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.
- 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.
- 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.