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Columns on Persuasive Writing

“Follow five-part formula for persuasive writing
First published June 2, 1995

“Five easy lessons in persuasive writing
First published May 31, 1996

Also see managerial communication, Rogerian persuasion, and conflict resolution.


First published June 2, 1995

Follow five-part formula for persuasive writing

By Stephen Wilbers

There are two schools of thought on how to win your point in an argument.

The first is called the playground style of argumentation, so named because children are adept at employing its time-honored tactics.

These tactics include presenting your argument without offering relevant or valid support; keeping your reader in the dark about your true intentions; dredging up past grievances to put your reader on the defensive; refusing to acknowledge your reader’s viewpoint; calling into question your reader’s intelligence, competence, or honesty; and, of course, avoiding the issue entirely.

The playground style is used with great effect in the business world. Indeed, many of our most respected business leaders--not to mention some of our most admired politicians--demonstrate an impressive mastery of its tactics.

Here is a brief illustration of the playground style of argumentation:

"Dear Herb: We’ve been friends for a long time. Whenever you’ve proposed a new product line, you’ve always had my complete support. (Remember how I stuck my neck out for you on the Henderson deal?) Well, it’s time for you to return the favor. At next Monday’s marketing meeting, I’ll be presenting my proposal to introduce a new brand of DogChow Plus. Anyone with any common sense can see that this is the way the market is going. Don’t let me down."

The second style of argumentation, known as the school of reasoned thinking and logical analysis, is less commonly used in the business world, but it too has its proponents.

As described by Arthur Biddle in Writer to Writer, this style of argumentation employs a standard five-part structure:

Opening

Announces the topic or purpose and—depending on the author’s strategy—the conclusion.

Prepares the reader intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally for the argument that follows.

Establishes the author’s credentials as someone who is knowledgeable, reasonable, and fair-minded.

Background and context

Presents relevant background and history to make the topic understandable.

Explains the significance and broader implications of the topic or recommendation.

Argument

Presents the thesis (an assertion or proposition) as a debatable or argumentative statement.

Offers specific points of proof or examples supporting the thesis.

Refutation

Acknowledges the opposing view.

Points out the weaknesses of the opposing view.

Closing

Restates the main assertion in terms slightly different from the original statement.

States the recommendation or recommendations.

An argument based on this structure might go like this:

"Dear Herb: At next Monday’s marketing meeting, I’ll be presenting my proposal to introduce a new brand of DogChow Plus. I’m writing to ask for your support.

"You know my record for successfully identifying new market trends. Five years ago I led the team that introduced Canine Critters, and last year I correctly predicted the shift to bite-size biscuits.

"I’ve done the research on this one (see attached marketing study), and it looks like a winner. And, as you can see, the advertising costs will be much lower than originally estimated.

"Given the four percent increase in dog ownership over the past five years, I believe the time is right to establish ourselves in the puppy chow market. I hope you’ll be with me when the vote is taken."

There is, unfortunately, one drawback to this reasoned and logical style of argumentation: It requires clear thinking and competent writing. Perhaps that explains why we see it so rarely.

 

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First published May 31, 1996

 Five easy lessons in persuasive writing

By Stephen Wilbers

A few weeks ago I asked myself, if I could teach only five lessons in clear and effective business writing, what would they be?

Now, depending on your inclinations and interests, that might not be the sort of question that gets you going. But give a question like that to a writing instructor and . . . well, let’s just say I couldn’t eat or sleep for three days. I had to go for 15-mile runs and 100-mile bike rides just to get myself calmed down.

After much thought and reflection, I came up with five essentials: Make every word count, avoid common errors, punctuate correctly for clarity and emphasis, state your purpose, and think in paragraphs.

Now, pondering a question like that is what I call a good time. So I decided to ask myself another one like it.

If I could teach only five lessons in persuasive writing, what would they be?

Here’s what I came up with (or, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, here’s what up with which I came):

Lesson 1: Formulate a communication strategy.

To communicate effectively, you don’t begin by writing or speaking; you begin by thinking. Give some thought to how you might best achieve your purpose, how your audience might react, and how best to convey your message.

In formulating a communication strategy, ask yourself: Do I have a clear sense of purpose? Do I know and understand my audience’s perspective, values, and biases? Will my audience view my message as positive (which calls for a direct approach) or negative (which calls for an indirect approach)? What tone should I use? Should I write, call, or speak in person?

Lesson 2: Establish your credibility.

All communicators have two types of credibility: initial and acquired. Assess your initial credibility and do what you can to enhance it. Take care not to sound immodest, but if there is something in your background or experience that has given you particular knowledge about the topic at hand, reveal this to your audience.

The other way to establish your credibility—equally important—is to sound as though you know what you’re talking about. You can do this by commanding language with clarity and precision and by organizing your thought into a cogent and compelling argument.

Lesson 3: Use the right words.

In persuasive writing (and speaking), wording is crucial. To choose the right words, you need to know two things: language and your audience.

If you possess the proper vocabulary, and if you understand how your audience is likely to react to certain words, you will know when to say, "Hey, dude, that’s buff," and when to say, "Your contention has merit."

In less obvious ways as well, using language that evokes your audience’s values and culture might help you connect with them and win them over to your point of view.

Lesson 4: Offer evidence to support your contentions.

In arguing for a promotion you must do more than claim you deserve it. You must back up your contention with evidence that for the past 10 years you have worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week—or something to that effect.

To be persuasive, evidence must be accurate, specific, detailed, sufficient, complete, relevant, and appropriate to the audience.

Lesson 5: Structure your argument.

A typical argument has five parts: opening, background, presentation of argument, refutation of opposing argument, and closing.

Because of their strategic importance, openings and closings should be worded with particular care. Use your opening to prepare the reader intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally for your argument. Use your closing to restate your main point or points.

Now, wasn’t that fun?

 

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