If you’re hungry for success, persuasion is the skill you need to acquire.
It’s better to start learning the art of persuasion through writing, rather than talking. You have more time to organize your thoughts and your words and no one will interrupt you mid-flow.
Twenty years ago, I was working for the British Council. I was asked to prepare a needs analysis for a very specialized language course for military officers. I conducted my research and spent most of the weekend writing a detailed proposal. On Monday, I gave it to the project manager, who would pass it to the Defence Attaché in the British Embassy.
The project manager looked at it and said, “Great report, but do it again.”
He explained to me the key principles of persuasive writing. He learned them from his father, who was a military officer. He then practiced and developed them for many years as a freelance journalist.
Persuasion is a skill that can be learned. When I put these principles into action, I was complimented on the work I had done by senior staff, and they frequently asked me to write proposals for them.
My colleague explained that there are five key principles to observe: structure, paragraphs, headings, language, and editing.
5 Key Principles Of Persuasive Writing
Most people start with an introduction, they write the main body, and they end with the conclusions. That’s not the way you write for people in a hurry. Decision-makers are always in a hurry!
Introduce the topic by briefly stating the situation and the problem. This should take no more than half a standard-sized sheet of paper (Letter / A4). State your conclusions and recommendations in bullet point form. These too should take no more than half a standard-sized sheet of paper.
Use the rest of the document to state all your arguments, evidence, and references to the source material. Use the bullet-pointed recommendations as headings to connect each point to the detailed arguments and evidence.
Once your readers have read the introduction and recommendations, they will decide if they want to read on further. These people are often interrupted by phone calls, meetings, or emails that can’t wait. If your recommendations are at the end, they might never get that far.
These days, your readers will read your words on a screen, perhaps even on a mobile phone.
Make your paragraphs short. Massive blocks of text are difficult to read on screens. The eye needs space around the text to orient itself.
Headings also help to break up the text. Today, everyone uses websites, so they are used to consuming text in a non-linear fashion. Headings help your readers find the part they need to read.
I write the title and headings after I have written the whole manuscript. That way, I know exactly what I am presenting with my headings.
Academically educated people often believe obscure words and long sentences are signs of sophistication. Senior managers are decision-makers, not university professors! They do not have time to read through vast academic texts.
It’s better to keep sentences short. Subordinate clauses require higher levels of concentration. To persuade someone, make your words easy to understand quickly.
Do you really need that adjective or adverb? Academics often add adverbs and adjectives to sentences that look good but contribute little to the meaning. Your bosses, customers, and suppliers are not interested in what you studied. They want to know what you propose to do.
The faster your target audience can process and understand your language, the faster they can make decisions. They will appreciate and respect your brevity.
You’ve done the research. You’ve martialled your arguments. You’ve written your text. You’ve added your headings. It’s ready to go. Or is it?
Once you hit that send button, it’s not coming back. The damage is done.
When I write, I take a “cooling off period” before I edit.
When you first write something, you’re often not ready to see its imperfections. It’s better to edit it after taking a break. You see it with a fresh pair of eyes.
Start by checking the word length, and aim to cut it by 10%. Read through your text. You know your subject better than your readers. Are you assuming your readers know something which they don’t? Are you using unnecessary explanations or examples to explain a point?
The Mindset Behind The Principles
Once you master these principles, you’ll find you can use them everywhere. This is a mindset.
In emails, apply the introduction, recommendation, and details formula. Watch your word length go down, and your response rate increase.
In PowerPoint presentations, make your first slide your introduction, your second slide your recommendations, then follow up with the details. Your presentations will be shorter and more memorable.
In meetings, make your first statement your description of the issue at hand, and your second statement your recommendations. Your audience will be engaged and you will come across as being a lot more confident. If you find out you have 20 minutes instead of an hour, it’s much easier to make your point in the time you’ve got.
Do It Yourself Tip #1: Reverse Engineering Your Writing
Try editing something you’ve written already. How many of these principles does it follow? Try rewriting it. What does it look like now? How would you react if you received it?
Take a look at some more of your writing, or your presentations, and do the same.
Do It Yourself Tip #2: Try It For Real!
Now try it on a real piece of writing. Start with a short email. Think about how it looks, and how your audience will receive it. Send it. See how they did receive it.
I’d love to know how you got on. Feel free to connect with me and tell me about it!