Learning the Foundations of Persuasive Content

An image of a blackboard with writing on it.

Whether you're writing a theatre review or product copy for the web, the goal is the same -- to be persuasive. And the basic foundational elements to both types of writing are the same.

Tonight I have the honour of lecturing at Western University for my friend's class on opinion writing. The topic is being persuasive on paper and I'll be drawing upon my long history of editorial writing, blogging, and reviewing to inform my presentation.

The thing is, most writing is designed to be persuasive -- and many of the fundamentals for opinion writing translate well to the corporate world. Whether you're trying to reach out to customers or sharing messages to an internal audience, there are some key elements that form the foundation of good messaging.

In this post, I'm going to focus on the five elements that most directly translate to business communications.

Remember, you're not writing for you.

This is a hard one for a lot of people and it's something that comes with experience and maturity. I know that was the case with me.

It can be tempting to try to impress people with your vocabulary and your zeal for complex phraseology. But, really, that's nothing more than self-indulgent self-gratification. However, it's not about subjugating the ego -- writing in a more plain style can be just as gratifying if you remember what truly matters. Which leads to the next point.

Remember who you are writing for and focus on their needs (What's in it for me?)

The key tenet of any communications effort should be to deliver the right message, to the right person, in the way that's best suited for them. A reader shouldn't have to navigate through your attempt at complex metaphor to understand the point. It should be clear, concise, and valuable.

And, most of all, it needs to focus on answering the only question that matters to your audience: What's in it for me?

Be honest. Even if it hurts.

Don't lie. That should be clear, but it's often not.

There's an old adage in internal communications that you need to communicate once when times are good and three times when times are bad.

It's OK to not say everything, but explain why. Tell them what you can. And, just as important, tell them what you can't -- and why. People are reasonable. If there are legal, contractual, or financial reasons why you can't disclose something, then explain that.

Externally, you never want to mislead your customers. Don't inflate your product's impact; don't make stuff up. More than ever, in these days of the Internet, you will be found out and the ramifications for lying are likely far more damaging than any negative that would come out of an honest statement.

Most importantly, when delivering less-than-ideal news, it's important to take ownership of the issue and propose a solution. Despite what it may seem like on social networks, most people are reasonable and appreciate honest efforts to improve or honest ownership of mistakes.

Just don't abuse that trust. Say what you're going to do and then do it. If you ask for the benefit of doubt, be sure you remain worthy of earning the benefit of doubt.

Be willing to learn and discuss/Don't get into a shouting contest

I'm combining two things here. And they're topics we've covered before. Remember, everyone's entitled to an opinion and just because you don't like how they say it, doesn't mean it's wrong.

If someone is passionate enough to write to you, that's a good thing. It means they care about your brand. If it's negative, then you may have not lived up to their expectations.

Don't just dismiss people outright because you don't like what's being said or how it's being said. Try to understand the root of the issue and come to a solution. Even a heartfelt acknowledgement can help -- after all, sometimes people just need to vent.

Your loudest critics can become your strongest advocates if you are able to solve the challenge they're having. Be respectful and courteous. And if the other party continues to be offensive, then respectfully cut off communication.

Shouting back and getting into a playground-style name-calling flame war only undermines you and your brand. That reputation can stick around for a long time, so make sure you remain professional no matter what the provocation.

Write and read everything. And experience matters

This is more for companies that have the luxury of having communications professionals, but it's vitally important to gain experiences and inspiration from outside of your bubble.

Your writing will improve the more you're exposed to different types of writing. From Shakespeare to current events, you can gain inspiration and learn techniques from across the board. Over my career, I've written for medical and pharmaceutical publications, sports, theatre, and a wide variety of topics in freelance. I can honestly say that exposure to different content has informed my writing dramatically.

Coming out of school, I thought I knew everything and was guilty of ignoring the first point -- remember you're not writing for you. It took experience for me to understand what quality writing actually was. It's not about counting syllables and sending people running to the dictionary. It's about writing something that instantly resonates with the reader.

I always encourage people to read good sports writers. After all, when you're covering the same type of game, over and over, year after year, it takes skill to continue to write engaging content. That's no different for business writing. Your topics are generally the same -- and your products are likely not much different than your competitors. So how do you make your message resonate? How do you stand out? How do you meet your customers' needs? That's where experience matters most.

Persuasive copy? Whether you're trying to warn people away from a bad movie or woo them towards buying your product, to quote Elvis, "it's only words and words are all I have to steal your heart away."

Questions Answered

How do you write persuasively?

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