Style: The Craft of Skilled Writing
All communication is persuasive.
Sometimes, people will tell you that there is also communication to inform. This notion masks the intention of “communicating to inform,” which is communicating to persuade, but less obviously.
Consider all the ways in which a person can communicate and all the messages that could be communicated. Now try to name one that has no persuasive element.
A traffic sign is persuasive; it persuades you to stop or not to enter a road from a particular direction or to yield to oncoming traffic or to proceed below a particular speed. A stop sign isn’t there merely to inform you that you’ll cause an accident if you don’t stop; it is persuading you to stop.
A grocery list is persuasive. If somebody hands you a piece of paper with the words “onions,” “carrots,” “beets,” and “potatoes,” they aren’t merely informing you that they need those ingredients; they want you to buy the ingredients! (Sounds like borscht is for dinner.)
Even telling a loved one that they are, indeed, loved is persuasive. Saying “I love you” to a person isn’t merely benign, passive information. The intention of speaking the words aloud is to persuade the person to feel loved and to feel confidence in that love (and perhaps that they should reciprocate that love to you).
There is nothing “wrong” with this. Acknowledging that all communication is persuasive is really only an acknowledgment that all communication has a purpose and that purpose is to either change or sustain behaviour. Information is not neutrally imparted. If somebody truly achieved non-persuasive communication, I would wonder what purpose it served. If the answer is “none,” why was it sent? It’s useless to both the communicator and the audience.
We should also take the time to note the difference between persuasion and manipulation; the latter is persuasion through dishonesty, which is not what is being discussed here. (As an aside, good communication is fundamentally honest. Good communicators prize and defend honesty.)
If you don’t know what you’re trying to persuade your reader to do, keep doing, not do, or stop doing, then you aren’t clear about the purpose of your message. A message with no persuasion has no purpose.
There are many ways to persuade a reader; clear, rational, evidence-driven arguments are the best way, but there are a huge number of shortcuts that are worth learning about, too.
The following list explains a number of the most common persuasive devices that can be incorporated into professional writing.
- Address objections: Even before an audience can contemplate rejecting a persuasive message, get in front of those objections by addressing them directly. As an example, if you’re afraid the audience will think you’re asking for too much, explain how manageable your request really is. Downside: you may plant new objections in the mind of the audience that they hadn’t yet considered.
- Anecdote: An anecdote is a relevant and revealing short story, often only a few sentences, that provides an analogy or explanation for the reader. Anecdotes often provide an emotional context or narrative clarity that standard writing cannot achieve. Downside: anecdotes are not representative and are the weakest form of evidence. Your reader may be skeptical that your one story is an outlier.
- Appeal to community/region/country/loyalty: When referring to an appeal to one’s country, we use the word “patriotism,” but there can be similar sentiments applied to one’s home town, region, group of friends, school, or any other identifiable grouping. Sports teams frequently sell tickets based on an appeal to local loyalty and people almost always cheer for athletes from their home country during the Olympic Games. Downside: loyalty is actually a form of logical fallacy. Loyalty is the idea that you should set aside reason and evidence in favour of emotion and possibly a reciprocal trust for people in your established unit.
- Appeal to fear: This is an extremely powerful motivator, which is frequently seen in politics. Most people vote against a politician they don’t like, rather than for a politician they do like. As such, election campaign advertisements frequently emphasize what to fear about an opponent, rather than what to like about one’s own candidate. Downside: this appeal is entirely in the negative frame and doesn’t directly speak to the virtues of one’s own ideas.
- Appeal to self-interest: Sometimes known as an appeal to the “hip-pocket nerve” (because many people keep their wallet in their hip pocket), this is all about reminding the audience of the specific benefit to them that is separate from whatever altruistic or broader benefit they are supposedly supporting. As an example, in charity fundraising, communicators will frequently note that donations are tax deductible, highlighting the financial return on what is supposed to be a charitable gift. Downside: in some cases, such as charity, this may directly contradict the stated spirit of the broader persuasive appeal, which is probably to help others or a larger vision.
- Appeal to tradition: This can include both cultural norms and conservative notions of “family values.” Many people are convinced that the way people have behaved in the past is the only way that they should behave; such appeals can be effective with the right audience. Downside: this appeal is based on a logical fallacy. Simply because people have behaved in a particular way in the past does not mean that it is the best way to behave now or in the future. Many people want to break with tradition and in many cases with very good reason.
- Appeal to vanity: Yes, people like to be seen in the best possible light. Telling people that they will be recognized (or even adored) can be very persuasive. As an example, hospital fundraising often includes publishing the names of donors or even naming entire hospitals after donors to help them feel proud of their donations and to make sure that the donor’s peers know that the donation has been made (and a large one at that). Downside: this is a transparently shallow persuasive device. Some folks don’t want to be treated as if they are vain (even if they are).
- Attacks: This persuasive device is more about persuading the audience what to reject than what to embrace. If you attack your competitor, the audience may reject them, making their connection with you more likely or stronger. This is linked to the appeal to fear above and is also commonly seen in politics. Downside: again, this persuasive device is entirely in the negative frame and doesn’t directly motivate the audience to do as you would have them do, but rather not to do what you would have them not do.
- Effective repetition: You may remember this from studying literature, but it’s a bit different in a professional context. Here, you work key points into multiple sections of a document and you work key words into multiple paragraphs. The reader should not notice that you’re using this technique, but should internalize the emphasis. Downside: one cannot write in a way that feels repetitive; if that happens, the writing crosses into ineffective repetition. That’s a disaster for a writer, as it tires the reader and motivates them to start skipping/skimming content. This device requires a fine balance that is more of an art than a science.
- Emotive language: All decisions are based on emotion, no matter how hard people try to remove emotion from decision making (as with a cost-benefit analysis). This persuasive device adds emotional flare to an otherwise unemotional message. Downside: emotional language conspicuously shifts the discussion away from rational, evidence-based arguments. Many people will find it less persuasive, not more persuasive.
- Evidence: When constructing an argument (which will be a persuasive argument, as all arguments are persuasive), including evidence shows not only that you are making a fair point that is wisely reasoned, but that there is real-world experience, statistics, facts, or findings that support what you’re saying. A good argument is supported by well sourced evidence. Downside: presentations of evidence can be boring or complicated. For most audiences, evidence needs to be presented clearly, simply, and briefly.
- Hyperbole: Use caution here! Yes, some audiences are moved by exaggeration, but (downside) others will note the unrealistic language and quickly reject it.
- Inclusive language: This persuasive device draws the reader into the argument by making them part of the speaker’s voice. As an example, we’re working through this list of persuasive devices and finding our footing, but we’ll need to practice the application of these devices to make us skilled in the craft of persuasion. See what I did there? I made you, the reader, part of the writing by saying “we’re working” and “our footing” and “we’ll need” and “make us.” The words “we,” “us,” and “our” all include you, the reader, in the argument I’m making. Downside: some audiences will consciously reject the inclusion, seeing themselves as separate from the writer and/or the message.
- Metaphor and simile: These are similar to anecdotes (above), but instead of telling a story, they make a comparison, either directly (simile) or figuratively (metaphor). Comparison can be a useful tool in helping audiences visualize or emotionally connect with an argument. Downside: especially with metaphor, these devices can seem too poetic for professional use. (Similes are safer.)
- Promise: This is one of the simplest and oldest persuasive devices. Tell the reader that you’re putting your reputation on the line as part of the deal. People feel a lot of confidence when a person stakes their future credibility. Downside: if you break your promise, the audience may never trust you again and future messages will be rejected, regardless of merit.
- Reasoning: People are hardwired to appreciate sound logic. Reasoning plays directly into that mentality. Downside: explaining one’s rationale can be a long, time consuming task. The reasoning often needs to be simplified for audiences.
- Rhetorical questions: This device invites the reader to reflect on a question and to move towards an obvious answer that furthers the writer’s argument. As an example, one might ask a customer shopping for a car, “Do you need a new car?” Obviously, the answer is “yes,” but it forces the customer to acknowledge that they are going to buy a car and that they need to engage in the sales process to find the best solution to their consumer dilemma. Downside: this device should be used sparingly in professional communication, usually only in spoken language or in a sales situation. Using this device in a letter or memo would look contrived.
- Ticking clock: This high-pressure device effectively sets a due date for your audience to take action. Missing the due date would mean a loss of benefit to the audience. The most used example is to tell the audience when a sale ends. (You can almost hear the radio announcer saying it now, “Don’t miss out. Sale ends Monday!”) This creates a sense of motivation for the audience to take the desired action now, as opposed to later. Downside: if the audience misses the due date, they may decide not to take the desired action at all or to wait until a future date (perhaps when there’s another sale).
- Use a copywriting formula: This persuasive device is all about the structure of the argument you’re making. One time-honoured formula in sales is “AIDA”: gain attention, create interest, push for a decision, and motivate the desired action. This website provides a variety of other similar structures: https://writtent.com/blog/9-sure-fire-copywriting-formulas-grow-audience. Downside: this works well in short letters or verbal communication, but sustaining the formula over a longer document is more difficult.
There are many other persuasive devices that are not mentioned above, but these are among the most common.
One might say that the opposite of persuasion is rejection. Including logical fallacies in one’s persuasive messages weakens them and increases the likelihood that the audience will reject the message.
Some logical fallacies are so popular, people will even declare that they are using the logical fallacy in their arguments. The most common of such examples is the “slippery slope.”
Learning about these logical fallacies is important for learning to avoid them. If your messages are built on logical fallacies, they will lose some or all of their persuasive appeal.
White, M.G. (n.d.). Samples of non profit fundraising letters. Love to Know. https://charity.lovetoknow.com/Samples_of_Non_Profit_Fundraising_Letters