Power up your persuasive writing

Power up your persuasive writing

By Dr Josh Meyer

Imagine you have put a lot of effort into writing a document for your manager. You’re keen to find out if they agree with you. But you’re also worried they might not. Will your document be successful?

We all want our workplace writing to succeed. But how do you write a successful document? More importantly, what does a successful document do?

It all starts with persuasion. Successful documents get outcomes. They influence our readers to act. For example, if your manager is persuaded by your brief that explains the importance of a costly change, they might give that change the go-ahead.

Without clear, effective strategies for persuasion, we might find that our readers ignore even our most compelling calls to action.

This is where plain language strategies come in, with strategies to engage and convince all types of readers. Let’s look at a few persuasive practices.

Mature businessman holds document while sitting in office

Persuasive writers don’t save the best bits for last

People don’t read workplace documents the same way they read fiction. Rather than settling in for a long and pleasant journey, they hunt for relevant details. Almost all readers start by skimming the document.

Writers don’t set out to hide their persuasive content at the back, buried by detail. Yet many end up doing this. They instinctively use a chronological structure to organise information, which takes the reader on a start-to-finish tour of their thinking process.

This is understandable. Our most developed and informed ideas about a subject tend to come towards the end of our thinking process. But is it persuasive? No.

When we bury our most persuasive points at the end, we risk losing our readers. They can grow frustrated, form a contrary opinion while they read, or give up reading altogether.

Persuasive writers practise empathy

Some readers are harder to persuade than others.

A few will come to our writing ready to accept our argument. Others won’t have a strong position one way or another.

The most effective strategy for these readers is to give solid reasons for your position. Make sure that they can see the connections between your conclusion, reasons and evidence.

But some readers come to our writing ready to disagree. So what works for them?

The instinctive approach is to offer them more evidence. But this avenue gives these readers more opportunities to disagree. In fact, cognitive science shows that when people with strongly held positions are challenged with contradictory evidence, they stick to those positions even more strongly.

A more strategic approach is to empathise with your reader and offer concessions. This means considering your readers’ point of view, and acknowledging it in your document.

Such a strategy might feel like negotiating against yourself. But concessions offer these hard-to-win readers a psychological olive branch, which in turn frees them up to read with a more open mind.

Persuasive writers build trust

It’s difficult to persuade readers when we make our writing hard for them to process.

A clear example of this is passive voice: readers need to work harder to understand passive verbs. Active verbs are easier because they clarify who or what does which action – in that order. We’re also more likely to remember text written in active voice.

Yet workplace writing typically uses a lot of passive language. In fact, some writers mistakenly believe that using passive voice will help to build trust. Consider a common statement in political speech: ‘mistakes were made’. A phrase like this aims to maintain trust by avoiding accountability. It’s not that ‘we made mistakes’. Mistakes were simply ‘made’, as if by nobody in particular.

Removing the person who made the mistakes from the sentence might seem like it will safeguard their credibility. But recent research shows that it actually has the opposite effect.

Consider the words you might link with persuasion: power, authority, action, influence. All of these. But passive? No way. If your goal is to influence others, forget passive voice.

Persuasive writing is a skill you can learn

Remember feeling unsure about whether your manager would agree with what you had written? Learn to write documents that persuade with research-backed strategies.

Let us train you and your team on:

  • our 4-step process to map your logic
  • models for sequencing content meaningfully
  • tricks to make your reasoning leap off the page
  • tips for building clear, read-them-once paragraphs.

Whether you write a specific type of document or are more interested in the broad art of persuasion, our workshops offer practical advice you can apply on the spot.

Part of the EdventureCo Group​