8 Great Ways to Write More Persuasively
Persuasive writing is an invaluable skill.
There’ll be times when you have to do it formally – for instance, if you’re raising money for a good cause and you need some content for your JustGiving page. More often, there’ll be times when you need to be persuasive without it seeming too obvious – for instance, in covering letters, or even in a last-ditch “I haven’t done my essay but please don’t make me fail this class” email to a professor at university. In either situation, making a good job of your persuasive writing is vital.
But it’s also tricky. You don’t want to go overboard and start sounding like a 1950s door-to-door salesman putting on the hard sell. You also don’t want to undersell the topic so much that your audience doesn’t end up persuaded. And there are a multitude of clichés in persuasive writing (“you just won’t believe what they did!” “Nothing could be more obvious!” “Eight out of ten cats love Whiskas!”) that are also best avoided. Here’s a look at some transferable persuasive writing techniques that will have your audience won round to your point of view in no time.
1. Be clear on your position from the start
Have you ever had someone ask if they could borrow money from you? There are three approaches: one is simply to come out with the question as soon as possible, one is to start on a theme by finances and warm you up to the idea slowly, and the third is to talk about something else altogether and then throw the question in halfway through.
Most people would agree that the third approach is both the most irritating and the least effective. When you know what’s coming, it’s annoying to have someone dance around the subject for ages; when you don’t, it’s difficult to deal with having what you thought was a friendly conversation that turned out to have an ulterior motive. No one likes to feel like they’re being fooled. When it’s a case of borrowing money, all three techniques can work, but the third one runs the biggest risk of the lender regretting it afterwards. And when you translate that to persuasive writing, there’s a danger that even if you do manage to persuade someone by stealth, they’ll soon change their mind right back again. Making your position obvious from the start is polite to your reader and so gets your relationship with them off on the right footing.
2. Be consistent
Anyone with a logical mind reading your persuasive writing will be on the lookout for inconsistencies, whether consciously or otherwise. So don’t write a covering letter that says both that you found your previous role a constant source of new and exciting challenges, and also that you’re moving on to look for a new challenge, or they might be wondering just how many challenges one person can take.
You can also use your reader’s desire to be consistent in order to bring them round to your side. If you raise a point that they agree with early on (by choosing something that almost everyone would agree with), then walk them through from that to your own argument, they won’t want to contradict themselves. For example, someone who has agreed with you at the start of your piece that we need to do more work to protect the natural environment around us won’t want to contradict themselves if you then argue that we therefore need to ban fracking as it risks damaging the natural environment. But you could just as easily start with the claim that Britain needs to be less dependent on other countries for its energy supplies, and the reader who agrees might then continue to agree with the claim that fracking is the key means of achieving this goal.
3. Use social proof
Social proof is using the behaviour patterns of others to demonstrate the truth of your argument. It’s the principle behind testimonials and links to what customers who looked at the same products as you also bought. Consciously or not, we follow the actions of others; it’s been shown in repeated studies that in an emergency, the behaviour of others around us makes all the difference. Think about when you’ve heard a fire alarm – our first reaction is always to look around and see what everyone else is doing, whether they’re ignoring the alarm or making their way calmly to an exit. And that’s a situation where following the actions of others could be life or death.
Think about how you can incorporate the actions of others into your persuasive writing. For instance, if you’re trying to get neighbours to sign a petition, making it clear to them how many other people have already signed it can help to motivate people to do the same. And if you don’t have any real social proof to use (such as a genuine testimonial), see what you can do in general terms instead – for instance, the supermarket slogan “That’s why mums go to Iceland” doesn’t rely on any real mums being available to back it up, but uses social proof all the same.
4. Tell a story
There’s little more than silence in the hospital room. It’s a treatment that will either work now, or it’ll fail. Nothing more for the doctors to do. Just the slow beep of the machine that monitors her heart rate, and breathing of the people hoping it won’t fail.
Right now, you don’t know anything about that story. You don’t know what’s wrong with the woman, or who the other people are in the room. What’s more, you know that it’s fiction. At the same time, it’s natural to feel a sense of relief if you read…
The steady bleeping slumps for a moment and the doctors move at all once, as if there’s something that can be done – but it falls back, is steady once more. A moment of nurses taking measurements, and the people are wreathed in smiles. She’s going to make it.
Stories connect with humans at an emotional level. Even when we know they aren’t true, they still have the power to affect and motivate us. You can use this in persuasive writing – for instance, some companies will use the entrepreneurial story of their CEO to sell products, even if it can’t have any impact on the quality or value of what’s being sold to know that she worked her way up from the bottom. Your own life stories can also be motivational; for example, if you’re trying to persuade people to donate to a charity of your choice, consider sharing your own story about why that charity is so important to you.
5. Play on your reader’s emotions
Which of these is more persuasive?
Please support my cycle ride to raise money for WaterAid. 5,000 children die every day because of dirty water. It’s vital we do something about this.
Please support my cycle ride to raise money for WaterAid. I recently read about Tadela, a young girl in Ethiopia whose life was put at risk from drinking unclean water. Travelling to collect water took up hours every day. Some days, she was so thirsty she couldn’t concentrate at school. But WaterAid installed a tap to bring water from a mountain spring near her village, and now she’s able to be a happy, healthy young woman concentrating on getting a good education.
Statistics are all well and good, but people connect much better with an idea when you use emotion. You can use storytelling as part of this technique, or evoke an emotional response in other ways, for instance by encouraging your reader to picture themselves in a particular scenario (“have you ever been so thirsty you could concentrate on nothing else? So much so that you had headaches, got dizzy, and your mouth was unbearably dry?”). But use this technique carefully – a reader who feels manipulated by emotional writing might be less sympathetic to your case.
6. Provide evidence
The above isn’t to say that you should neglect evidence altogether. Humans are fallible; we make decisions rapidly and then justify them to ourselves afterwards. If your writing has affected someone emotionally, then they’ll already be on board. But no one wants to admit to themselves that they had an emotional reaction to something and changed their mind accordingly; we usually want to think of ourselves as rational. So then you need to provide the evidence that will back up your claims so that your readers can use that to justify their emotional response and resulting change of mind.
What form that evidence takes depends on your argument. It could be things like social proof, statistics or specific examples. Note that one or two powerful pieces of evidence can be more compelling than a long list of different points, especially if you begin to lose focus. For instance, in the WaterAid example, it’s compelling to be reminded that children are dying for lack of clean water. It might be true that dirty water also means food cooked in that water won’t taste as good, but presenting that alongside the knowledge that dirty water is fatal to thousands of children makes your overall point feel much weaker. Use your critical thinking skills and steer clear of logical fallacies; while you should have got your reader on your side by this point, anything that strikes them as obviously mistaken or fallacious could still put them off.
7. Make your reader feel that you’re someone like them
Humans are unavoidably tribal. Sometimes this manifests in deeply unpleasant ways, sometimes in much milder ways, such as having a strong identification with your preferred sports team. Knowing that someone is in the same ‘tribe’ as you can matter a great deal to how persuasive you find them; that’s why you’ll encounter phrases such as “as a fellow [academic/student/parent/writer]…” in company endorsements, for instance. It can demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about. A teacher might take a recommendation for a proofreading programme from another teacher while looking more skeptically at the one recommended by a friend in the police force.
An indication of which groups you belong to, in the broadest possible sense, also makes you seem more like a real person. “Susan is a solicitor” doesn’t do much to make you like her (unless, perhaps you’re also a solicitor), but “Susan is a solicitor and has a springer spaniel named Percy” makes her much more sympathetic – especially to fellow dog lovers. It’s one reason why it can be worth having a short section on hobbies and interests on your CV – not only does it show that you aren’t solely obsessed with work, it makes you seem like a real person to whoever might be thinking of hiring you.
8. Include a call to action
A key principle of marketing is always to include a call to action, but it applies to persuasive writing more generally as well. A call to action is something that tells the reader what you’d like them to do next as a result of having read your piece. It might be donating to your fundraising page, voting for your preferred political candidate, giving you a job or signing your petition. For some of these, you’ll want the call to action to be subtle (“I hope you will consider my application favourably”) while in others, it’s best to be clear (“please donate using the button on the right”).
The first reason for doing this is obvious: if there is an action you want your reader to take, then it’s helpful to make it clear to them what that action is. If you want them to come and campaign for your preferred political candidate, for instance, not just vote for them, then it’s useful to make that clear. But there are other reasons too, even if there aren’t any actions that are particularly needed. One is that it’s natural to be nervous when someone is trying to persuade you of something – you’ll naturally ask what it is that they want from you. A call to action assuages that fear by making it clear what you want. And if they then follow your call to action, they’ll want to maintain personal consistency by continuing to support your cause in future as well.
Images: hammer and books; staircases; colourful shopping trolleys; kids storytime; family in drought; detective; partying; giant arrow; typing; pencil on notebook