Persuasive Writing Is Getting the Reader to Say “Yes”

By Mark Nichol

All writing, in a sense, is persuasive writing. Even in fiction, the writer asks readers to engage in a story and agree, or at least sympathize, with a premise. But two particular types of prose, the advertisement and the argument, encourage readers to buy something, whether it’s a literal purchase of a service or a product or a figurative acquisition of a proposition or an idea. The principles, regardless of the writing format, are essentially the same.

Headline

Writers accustomed to thinking of persuasive writing as an assignment in English class may be tempted to skip over this section, but whether you’re crafting an opinion piece for a publication or writing ad copy, the headline is the most important part of the composition. Therefore, marketing consultants advise writers to spend half the time it takes to craft a piece of persuasive writing on the headline. Most people, they say, will read a headline, but few will read what follows unless the headline encourages them to.

The tone of a headline depends on the argument or message, of course; the wording will differ widely depending on whether the text is authoritative or entertaining (though there is no reason to omit one of these qualities at the expense of the other). Do, however, keep it as short as possible — certainly, less than ten words long, unless you simply can’t get your message across without more. (But try to abbreviate it one more time.)

Above all, write the headline first. You can always change it later, but by beginning with a headline, you provide yourself with a statement of your premise to keep you on track.

Structure

The following guidelines may read like something out of Comp 101, but bear with me:

  1. Introduce your point in a topic paragraph.
  2. Present your arguments in separate paragraphs.
  3. Provide facts or examples for each argument.
  4. Offer alternative or opposing viewpoints and argue why they are not valid or feasible.
  5. Summarize your point in a concluding paragraph.

So, where’s the part about a five-paragraph essay in which each paragraph consists of five sentences? That’s the traditional formula for persuasive writing, but there’s no reason to follow it. You should, however, know it, and know the five structural steps, because you must know the rules before you can effectively break them.

Even if you’re writing ad copy, you might try drafting your proposition according to these templates. Then, at that point, you can mold your message in whatever form works for you. But adhering to the rules, at least initially, can help you develop your argument without concerning yourself with the format.

Techniques

Apply these ideas to your argument:

Provocation: Explain a problem that must be resolved — and solve it.
Explanation: Clearly state your solution.
Repetition: Reiterate your premise.
Authority: Establish your credibility with rational, responsible statements (ethos, or appeal to character), facts and figures (logos, or appeal to logic), and consistency. (The third classic value, pathos, or appeal to emotion, is not out of place among the first two, and often the most effective arguments incorporate all three.)
Testimony: Quote or refer to experts or well-known figures to bolster your argument.
Prediction: Depict a positive outcome to your solution.
Anticipation: Preempt or respond to disagreement or skepticism by rebutting other options.
Comparison: Encourage agreement by pointing to examples of existing phenomena that reflect your viewpoint or proposition.
Personality: Inject warmth and vitality into your argument to appeal to your readers.
Inclusion: Encourage buy-in by inviting readers to be part of the movement or the party of adherents to your viewpoint, or to join the clientele or customer base.

Style and Strategy

Consider your audience when determining your tone, but keep the basics in mind: Write clearly, coherently, and concisely, and use the active voice. But also keep in mind persuasive strategies such as emphasizing benefits, not features; writing for the undecided; and concentrating on expressing, not impressing, the reader.

Finally, recite your composition, no matter what the intended medium or audience. If it doesn’t work as a speech, it’s unlikely to succeed in writing.

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5 Responses to “Persuasive Writing Is Getting the Reader to Say “Yes””

  • Toby

    “…certainly, less than ten words long”.

    Please correct it to “…fewer than ten words”.

  • Mark Nichol

    Toby:

    Thanks for your suggestion, but technically, “less than ten words long” is correct, because the phrase refers to the set of ten words, not the ten words as individual units. Yes, I’m asking you to count the words, but the emphasis is on the headline length, not the units of measurement, akin to “less than twelve inches long” rather than “fewer than twelve inches long”). If I omitted the word long, I would write, “certainly, fewer than ten words.”

  • Stephen Thorn

    “Testimony: Quote or refer to experts or _well-known_figures_ to bolster your argument.”

    However, be aware that using “well-known figures,” i.e. celebrities and such, can backfire. Many of the readers here may not remember the big Alar scare of the ’90s (alar was a substance sprayed on apples to make them pretty so they’d sell better, and there was a brief hysteria that alar could make consumers ill), but I remember well how actress Meryl Streep testified before the US Congress that alar was a hazardous substance. The critics ripped her testimony apart because she was no authority on alar, on food safety, or on much of anything except on being a movie star — she was asked by the anti-alar crowd to testify because she was a famous person who had PLAYED a farmer in a movie.

    The takeaway here is that if you’re going to cite a well-known person choose them with great care. You will not do your argument any good if you pick an inappropriate “expert.”.

  • Anna Thompson

    You can also flip it around and get them to say No, no, no…. and then make the offer that makes them say, ‘Yes, please!’

  • William S Stokes

    I have been subscribed for some months and Inow wish to receie the Basic Grammar release. Please download it to me.

    Many thanks!!

    Bill Stokes
    Lady Lake FL

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