Let’s get the distractions out of the way: Lindsay’s a man. That way you don’t have to go off Googling him when I refer to his excellent book on persuasive writing.
Persuasive writing: go for results, not art
Lindsay defines persuasive writing as anything that’s written for results, not for art. CVs, ads, and web copy are all persuasive. Novels, poems, and plays are not. A note to the milkman saying ‘no milk today please’ is a perfect piece of persuasive writing. We’ll get to why in a minute.
First, the big theory and the acronym to remember. The three Rs.
Remember the reader and the result
This is his most important point – work out who your reader is, and what you want to happen when they’ve read your words. The note to the milkman is perfect, because you know exactly who you’re talking to, and you know exactly what you want to happen. And your intended result is an achievable one.
Define your reader
It sounds easy enough. But if you’ve worked on a big project, or even a little one, then you’ll know that defining the audience is very difficult indeed. The temptation is always to go for the widest possible audience. Maybe you had a meeting with the key stakeholders in the company, which quickly ballooned to 30 or so people. Maybe you put together a list of around 16 ‘key’ defining factors. Six different customer groups. Four character profiles. And so on. You end up defining an audience that isn’t really defined at all.
And if you’ve worked with an agency, or with us, you’ll know that we always want to speak to the narrowest possible audience. Trying to talk to absolutely everybody leads to bland, lifeless copy. Sharpen your priorities, focus on the specifics, and you begin to write persuasively.
Results: be realistic
Before you write anything, get a clear idea of what you want your reader to do. ‘What you write doesn’t matter at all,’ says Lindsay, ‘only how the reader responds.’ The more specific you are at this stage will make it easier to measure your success further down the line.
Don’t set your sights on transforming the world’s perception of water-coolers. That’s aiming too high. Don’t try to raise the awareness about water-coolers in previously unaware segment of the population. That’s too vague. Instead, go for a real result: sell X number of water-coolers because of X campaign.
It’s not a how-to guide, but there’s a great A-Z
He’s quite clear on this point: this is not a how-to guide (although there are some exercises in the back, for keen beans). There is an entertaining A-Z of persuasive writing though, which sort of comes close. For instance, a simile is ‘less than useless unless it adds something new to the reader’s enjoyment. And it can only do that if there is something fresh and unexpected about it.’ A bit like this example, allegedly taken from a genuine GCSE exam:
‘His wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free cashpoint.’
Which is quite brilliant, really. But still, beware the simile – and read the rest of the A-Z for a lively discussion of everything else, from alliteration all the way to ZZZzzzzz, which is about not being boring. It’s a persuasive book – an entertaining and masterful examination of how to get people to do what you want.
Persuaded yet? Great. Now go buy it.