Main Body

Ch. 8: Persuading Your Reader

Questions For Reflection

Before we begin, consider the following questions. Your instructor may ask you to freewrite about one or more of these questions in your learning journal.

  1. Have you ever changed your mind about something important? How did you change your mind? Did it happen immediately or slowly? What evidence was most important?
  2. Have you ever purchased something because of an advertisement? How did the advertisement persuade you?
  3. If you speak more than one language or have lived in more than one culture, how does persuasion differ across different languages or cultures? Can you provide some examples?
  4. Political organizations and companies that are facing public resistance or a scandal will often hire people to post online pretending to be regular people who support a particular viewpoint. This is called “astroturfing.” The company supplies talking points and the astroturfers rewrite these points in their own voice and post them on the comment sections of news articles an on social media/Reddit. The people reading these messages don’t know that they were paid for by a corporation. Do you think that this form of persuasion is ethical? Why or why not?

 

Once you know who your intended audience is and what your purpose is for writing, you can make specific decisions about how to shape your message. No matter what, you want your audience to stick around long enough to read your whole piece. How do you manage this magic trick? Easy. You appeal to them. You get to know what sparks their interest, what makes them curious, and what makes them feel understood. The one and only Aristotle provided us with three ways to appeal to an audience, and they’re called logos, pathos, and ethos. You’ll learn more about each appeal in the discussion below, but the relationship between these three appeals is also often called the rhetorical triangle as shown in Figure 8.1.

Ethos, which is ethics and credibility; pathos, which is emotion; and logos, which is logic and reason, are the three points in the rhetorical triangle.
Figure 8.1. The rhetorical triangle

Pathos

Latin for emotion, pathos is the fastest way to get your audience’s attention. People tend to have emotional responses before their brains kick in and tell them to knock it off. Be careful though. Too much pathos can make your audience feel emotionally manipulated or angry because they’re also looking for the facts to support whatever emotional claims you might be making so they know they can trust you.

Many donations campaigns draw on pathos, such as this classic ASPCA ad:

Logos

Latin for logic, logos is where those facts come in. Your audience will question the validity of your claims; the opinions you share in your writing need to be supported using science, statistics, expert perspective, and other types of logic. However, if you only rely on logos, your writing might become dry and boring, so even this should be balanced with other appeals.

Ethos

Latin for ethics, ethos is what you do to prove to your audience that you can be trusted, that you are a credible source of information. (See logos.) It’s also what you do to assure them that they are good people who want to do the right thing. This is especially important when writing an argument to an audience who disagrees with you. It’s much easier to encourage a disagreeable audience to listen to your point of view if you have convinced them that you respect their opinion and that you have established credibility through the use of logos and pathos, which show that you know the topic on an intellectual and personal level.

You can also gain ethos through your use of sources. Reliable, appropriate sources act as expert voices that provide a perspective you don’t have. Layout, graphic design choices, white space, style and tone: all of these factors influence your ethos.

Fallacies

Regardless of what appeals you use in your writing, it is important to be aware of fallacies (errors in reasoning) because they can reduce the impact of your message on your reader. For more information on common fallacies, refer to these resources available from the Writing Commons:

Persuasive messages

Crafting Your Persuasive Strategy

Your persuasive message will compete with hundreds of other messages your audience receives and you want it to stand out (Price, 2005). To begin, you should think of how your audience will benefit. For example:

  • Will the product or service save time or money?
  • Will it make them look good?
  • Will it entertain them?
  • Will it satisfy them?

Regardless of the product or service, the audience is going to consider first what is in it for them. A benefit is what the audience gains by doing what you’re asking them to do and this is central to your persuasive message. They may gain social status, popularity, or even reduce or eliminate something they don’t want. Your persuasive message should clearly communicate the benefits of your product or service (Winston & Granat, 1997).

In her essay “Making Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse,” Jeanie Wills suggests that if you want to persuade your audience, you shouldn’t just focus on what you want your audience to do, but what you want them to be. She says:

Our words can have an even more profound effect if we consciously offer the audience a clearly defined role to play. When the role is one the audience knows how to accept, then they can become people who are more knowledgeable, who have more intellectual depth, and who have a greater understanding of a subject than they did before. Accepting such a role has a ripple effect. For instance, audiences who have been moved to take on a new role may be more likely to accept other roles that are similar in nature. In other words, the audience learns that they can learn, and they take that knowledge not only into other classes, but also into their professional life. (Wills, 191)

By thinking of persuasion as offering your audience a new role to play, you can see persuasion as an active process. Let’s say that you have a friend named Ahmed who is a heavy metal fan and who considers himself too much of a music snob to listen to pop music. Even the most well-reasoned argument will probably not turn Ahmed into a pop music fan overnight because he’s currently playing the role of Heavy Metal Fan Who Looks Down on Pop. It’s part of his identity.

If you want to convince him to play a new role, you’re going to think about the journey he will take to get there. You’ll also have to lay out the benefits of thinking in a new way. Maybe you convince Ahmed to listen to a pop song that was produced by a well-respected producer or one that a heavy metal artist has recommended. You’re not asking Ahmed to change his worldview, just showing him that liking this one song still allows him to keep his identity as someone with “good taste in music.” That’s not too big of a leap.

Fig 8.2: A Pop Music Hater’s Journey Part 1

If Ahmed enjoys this one song, he’s seen that it’s possible to like at least a little bit of pop music. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to run to the nearest Taylor Swift concert, but it might mean that he would be open to hearing another pop song, or maybe a whole album. Your persuasive strategy has allowed Ahmed to transition from Heavy Metal Fan Who Looks Down on Pop to Fan of A Wide Range of Music, Which Includes a Little Bit of Pop. He’s seen that liking a wide range of music makes him more cultured, not less. He’s also seen that while there’s plenty of bad pop music out there, he held some stereotypical views about pop. He can be a music snob and a fan of some pop songs at the same time.

When you begin crafting your persuasive message, it might be helpful to draw a diagram of the role your audience is currently occupying, the role you want them to assume, and the journey you’ll take them on.

Strategies for persuasive messages

Your product or service may sell itself, but you may want to consider using some strategies to help ensure your success:

  1. Start with your greatest benefit. Use it in the headline, subject line, caption, or attention statement. Audiences tend to remember the information from the beginning and end of a message, but have less recall about the middle points. Make your first step count by highlighting the best feature first.
  2. Take baby steps. Promote, inform, and persuade on one product or service at a time. You want to hear “yes,” and if you confuse the audience with too much information, too many options, steps to consider, or related products or service, you are more likely to hear “no” as a defensive response as the audience tries not to make a mistake. Avoid confusion and keep it simple.
  3. Know your audience. The more background research you can do on your audience, the better you can anticipate their specific wants and needs and tailor your persuasive message to meet them.
  4. Lead with emotion, and follow with reason. Gain the audience’s attention with drama, humour, or novelty and follow with specific facts that establish your credibility, provide more information about the product or service, and lead to your call to action.

These four steps can help improve your persuasive messages. Invest your time in planning and preparation, and consider the audience’s needs as you prepare your messages. Figure 4.7.1 provides an example of a persuasive email message.

An image of a politely typed persuasive message

Figure 8.4 Sample persuasive email

In this message, the writer has combined emotion and reason and reinforced their credibility in order to create interest in their service, hopefully leading to a sale.

Activities For Further Reflection

Your instructor may ask you to complete one or more of the following exercises.

  1. Choose an advertisement and write a short paragraph identifying ethos, pathos and logos in it.
  2. Choose three advertisements in three different genres: online ad, print ad, television ad (you can usually find these on Youtube if you don’t have a TV). Write a few paragraphs comparing on how these three ads use ethos, pathos and logos.
  3. Choose one of the following scenarios. Then, using what you learned from Jeannie Wills, identify: what role the person is currently occupying, what role you want to move them to, and how you will get them there.
    • You are tired of the cost of living in Vancouver and want to move to Calgary, but your partner likes to be active outdoors and doesn’t want to leave the Vancouver lifestyle.
    • Your company has an outdated website that often receives complaints from customers. Unfortunately, the website was made by your coworker Ned. Ned thinks it’s a great website, and is very sensitive to criticism.
    • Last week, a fire alarm rang in the middle of class and the class missed 45 minutes of instructional time. Because of this, you didn’t get to finish your peer review session. You want to ask your instructor to give you an extra week to work on your assignment so that you can finish the peer review process. This will inconvenience your instructor, but you believe that the class will create better work, which will cut down on their marking time.

 

References

Attribution

This chapter contains material taken from Introduction to Professional Communications is (c) 2018 by Melissa Ashman and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Ch. 8: Persuading Your Reader by Arley Cruthers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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