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Four proven techniques to make your business writing more persuasive

Use self-referencing, metaphor, positive language, and mystery to influence your readers to pay attention to your message.



persuasive business writing

Are you an expert persuader? If you’re like me, your record of persuasion is mediocre. Even persuasion expert Robert Cialdini admits he is a patsy. He offers this weakness in the first pages of his bestselling book Influence and reminds us of it again in his most recent bestseller Pre-Suasion.

However, techniques for persuasion can be learned. I used two of Cialdini’s suggested techniques in this introduction.

First, to gain your trust in my authority I admitted to a fault in the introduction. If you’re willing to admit to a mistake or acknowledge an error, people will find you more trustworthy and be receptive to what you have to say afterward.

Second, by stating Cialdini’s books were bestsellers, I used the concept of social proof to persuade you to be receptive to the techniques I was going to explain. We are more willing to believe Cialdini’s arguments because many others have done so before us.

If you found these two techniques insightful, then try out these next four techniques that Cialdini highlights in his book to help make your writing more persuasive.

Write about “you”

Want to hear a secret about yourself? Then listen close. Nothing gets your attention more than reading, seeing, or hearing about “you.” This is why you should always use the personal pronoun “you” when writing an article to get your reader’s attention. Place the pronoun in the opening if possible to predispose your audience to your case before even reading your content.

In a study conducted on self-referencing at The Ohio State University, when the personal pronoun “you” was used in advertising copy, it caught the attention of the audience more. After that, of course, it’s up to you to provide the strong evidence to convince your reader.

The more you are willing to admit to a mistake or error, the more trustworthy you can become. (Source)

Prepare your listener with a metaphor

When you decide to propose to your fiancee, why do you set the table for dinner? Why do you lay down a white tablecloth, set out china dishes, and light scented candles? Simple. To show that it’s a special occasion, and prepare your fiancee for the proposal.

The same goes when you are trying to persuade someone of a new idea. You set them up with a familiar metaphor (just as I did above) so your listener is prepared for the new concepts you are going to tell them.

Cialdini states the power of metaphor on how we think was confirmed in a Stanford University study. In the study, participants were asked to come up with solutions after reading an article on crime. Those who read information that described the crime as a raving beast that needed to be caged were more influenced to choose to put criminals in jail as a solution.

On the other hand, readers who read about crime being described as a virus caused by unhealthy conditions were more inclined to choose to prevent crime by improving conditions in the city as a solution.

Mind your connotation

What do you think of when you hear the words “final destination” or “terminal?” If your first thought is of death and disease rather than your next connecting flight, that’s not uncommon. Airlines have noticed this association also. This is why airlines now say “your destination” and “gate” more often than they used to.

Speaking of “used,” did you ever notice how everything is pre-owned now? Cars are pre-owned, homes are pre-owned, electronics are pre-owned. According to Cialdini, that’s because the word “used” has a negative connotation of wear and tear.

Savvy writers and marketers know the best way to set the persuasive stage is to reduce negative connotations with less charged vocabulary.

To persuade someone with a new idea, it’s best to use metaphors so they are prepared for fresh concepts. (Source)

Employ the one literary device that keeps people hooked

Imagine for a second, you’re a content marketer who has been tasked with keeping the reader glued to a web page until the very end of the article.

One of the ways you can keep people on the page would be to write about a topic that everyone is interested in. You know that people are always interested in new diets. However, when you write about the new diet pill, Diet Free, you find the time spent on page doesn’t change in your favor. In fact, it seems that people spend less time reading your topic and more time skimming it. While your article does get double the shares on social media, you have a decrease in time spent on page by 25%.

What to do? It’s possible you have not accounted for your audience’s short attention span. It’s common knowledge that people have shorter attention spans due to social media. So if you don’t get a reader’s attention right away and keep it, the reader is bound to leave the page. The result is the search engine thinks your content is of lower quality.

Then you hit on the perfect solution to keep people engaged and reading more.

Cialdini explained he used this literary technique when teaching university courses and suggests that writers use it as well. In his course, he would present a topic as a mystery to hook his students so they would pay attention to the very end (and it also resulted in more retention of material).

The mystery method is not complex. I used it in the first few paragraphs of this section. You describe a state of affairs that seems perplexing, offer a problem that cannot be solved easily, explain mitigating factors, but don’t provide closure until the very end.

DISCLAIMER: This article expresses my own ideas and opinions. Any information I have shared are from sources that I believe to be reliable and accurate. I did not receive any financial compensation in writing this post, nor do I own any shares in any company I’ve mentioned. I encourage any reader to do their own diligent research first before making any investment decisions.

Ken is the Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at BigSpeak. Ken's main focus is marketing and partnering with Fortune 1000 clients to create specialized consulting programs with effective leadership development objectives. Ken is also responsible for BigTechnology, an initiative to develop best-of-breed learning management systems for BigSpeak's clients. Ken's background includes working with KPMG as a technology and management consultant, co-founding a technology company (cloud computing), co-founding an international, vertically integrated manufacturing company and working as Executive Vice President at a boutique asset management firm charged with operating real estate and hospitality assets. Ken holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from the University of California, an M.B.A. from Babson College and earned his B.A. in Communication and Applied Psychology from the University of California.