How to be a persuasive writer

How to be a persuasive writer

Selling Ice to an Eskimo

One of the most important skills for any writer to master is the art of being persuasive. But why is it that some seem to be able to do it so easily – the proverbial ‘They could sell ice to an Eskimo’ comes to mind – whereas others struggle to even put two convincing words together?

Whatever your abilities are when it comes to swaying opinions, there are steps that you can take to improve your current skill level by teaching yourself how to recognise and then apply tried and true persuasive writing techniques.

There’s a difference between persuasion and manipulation

There’s a very important distinction to be made here – one that will have a major impact on the level of persuasiveness you achieve. Yes, there are similarities in the two concepts, in that with both you try to impress others about a particular point of view – but these words definitely cannot be used interchangeably.

If people get suspicious that you’re being manipulative, if there’s even a hint of indirect or deceptive tactics, they’ll quickly switch off and you’ve lost them forever. On the other hand, the vast majority of people don’t mind if you try to persuade them, particularly when it’s about something that is of mutual benefit.

Choosing a persuasive purpose

OK, so you’ve got a writing project where the key is to persuade. An important initial question to ask your self is, ‘What’s my persuasive purpose?’ To align your message with your target audience, you need to look at the three Principles of Persuasion and decide which one (or combination of principles) will resonate most with them.

Principles of Persuasion

1. Establish or build your credibility

Credibility is all about how your readers perceive you. If you can earn their respect, they’ll be more open to your ideas.

But how can this be accomplished? Here are 3 ways to achieve this:

o Make sure your final version is error-free

Do you remember the last time you read something full of grammatical and spelling errors? What was your impression? It’s very difficult for people to believe that you’re a credible source of information if your writing looks like it was written by a student who failed high school English.

Get in the habit of never settling for the first version of your draft. A good rule of thumb is to go with the 3rd or 4th version. Read each version through several times, looking for ways to make improvements. It’s also a good idea to ask someone to proofread your writing – they may be able to see things that you can’t.

o Use Active Voice

In writing, there’s active voice and passive voice.

Active Voice: ‘Steven Spielberg directed Jaws.’

Passive Voice: ‘Jaws was directed by Steven Spielberg.’

Wherever possible, use active voice in your writing. The active voice comes across as more confident and authoritative. Also, you’ll able to communicate in a more clear and effective manner.

o Share personal stories

If possible, sharing stories about yourself shows that you’ve ‘been there, done that.’ Speaking from experience shows that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re therefore someone that can be trusted on the subject. But make sure you show scars, not wounds – people want to see a hero, not a victim.

2. Develop a logical argument

When you make a claim, you’re making an assertion – but even if you think what you’re saying is obvious and based completely on fact, that doesn’t mean your audience will automatically agree. You need to provide evidence to support your assertion, to show that your message can be believed.

o Reasons

Giving reasons why you’re making an assertion shows that what you’re saying has substance. If you argue that you’ve built a better mouse trap, explain why it’s better – more value for money, better quality, saves time and so on.

o Examples

Sometimes it’s more appropriate to give examples rather than reasons. If you’re arguing that global warming should be taken more seriously because of the disastrous consequences , you can give examples like the negative impact on ecosystems or the melting polar ice caps.

o Expert Opinion

Citing a well-known authority can add an extra level of credibility. If you’re talking about computers and you quote Bill Gates, you’re on safe ground.

o Reliable News Sources

No, Wikipedia is not a reliable news source. Nor is a lot of the information you find on the internet. An article in a well-respected newspaper like The Australian or a magazine like Time would be viewed by the vast majority of people as reliable.

o Statistics

It’s hard to argue with numbers. But make sure any statistics you use are valid – relevant, not too small and not out of date.

3. Appeal to your reader’s emotions, values and beliefs

Our emotions influence the values and beliefs we have. Our brains use emotion to assign value to ideas, placing you in a position to decide on whether you believe something is good, bad or somewhere in between.

For example, if you’re reading something online about a new iPhone, the logical part of your brain recognises that it’s the latest model. Your emotions will influence your decision making on whether or not to buy, based on the value you see in the product, and whether you believe it’s worth purchasing or not.

o Triggering Emotions

So, it’s important to trigger emotions in your readers. Five of our strongest emotions and their opposites are listed below, along with some examples of what to focus on in your writing to trigger these emotions.

  • Fear and confidence All of us have fears – of the future, change, ill health, loss. Take away your readers’ anxieties by giving them a plan of action.
  • Shame and shamelessness – This is about not wanting to be left out or left behind. Show how your readers will not being seen as uncool or a loser.
  • Anger and calmness – Everyone is angry about something. Create calm by providing a solution to what makes your readers angry.
  • Revenge and redemption – When you focus on how your readers have been doubted or underestimated, explain how they can regain their self-esteem.
  • Guilt and guiltlessness – Help your readers avoid feelings of guilt by following your advice.

If you’d like to read more on similar issues, look out for more blogs in this Writer’s Workshop series. Or if you’d like to share your thoughts, contact me at