Are your documents letting you down?

Good communication is always the responsibility of the communicator, not the person receiving it. You may not be getting the traction in the market that you deserve because of poorly structured documentation, sloppy content or confused sentences.

You are a writer (or can be)

Today, with roles merging into each other, we all have to be writers. Forget about there being two groups of people in the world—writers and non-writers.

Some people may start with more innate skill and, if they also love language and reading, these people may go on to become gifted writers.

But everybody can learn the core steps towards good writing.

It’s a process

Research into what writers actually do when they write has shown us that writing is a thinking process with a number of equally important steps. To convey the meaning sought and needed by our reader, we need to see our thoughts in writing, then think again, then write some more—thinking/writing/reading/thinking.

Whether it’s a letter to your local Member of Parliament, a prospectus for the sale of a million dollar business or a user guide, the process of writing is the same.

We can all become better writers through understanding and following the six process steps for clear written communication—generating, organising, drafting, revising, editing and proofreading.

I have developed training modules around these six process steps. These steps apply to any written communication, from an operations manual to a love sonnet.

Find out more…

It starts with thinking. If you would like to learn more about the relationship between clear writing and clear thinking subscribe to my better writing course and I’ll send you the first step—Generating.

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Digital respite—the power of solitude

Why do we fear solitude? Solitude from others or from being left alone with our thoughts?

It was Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and theologian who said, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

I was reminded of this when I read of a study published in Science in which people chose to self-administer mild electrical shocks rather than simply be left alone for between 6 and 15 minutes with no other stimulation provided.

It seems that the people electrifying themselves were looking for a diversion to save them from their own thoughts. The alternative, that they were actually interested in the experience of being shocked is plausible, I suppose—it’s new, it’s different, and in a controlled way, it could be exciting, maybe—but I think the former is true.

I do know that choosing to withdraw from stimulation became a part of my life when I had young children—neither deliberate, not sought, but seeking this solitude became a form of unplanned, daily therapy.

Respite from the world

When children are in that high dependency period between zero and about eight, the demands are interminable. As well as the cooking and cleaning and the myriad other household tasks, parental involvement is required at mealtimes, bathing, undressing and dressing, story-time, more feeding, bedtime, lullabies, and maybe that’s it, maybe not, depending on the night. None begrudged. This isn’t a rant about the grind of parenthood. It’s just the reality of caring for small, dependent creatures.

By the time the kids were on their way to being asleep, and I could sit on the couch with a glass of wine, all I wanted to do was sit in calm contemplation. Even television filled my head with more noise, demanding that I keep up with its pace. I would usually open a book but find myself resting it gently back on my lap while I pondered something that had happened earlier. Since waking that morning, this became my first chance to just sit and think, with no need to respond, nor be alert. It became my sanctuary and my saviour.

Extolling boredom

Today’s unbroken connectivity and the unremitting supply of information with which to divert ourselves, parents are now told to idealise boredom. Kids should be allowed to be bored. They need to develop their ability to turn inwards, to develop their own resources, to rely on their imagination rather than being fed everything they might need. The world’s constant stimulation may be depriving them of building a bank of resources they can draw on later.

My kids have an endless supply of stimulation. I know that. They are children of the internet, or in Marc Prensky’s now famous term, true digital natives. But having stimulation on tap does not necessarily correlate to it being turned on, nor sought. I don’t think they’re harmed by it.

Can they sit quietly with their own thoughts? I think so. I’ve seen them all in various states of introversion. We are all adapting and going through an evolutionary rewiring to cope with the demands of the present.

Our changing needs

I read an article on whether the internet was making us stupid. The author’s internet was down and she’d taken her daughter to a library where they used the card indexing system to find books on the shelves for a school research project. Within no time, her daughter had given up, frustrated by the slowness and effort required for such patchy results. The author was asking herself what was lost, but I think this just tells us that certain skills have made way for new ones. I can’t sew. My grandmother sees that as a colossal failure. But I know that I have ten skills more useful to me than sewing.

Can sitting quietly be learned? The Atlantic article reporting on the electrical shock study concludes that contentment with sitting with only one’s thoughts can be taught. Perhaps we find a space for it when we truly need it. The popularity of yoga and meditation classes would seem to support this.

A place to find ourselves

Without even being aware of it, I snatched these moments in other parts of my day.  In the lunchroom once, a colleague noticed that I had been sitting still, not reading the magazines, nor talking, for ten or fifteen minutes. I remember her double-take and quick question: was I okay?

Resting my overloaded brain from more inputs allowed me to process what I was doing, what I needed to do, what I wanted to do, what I hoped to do, and whether any of this was possible.

Was I okay? Sitting still, freed of any demands was a glorious opportunity and I sank into it with gratitude. Try it sometime.

Newtown Review of Books

I wrote a review of Nike Sulway’s beautiful  book, Dying in the first person, for the Newtown Review of Books. Published today.

NRB is a fabulous publication for all people who love books. And it’s from my favourite part of Sydney.  I’m hoping to keep writing for them, so stay tuned.

Nike Sulway on the changing face of publishing

This interview was first published in an edited form in the May 2017 edition of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library newsletter

Publishing, the production and dissemination of books and the written word has been turned on its head by the digital revolution. I had the opportunity to talk with Dr Nike Sulway, an author and lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Queensland, on her views. Her recently published book, Dying in the First Person (Transit Lounge 2016) is a luminous study of the power of language.

JS: Do you think changes in publishing and the broader digital space, including social media have affected women’s voices: what we write, and what we read?

NS: I think the rise of digital publishing is a curious thing. Some have lauded it as a way for diverse authors to gain access to publishing previously denied by the ‘gatekeepers’ of traditional publishing houses, while others have noted that the internet more generally, and digital publishing as part of that world, replicate and even exacerbate some of the problematic structures of oppression in the non-digital world.

In the world of digital publishing, popularity matters more than quality and, perhaps as a result, marketing and public relations activities have become part of the labour that writers, including women writers, have to do in order not just to be published, but to be heard. This terrifies me in some ways: it’s clear to me that, if having a good marketing plan, a solid author platform, and so on, are the keys to literary success then the voices that will gain traction are not necessarily those with important things to say, but those who can make the most noise.

At the same time, I think that online spaces, and digital publishing, have provided many people who otherwise have not had access to a public platform, or the opportunity to publish and distribute their work, with those opportunities. And communities have grown up around those kinds of enterprises, and in tandem to them. These groups are largely well-intentioned and highly active hothouses of shared information and ideas, collaborative project-building, information sharing, and strategizing for change.

JS: What dangers, if any, do you see for quality, with the rise of self-publishing? Is there still a sense that without the mantle of the publishing house, publications are stigmatised? 

NS: It’s interesting, isn’t it, this idea that self-publishing will lead to a swamping of the marketplace with poor quality work. I think there are two ideas in that anxiety: one about the ‘swamping’ of the market, and the other about quality control.

I do think that there’s still a sense of stigma attached to self-publishing. It doesn’t have the same degree of respect within the writing and publishing world as traditional or mainstream publishing at this stage, with notable exceptions. I do think that access to the tools for self-publishing necessarily leads to the publication of work that is not necessarily well-edited or well-designed. We all know that the relative ease of self-publishing, particularly for digitally savvy westerners with access to the (new) tools of production leads to the publication of works that don’t meet the standards of traditional publishing. (But then, traditional publishing’s standards are neither stable, nor transparent, nor politically neutral. Nor do traditional publishers all share an agreed notion of what ‘good’ writing is.)

The biggest danger I see is one that faces both readers and writers, in different ways…[is that] it becomes increasingly difficult for readers to find the works that will enjoy and be stimulated or challenged by, and in becomes increasingly difficult for writers to connect with their readers and/or to sustain a meaningful career.

A flooded market means that the value of each individual work is at risk of decreasing (on a purely economic level), but the labour of producing an original work of fiction or non-fiction doesn’t change. Perhaps there’s an associated risk that writing, never a great economic prospect for writers, becomes increasingly an activity of the leisured class—those who can afford to spend time writing, and can afford the other more explicit costs of publishing. And that the working and non-working poor and disenfranchised are increasingly cut out of the writing market, rather than empowered to take part in it.

JS: Digital publishing is a minefield of ownership, control and appropriation. The ownership of words is a theme you return to in ‘Dying in the first person’. Do you think writers can translate experiences truly and show us who we are?

The book is very concerned with the relationship between language and lived experience, or reality. There is some sense, I think, in which language can only express what is expressible in language. A tautology, of course! I think that there are truths about what it is to be human that I’m not sure can be expressed in language …. I think language is an extraordinary technology. It can be beautiful and dangerous and powerful and majestic. But it isn’t everything. It can’t do what music does to an audience, to a body. It can’t do what making love does, or holding a newborn, or lying down in a field will do. It can capture, sometimes, some fragment of that experience, and raise an echo in you of your own experiences and dreams. It is harnessed to your imagination, and is part of the way you understand yourself, and the world, and others. But it isn’t all powerful. If we destroyed the world, which we seem determined to do, we couldn’t replace it with language.

I feel strongly that writing, good writing (!), is a process of participating in an ongoing and rather wild conversation that’s been taking place for centuries, with increasing volubility and energy. As writers, we beg, borrow, steal, adapt, collage and comment. So little of what constitutes writing is devoid of connection to the writing that’s come before. And no writing, I think, is devoid of a connection to time and place, culture and society. So I think all writing is a process of what translators refer to as the ‘bringing over’ of a set of images and ideas from one domain to another. The difference in writing is that you don’t bring over a single or cohesive idea or narrative: what you bring over to your side of the river, and construct there, is often mostly constructed of the flotsam and jetsam of what you encountered while swimming. What you got hold of, and what got hold of you.

So appropriation and intertextuality, collage and bricolage, are, I think, the native form of writing. It’s only when it’s done in an insensitive, arrogant, or appropriative way that it becomes problematic.

JS: Your character Ana craves anonymity in her deceptions, ‘to speak without being known’. The internet’s anonymity (be it a gift or a curse) allows people to hide now. Do you think it is liberating? Or like Ana finds, are people are still trapped but now within the limitations of their adopted identify? 

I think, like most aspects of human relationships, the ability to be anonymous can be both liberating, and dangerous. Like most of the things we can do, it’s how and why we do it that matters. Anonymity can be used to mask cruel, cowardly and harmful acts. But it can also be used to protect a vulnerable person from harm. Queer people historically and now often practice a kind of partial anonymity – being ‘in the closet’ – to protect themselves from various threats to their health and wellbeing. At the same time, being in the closet, and I’ve been there, can be incredibly harmful to the self. At the same time, we live in a culture that believes that being out and proud, refusing any form of anonymity or privacy or discretion, is always a good thing. I don’t share that belief. I think that various forms of anonymity can sometimes be a powerful and necessary form of protection, and sometimes used as a weapon.

So, for me, anonymity is neither good nor bad in itself, but is a strategy or tool that can be used, and has been used historically, for both good and bad purposes. To hurt and to protect, to cause harm and to prevent harm.

We need to talk about depression

I have just read Rosie Waterland’s book, The anti-cool girl, which captures with such precision the half-life of a person living with depression, with mental illness. Amidst the laugh out loud moments of life as a ‘houso’ in North Ryde, the pressing, the closing in, the self-sabotage resonate. It needs to be read, widely.

I lived a second-hand experience of depression through my brother: caring for him, trying to keep him alive through the fog of medication, alcoholism, weight gain, inertia.

I would circle back to stations to get him off a train, the one he’d promise to be on, and wait on platforms in vain. Two, three times. He’d lie in our spare room all day. My parents, my sister and I had no clue how to help him. When he died, it was a searing honesty that trying to keep him alive was the hardest thing we had ever done. We had failed, but now, amidst the grief, it was easier. That’s hard to live with.

What’s wrong with our society that we turn our backs on these sick people? Why do we value these lives less? He knew it would be easier with him gone, and without a decent support system to help him, to help us, it was. I have a tattoo on my ankle, a snake encircled around a tree of life. He was born in Hong Kong in the year of the snake and I was afraid that I would forget him.

Not long after my brother died, I met a woman whose father-in-law in Sweden had attempted suicide. He was incarcerated in hospital. He had care, therapy and sanctuary until deemed well enough to go home for short visits. He stayed for much longer. Our taxes wouldn’t pay for that, with our meanness, our blindness, our chosen ignorance. My brother had attempted to kill himself seven years earlier and was discharged from Emergency after two nights with a referral to a psychiatrist. Like he was in control of his decisions.

He was treated as an ‘individual’, although he wasn’t. Who amongst us is? His ‘right to privacy’ was paramount: his depression was his responsibility alone. It meant that my parents, his carers, were excluded from his medical treatment, his therapy. They were personae non gratis, in the eyes of the medical establishment.

Rosie’s account of having to rationalise to the triage nurse at A&E that, yes, she would kill herself if not admitted is our system in miniature: a bizarre Catch-22 of being sane enough to admit insanity.

While her life with a broken education at 17 schools, abandoned for days at a time, living with violence could be the polar opposite of mine, the frailty of human beings is universal. My best friend at school had alcoholic parents. They’d drink scotch at breakfast, so she raised herself. And spent lots of time at my house. Not that I knew anything at the time. So much is hidden.

Rosie Waterland found a way through in writing. She describes how she had read a vacuous article about exactly nothing and knew she could do better. Her published writing pulled her back and I was reminded of Marian Keyes’ account of her own depression and alcoholism. Like Rosie, Keyes, a bestselling Irish author, found that writing became a way of grounding herself, being able to see through the blackness around her, and reattach herself to life.

And my friend survived, grounding herself in a country which gave her the opportunities and home she had missed out on as a child.

My brother never found that thing that would bring him back. We need to listen to those who survive and reading Rosie Waterland is a brilliant start.

 

Self-publish?

The digital age has turned publishing on its head. Writers now have more options than ever before to get their voices out into the world. A writer can now publish a book professionally, find a respectable readership and be reviewed in mainstream media, all without the imprimatur of a publishing house. Whether or not they are heard – whether or not that is their goal – is another question, and one I’ll explore in another piece.

Joel Naoum, publisher, editor and founder of Critical Mass Consulting discussed self-publishing with a group of interested writers at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 7 April 2017 . I caught up with Joel later and we talked further about the new face of publishing.

The freedom of the digital era to publish new writers or new books by existing writers, without having to bow to strictures such as shelf space, has been liberating. The market is out there. Despite fears, people still want to read books and look for an immersive reading experience in a traditional mould – the long form book ­– without interactive websites, reading apps, or distracting hyperlinks. Genre fiction – with its high turnover – has found a natural fit with digital publishing and romance, particularly, is now more than 50 per cent digital.

The accessibility and cost-effectiveness of digital publishing is a logical destination for self-publishers. Critical Mass is an advisory service for writers who have written a book, or thinking about writing one, and are exploring self-publishing options. After working as an editor at Macmillan and then heading up its digital imprint, Momentum, he launched Critical Mass Consultancy to fill what he saw as a gap in the market. With writers wanting to put books into the public domain and the IT capabilities and platforms available, the missing links were connecting the two.

Marketing is the behemoth which forestalls many writers. Joel confirmed that so much of traditional publishing is the grind of marketing – copy, covers, blurbs, promotions – and shepherding the writer through the process. He acknowledged that the most successful self-published authors were either adept at this, or learnt quickly how to outsource it to professionals. Becoming a successful self-published author is akin to becoming a small businessperson – the most innovative, the bravest do well. That said, an authentic presence is essential. He encouraged writers to use platforms with which they were familiar and were most likely to suit their genre.

He agreed with my concerns that self-publishing has pushed these functions onto the writers, but more control over your authorial voice is no small compensation. The sense that the reading public is in danger of being swamped is certainly there but he is confident that the cream will rise to the surface. Advice on how to navigate that road to get the best book possible is probably a good investment.

 

Writing for outcomes

Here are the four parts of my persuasive writing masterclass in one article. Mix it up, take what you need. Your situation is unique and your appeal will be too.

 

#1 Facts

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 it is 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.

 

#2 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.

If you don’t understand it, neither will your reader and you have a snowflake’s chance in hell of persuading them to come down on your side.

Apply these rules:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Think about 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. Some things to remember:

  1. 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?
  2. People, especially in bureaucratic organisations, are inherently conservative and afraid of change. What are your readers’ fears? Can you pre-empt them?

 

#3 Motivation—yours and theirs

The core of any half-decent piece of persuasive writing is the why. If you are looking for an outcome, you have to keep this front and centre. What will make your reader do what you’re asking? It’s both carrot and stick. These things will keep you on track.

Where is the power?
Even if you have influence and can wield it, this is rarely the best option. Especially not if you want to draw on it again. It is a blunt instrument and often resented. If you have any clout or leverage, use it sparingly.

Think about what will make your audience sit up and take notice. If you are not able to wield direct power, how will you get to them?

Stakeholders
Who has a stake in the outcome? The most effective strategy for getting something done, that you can’t do yourself, is to make the other party want it as much as you do. Once your problem is theirs too, you may find them willing to help.

When you have identified who is involved, think about their situation. If there is more than one, are they united, or do they have different objectives? Can you play one against the other? Remember, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Find out who could be adversely affected by a decision. It might not be immediately obvious.

Where are they vulnerable?
If you want to change somebody’s mind, you need to know their pressure points. Their weak spots. If you don’t know, you can indulge their vanities, flatter them. While on one level we all know what’s happening when we’re being sold something, we still have an innate human desire to be seen, to be understood. Use this.

Pick your battles
How often would you make an appeal like this? Think about how badly you need it and keep your powder dry for these times. When I worked in grassroots advocacy, I’d have several tiers of appeal. First up was the killer approach. This was for a case that had our strongest support. I would write a personal, tailored submission that went to the heart.

But if I had pulled this on every one of my caseload, nothing I wrote would have been taken seriously.

Then there was the ‘individual but muted’ appeal which made the case without significant investment. Finally, cases that were less plausible or less serious received a more formulaic approach. Using language to signal your commitment gets the best result when you know your reader, but it is useful to manage workload in any high-volume environment. Set your own tiers and codes to escalate urgency.

Next steps
Your appeal will be stronger if you can follow up. What are the possible outcomes and how can you plan for them? How will your reader interpret your approach? Do they know what your next steps are too? Be one step ahead.

 

#4 Structure and tone

How you put your pitch together is crucial.

You need to get the structure and the language right if you want to turn your reader’s head and keep them looking. Don’t blow your opportunity for a result with poor construction.

The opener
Start strongly. You need to make an impression from the beginning. Imagine you have only 30 seconds of their time before they put your appeal aside. Maybe they’ll pick it up later, but maybe they won’t. Don’t take that risk.

Using what you know of your reader, think what would work best as an opener. A fact? A personal anecdote? A direct appeal? If you know what they are used to seeing, perhaps try something different. You want it to register.

Choosing and placing words
Keep your language as simple as possible. It does not talk down to your audience. Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood and to generate a response. If your subject is technically difficult, instead of tricking up language with jargon or density, give it space to let the reader reflect. The more complex the topic, the plainer the language needs to be.

Use a mix of short and long sentences. This allows the reader to absorb detail without being overwhelmed. A full stop is a chance to rest. The sentences should follow each other, linking logically. Similarly, paragraphs—look at the final sentence of each paragraph and make sure it links to the first sentence of the next. Keep paragraphs short and be sure to only introduce one concept or cluster of ideas in each.

No surprises
Let your reader see what lies ahead. Helping them to link the elements together draws them inescapably to the conclusion, your conclusion. Build your momentum. Repeating a phrase or term is a good way to do this. You want your reader to think ‘Yes,’ or ‘I see it,’ or ‘This makes sense,’ by the time they reach the end.

Keeping your reader onside means no surprises. You don’t want to trigger anxiety. And you are not writing a whodunit so leave your reader with closing words which recap your position.

No mistakes
Finally, keep it clean. Grammatical mistakes look careless. And you care. If you can’t be sure about getting this right, find a second opinion or a fresh set of eyes.

 

Structure and tone—Persuasive writing #4

Structure and tone

How you put your pitch together is crucial. You need to get the structure and the language right if you want to turn your reader’s head and then keep them looking. If you have the other elements in play (facts, understanding and motivation), you don’t want to blow your opportunity for a result by poor construction.

The opener

Start strongly. You need to make an impression from the beginning. Imagine you have only 30 seconds of their time before they put your appeal aside. Maybe they’ll pick it up later, but maybe they won’t. Don’t take that risk.

Using what you know of your reader, think what would work best as an opener. A fact? A personal anecdote? A direct appeal? If you know what they are used to seeing, perhaps try something different. You want it to register.

Choosing and placing words

Keep your language as simple as possible. It does not talk down to your audience. Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood and to generate a response. If your subject is technically difficult, instead of tricking up language with jargon or density, give it space to let the reader reflect. The more complex the topic, the plainer the language needs to be.

Use a mix of short and long sentences. This allows the reader to absorb detail without being overwhelmed. A full stop is a chance to rest. The sentences should follow each other, linking logically. Similarly, paragraphs—look at the final sentence of each paragraph and make sure it links to the first sentence of the next. Keep paragraphs short and be sure to only introduce one concept or cluster of ideas in each.

No surprises

Let your reader see what lies ahead. Helping them to link the elements together draws them inescapably to the conclusion, your conclusion. Build your momentum. Repeating a phrase or term is a good way to do this. You want your reader to think ‘Yes,’ or ‘I see it,’ or ‘This makes sense,’ by the time they reach the end.

Keeping your reader onside means no surprises. You don’t want to trigger anxiety. And you are not writing a whodunit so leave your reader with closing words which recap your position.

No mistakes

Finally, keep it clean. Grammatical mistakes look careless. And you care. If you can’t be sure about getting this right, ask for a second opinion.

This has been my last instalment of the persuasive writing masterclass, giving you tools for writing prose to persuade. You can read more at www.yourseconddraft.com. I’d love to hear thoughts on it and other writing techniques you would like to learn more about or have found useful.

Motivation—Persuasive writing #3

Motivation—yours and theirs

The core of any half-decent piece of persuasive writing is the why. If you are looking for an outcome, you have to keep this front and centre. What will make your reader do what you’re asking? It’s both carrot and stick. These things will keep you on track.

Where is the power?

Even if you have influence and can wield it, this is rarely the best option. Especially not if you want to draw on it again. It is a blunt instrument and often resented. If you have any clout or leverage, use it sparingly.

Think about what will make your audience sit up and take notice. If you are not able to wield direct power, how will you get to them?

Stakeholders

Who has a stake in the outcome? The most effective strategy for getting something done, that you can’t do yourself, is to make the other party want it as much as you do. Once your problem is theirs too, you may find them willing to help.

When you have identified who is involved, think about their situation. If there is more than one, are they united, or do they have different objectives? Can you play one against the other? Remember, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Find out who could be adversely affected by a decision. It might not be immediately obvious.

Where are they vulnerable?

If you want to change somebody’s mind, you need to know their pressure points. Their weak spots. If you don’t know, you can indulge their vanities, flatter them. While on one level we all know what’s happening when we’re being sold something, we still have an innate human desire to be seen, to be understood. Use this.

Pick your battles

How often would you make an appeal like this? Think about how badly you need it and keep your powder dry for these times. When I worked in grassroots advocacy, I’d have several tiers of appeal. First up was the killer approach. This was for a case that had our strongest support. I would write a personal, tailored submission that went to the heart.

But if I had pulled this on every one of my caseload, nothing I wrote would have been taken seriously.

Then there was the ‘individual but muted’ appeal which made the case without significant investment. Finally, cases that were less plausible or less serious received a more formulaic approach. Using language to signal your commitment gets the best result when you know your reader, but it is useful to manage workload in any high-volume environment. Set your own tiers and codes to escalate urgency.

Next steps

Your appeal will be stronger if you can follow up. What are the possible outcomes and how can you plan for them? How will your reader interpret your approach? Do they know what your next steps are too? Be one step ahead.

Next time, I’ll discuss the basic structure of a persuasive text. There are some simple rules which will help your writing get results.

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.