every publication. Don’t treat your writing as sacred. Open up a feedback loop in the form of comments, forums, surveys, word-of-mouth, etc. Always keep looking for what works. If what you’ve said is important, you’ll never be done saying it and improving it.
Christopher Hitchens succumbed to throat cancer, due perhaps to his heavy smoking and drinking during life. But those vices and the disease were part of the courageous, thoughtful writer he was. ↩
Martin Luther King Jr. Was not always the voice of oppressed that he became. At first, he aspired to become a paid minister, and he was far from perfect in his personal life, but it eventually dawned on him that he would have to give his life for the things that had to be said. ↩
Russia has recently revealed that they have tested hypersonic ICBM’s, which can no longer be intercepted. The nuclear threat never went away. It had just gone underground for a while. ↩