How to get what you want with persuasive writing
How to inspire real action
Contributed by Julia McKellar, Freelance Writer
I have a friend named Erin and a few months ago, she came up with this great idea.
She wanted to recruit 15 of her friends to work on a monthly email newsletter. Anxious to kick things off, Erin wrote an introductory email to all 15 people and hit 'send.'
A day went by and no one responded.
And then another.
Erin’s inbox sat empty–making it seem like her idea was a complete failure. She couldn’t believe no one had responded to her email. This seemed liked a great opportunity to unite her friends. So why hadn’t anyone eagerly joined?
The answer lies in how she crafted her message.
If you want to persuade people with your writing–whether it’s to build a community or sell a product–you need a strategic flashpoint to ignite your idea. Great writers do this by leveraging these 4 elements of persuasive writing:
The 4 ways to persuade through writing:
Even if you can barely scratch out a text message, you can write persuasive content. How? By getting started, and by writing to help people.
A great example of someone who has mastered this persuasion tactic is author and marketer, Seth Godin.
A few years ago, Godin set a goal for himself to publish a blog post at least once a day. And despite spending upwards of 16 hours reading and researching topics–he still posts every single day.
“Writer's block isn't hard to cure. Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better. I believe that everyone should write in public. Get a blog. Or use Squidoo or Tumblr or a microblogging site. Use an alias if you like. Turn off comments, certainly–you don't need more criticism, you need more writing. Do it every day. Every single day.”
When Godin tells people they can write, even if they start out writing poorly, it's believable because he's the result of his own words. Through this process, Seth Godin has written 18 books, some of which have become bestsellers, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Now, I’m not saying that writing every day will make you more persuasive. The tactic that Godin embeds within his writing is the idea of belief. Believability is not a matter of having a reader believe in you, but rather in his or her own ability to do something. You can use this example by showing your audience step-by-step how to achieve something or providing them with resources to figure it out on their own. You’re not writing to sell your product or service–you’re enabling your readers to achieve their goals. And through this, they’ll come to trust you.
Everyone has a story to tell. What’s yours? A critical element to any persuasive story is a relatable protagonist. Roxane Gay uses her personal narrative as a tool for persuasion in her book, Bad Feminist.
“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”
Gay’s unapologetic self-expression is a way to connect to her readers. The open and repeated admittance of her flaws is one reason why people gravitate towards her work. Even if you haven’t gone through similar experiences, you can see parts of yourself in Gay’s words because she uses the following tactics to forge connections:
- Establish a common tone. Whether it’s formal, witty, or oozing in facts, find your tone and keep it consistent. In Gay’s quote above, she rattles off with “I am” statements, making her piece engaging and personal.
- Know which details are important. Throughout Gay’s book, she describes her view on different aspects of pop culture. Rather than going on a tangent, Gay breaks each of her chapters into three parts: the backstory, the facts, and her argument.
- Use metaphors to make connections. If I was trying to explain a confusing situation to you, which expression would have a bigger impact? Saying, “Ugh, it was super confusing” or “It was more confusing than the time I had to explain ‘The Cloud’ to my parents.” Probably #2, right? Gay makes emotional appeals like this in her writing by painting her feelings into a landscape that people can envision. For example, she states that she’s “trying to make some noise” with her writing.
Create noise within your own writing by turning simple emotions–happy, sad, frustrated–into colorful metaphors.
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” - Dale Carnegie
80 years have passed since Dale Carnegie published his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, but his insights on human nature still resonate today.
Carnegie explains in his third principle that in order to arouse desire in others, you need to understand what motivates people and align your request to their needs.
Say you’re writing for a business that sells theft-proof bicycles. If you were using Carnegie’s third principle, you might write content around the feeling you get when you leave a building knowing your bike will still be outside when you return. Notice that you’re focusing on the benefit of what happens after someone uses your product or service.
Tap into emotions by describing the aftermath of using your product or service and you’ll make the thing you’re promoting desirable.
Can you remember a time when someone exclaimed how much they loved reading textbooks?
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, seems to have found a solution for this though. His knack for transforming mundane topics into fascinating case studies can be seen in The Tipping Point when he talks about Hush Puppies and the steep drop in New York City's crime rate after 1990.
“There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.” ― Malcolm Gladwell
By telling two interesting stories in quick succession and relating back to them throughout the entire book, Gladwell creates a comparative hook in his readers’ minds. He paints a picture of what used to be “pre-tipping point” and what could be. It’s Gladwell’s ability to make new things familiar and familiar things news that allows his work to be so entertaining.
If you’re trying to educate your audience through your writing, follow Gladwell’s style by writing in a way that challenges common assumptions. When an idea is counterintuitive to our beliefs, our interest is piqued. We want to know the explanation for why someone’s argument doesn’t align with what we assume to be true.
Your can do this by using this pattern:
- Articulate what your reader currently thinks to be true
- Present examples
- Lay down evidence on why these beliefs are inaccurate or just plain wrong
Cut out the textbook writing and follow Gladwell’s style to get people excited about sharing your ideas.
Everything you write is for your reader.
When Erin shot off her email to 15 friends, she wasn't aware of these principles. If she had known how to properly persuade them to join, she would have worked her message around these 4 elements of persuasive writing by focusing on why people should be excited to join.
For example ...
She could have practiced and framed how her offer would help her friends.
She could have made it relatable by establishing a common tone or using metaphors.
She could have painted a picture of how they’d feel after accomplishing the newsletter.
And she could have called out their reticence and persuaded them with narrative.
Luckily for you, you don’t have to make the same mistakes! Practice this list and you’ll achieve the persuasion that you know your writing is capable of.