Whether you know it or not, you’re a writer. If you don’t consider yourself a professional writer, think about all the content writing you do on a daily basis—writing social media messages, sending IMs to your coworkers, texting your friends, emailing your boss, and typing up things like memos, meeting agendas, notes, and action items. Even preplanned conversations qualify as a kind of writing, since you’re developing language in advance.
With all these opportunities for writing permeating your work environment, it’s a bit uninformed to claim that writing isn’t important to your job, or that you aren’t a writer in some application. Becoming a better writer means communicating more effectively, earning more respect, and commanding more authority—and the secret to all of these is persuasion.
To become more persuasive in your writing, call upon these three fundamental principles of persuasion:
This one might be obvious to you, but your ability to persuade a person is directly linked to how authoritative you are seen to be. A police officer who informs you that your back tire is underinflated is more likely to convince you to fill it up than a bratty neighborhood child who shouts it to you when riding past on a bike.
There are many factors that influence authority, some of which are cumulative (like building a reputation) and are hard to earn in the space of a single written message. Other factors are more immediate, and more available for your use when writing a message. For example, consider citing external sources—verified third party information goes a long way to strengthen your arguments and resolve. For example, if you’re writing an email requesting more flexibility to work from home, cite independent studies that confirm the productivity benefits of work-from-home systems. Be careful not to draw on an association fallacy here, but do play up the authoritative strength of whatever materials you cite.
Our society is built on an idea of mutual social exchange. Our entire economy, and even the basic concept of money, is built on the idea of mutually beneficial exchange. You pay a dollar for a fast food cheeseburger because you believe it to be worth a dollar. You pay more for a well-prepared steak because you believe it to be worth more in terms of taste, scarcity, effort, experience, and a host of other factors. If you asked someone to pay $50 for a cheeseburger, you’d need to convince them that it was a darn good cheeseburger.
My illustration above may seem obvious to you, but consider it in a more practical, less obvious setting. You’re asking for a raise—in effect, asking your boss to pay more for the same cheeseburger they’re already getting for less. When crafting your response, you need to understand the importance of mutual exchange, and emphasize the points that make it seem like a valuable transaction to the listener/reader. For example, an argument like “I’ve increased my value over last year with my new certifications and experience, and I’m objectively worth more in other markets” is more persuasive than “I really need the extra money to pay off my house” because the former has an objective value for the listener attached to it. You can even use this principle in smaller exchanges, like explaining the personal benefits of attending a meeting.
If you’ve ever mistakenly gotten into a political or religious debate, you know how impossible it is to separate someone from their committed beliefs, even if those beliefs are inherently illogical or nonsensical. This is why political and religious discussions are often taboo in workplaces and even family gatherings—people remain true to their previous commitments and beliefs, to an unbearably stubborn degree.
Fortunately, you can use your writing to take advantage of this. Instead of contradicting a person’s natural beliefs and past commitments, appeal to them. Make your request or suggestion seem in line with what you know their previous actions to be, or what you know their beliefs to be. For example, you could frame a request for time off like this, “You’ve professed the value of taking breaks in the past, and I totally agree. I’d like to take some time off to decompress and come back with a fresh mind,” instead of “I really need to take time off and eliminate some of this stress.” In the former phrasing, you’re holding the listener/reader accountable to previous beliefs he/she has publicly stated (without being obnoxious or confrontational about it).
Becoming a more persuasive writer demands attention, effort, and practice—you can’t just will yourself to be better overnight. Memorize these principles and start seeing them in your messages and the messages of others. Tailor your writing to be more persuasive, starting small and working your way to bigger, more powerful uses. Over time, you’ll develop a natural “ear” for the balance between natural language and persuasive language, and all your messages will start to resonate with more communicative power and persuasive potential.