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
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
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
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
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
Now, wasn’t that fun?