Understanding—Persuasive writing #2

The second lesson in my persuasive writing masterclass is about understanding.

Once you know what you want to say and can support it with the right facts, demonstrating understanding is critical. Your words need to ring with confidence. You are building trust with your reader.

If you are going to persuade, expect to defend. And you will find it hard, if not impossible, to defend an argument that you do not understand.

When writing briefs for the Premier of NSW as a graduate policy officer, I was expected to be able to explain anything that I had passed up the line. If I did not understand it, I needed to make the right calls to find out how it fitted into the bigger picture. What did it mean?

Understanding something operates on two levels.

  1. Handling complexity

First, you need to know what you are talking about. Understanding the information is different from making sure your facts are right (see my piece last month, Facts—and how you can use them). If your reader doesn’t understand it, you have a snowflake’s chance in hell of persuading them to come down on your side.

 If there is complexity or ambiguity in your argument or in the resources you are working from, find another reference. Ask an expert. A CEO I worked for was never afraid of asking the ‘stupid question’. If you are unsure, others will be too. Trust yourself.

  • Don’t let complex material languish on its own. Illustrate it with a story, or by expanding on the context. This will show your confidence with the subject. Confidence is catching.
  • What is the most rational outcome? Don’t be afraid to state the obvious. Even if powerful vested interests are dominating the debate, flagging the common-sense solution can be powerful.
  1. Emotional understanding

You feel this. It has touched you. Appealing at a basic, human level will elicit a basic, human response from your reader. The gut.

 Make it real. Include real events or scenarios. This does not need to be lengthy. In fact the shorter the better. An historian I once read called it ‘corroborative detail’. It will stick with the reader.

  • Give your reader a sense that you are a real person. How would they feel if they were in your place? Can you imagine and describe different outcomes?
  • People, especially in bureaucratic organisations, are inherently conservative and afraid of change. What are your readers’ fears? Can you pre-empt them?

Once you get your facts right, and demonstrate understanding, a core element of persuasive writing is motivation. Yours, theirs. See my piece next time on Purpose.

Facts! Persuasive writing #1

It was astonishing to hear a spokesperson from the Donald Trump camp question whether a ‘fact’ even existed anymore.

Her argument that ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder is a disturbing sign of the pervasiveness of spin, and complete rubbish. In the world that the rest of us inhabit, facts matter. While the Opera House can shimmer with a mermaid’s green scales during Vivid, its tiles are still cream and white.

In a relatively short piece directed to a general audience—it might be a blog piece, promotional copy or a direct appeal such as a letter—keep these points in mind.

  • Get it right. If you are wrong on something that a reader can verify with a few clicks on Google, your credibility is gone. Any interest that you may have generated will be wasted. If you know your product or service, and have something to shout about, this is easy. If research is required, find some verifiable sources (hint: don’t rely on Wikipedia)
  • Not all facts are of equal importance. Rather than crowding your piece with a mass of information, choose the facts that are most relevant to your argument and what your reader needs to know.
  • Don’t mistake facts for argument. You need both. Use your facts as a platform on which to build your supporting argument. Argument is the ‘why’ and provides powerful context.

Next, I’ll talk about understanding and how it can be irresistible.



A masterclass in persuasive writing


Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the ways you can get results with clever use of words. I’ll teach you how to attract someone’s attention, hold it, and get a result.

Writing for outcomes is a blend of basic elements which can be ticked off in a checklist, and poetry which cannot. But, once understood, you will be able to create some of your own magic. And, like any difficult skill, you will get better with practice. I’ll work through the mechanics of persuasive writing and then touch on its artistry.

My own masterclass in persuasive writing occurred over many years working with executives and politicians and in grassroots advocacy. Getting that second look, ensuring that my letter or submission or paper was read beyond the first paragraph is key. You might only have 30 seconds of a senior official’s time before they decide its fate. To keep my appeals moving towards favourable decisions, I had to make every word count.

Stay tuned.