The famous economist Tyler Cowen noted that Americans have changed from the people that took literal moonshots to being the people who waited patiently in long lines for gasoline.
We’ve seen the same thing in writing. Since the birth of the internet, writers have gone from crafting rhetoric to quickly slapping a blog post together. Today’s internet writers are producing more words than ever, but have lost the ability to persuade.
Persuasive writing is critical to business success. As Joseph Conrad wrote, “He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word.”
There’s more to writing persuasive copy than following some quick tips or tactics. Writing persuasive copy relies on understanding the principles of persuasion. So let’s take a look at four critical principles of persuasion.
When an expert talks about a topic they persuade the audience. But a large part of their pervasiveness isn’t the quality of their content, it’s that they’re perceived as an expert. It’s not only their content that persuades, but their credibility.
Credibility isn’t a given. As George Horace Lorimer wrote, “A man’s as good as he makes himself, but no man’s any good because his grandfather was.” Credibility is not something that can be inherited, bought, or faked. It must be real.
Yet having real credibility doesn’t mean other people will recognise it. For your credibility to count, you must communicate it.
Telling someone you’re an expert doesn’t work. You must show them. Don’t say you’re a problem-solver, describe a difficult problem you’ve solved.
For example, in their book Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath describe an example of a security company, Safexpress, used to establish credibility;
“Safexpress had handled the release of the fifth Harry Potter book—every Potter book in every bookstore in India had been delivered there by Safexpress, an insanely complicated delivery: All the books had to arrive in stores by 8 a.m. on the morning of the release Not too early, or the bookstore owners might try to sell them early and the secret would be blown; and not too late, or the bookstore owners would be irate at lost sales.”
They signed the deal.
However, there’s more to being credible than being perceived as an expert. As Dr. Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, wrote, “A credible authority possesses the combination of two highly persuasive qualities: expertise and trustworthiness.”
Establishing trust is crucial to persuasion. When someone trusts you have their interest at heart, they drop their defences and will listen to your message. The cliche is true; we don’t care how much you know, until we know how much you care.
So, why do people trust us? Well, the more similar we are to our reader, the more they will trust us. As Dr. Cialdini wrote, “The relationships that lead people to favor another most effectively are not those that allow them to say, “Oh, that person is like us.” They are the ones that allow people to say, “Oh, that person is one of us.””
Our use of language will affect how our readers see us. Everyone knows that Warren Buffet is a financial wizard, but he’s also a master of persuasion. In his annual report, he included one line that helped his shareholders feel connected. Buffet wrote, “With that warning, I will tell you what I would say to my family today if they asked me about Berkshire’s future.” By giving you the same advice he would his family, you feel part of his family.
Like Buffet and you, my goal is to connect with people so I can grow my business. I’m betting you feel the same way – and if so – that helps me build trust with you. Why? One way to help people say, “Oh, that person is one of us,” is to empathise with their goals.
So you’re probably thinking I’m trying to earn your trust right now. You’re right. In fact I just used another method. Scott Adams the cartoonist of Dilbert, writer and entrepreneur said, “Guess what people are thinking at the moment they think it and call it out. If you are right the subject bonds to you for being like-minded.”
However, trust is not something you earn or keep by using quick tactics. Trust is earned through being honest and providing value. It’s something that you grow, cultivate and deserve. It’s like a Warren Buffett investment – in the short term it may not have a high return, but over time it produces phenomenal results.
Tyler Cowen, the renowned economist wrote; “One of the most fundamental truths about the social world is that objective reality does not determine what people believe. Or in the language of economics, expectations are not generally rational. People misperceive reality or people self-deceive to construct a more pleasant reality within their minds. … we interpret real-world evidence through our stories and through the internal ordering imposed by our minds.”
In short, we don’t see reality as it is. We see it as it is framed.
Framing is more powerful than you would imagine. In an experiment, an attractive young woman would ask men for help. You’d think this would be enough to prompt them to flirt and ask out the woman. It wasn’t. Yet, when before the interaction with the attractive young woman they were reminded about the upcoming Valentines Day, they were much more likely to ask her out.
So we know framing is important, but how do we apply it to writing persuasive copy? The answer was found in an experiment. As Cialdini wrote;
“They began the interaction with a pre-suasive opener: “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” Following brief reflection, nearly everyone answered yes. In that privileged moment—after subjects had confirmed privately and affirmed publicly their helpful natures—the researchers pounced, requesting help with their survey. Now 77.3 percent volunteered.
By asking a question that frames their attention, you can attract their interest. For example, if you’re writing copy about a sports car, you could include the question, “Do you consider yourself an adventurous person?”
Questions that appeal to someone’s sense of identity are so effective because everyone has a strong self-interest.
“Galileo may have removed the Earth from the center of the universe, but every person on this planet is still at the center of his or her own universe,” said Nicholas Epley.
We love thinking about ourselves. In fact, Harvard neuroscientists Jason Mitchell and Diana Tamir confirmed it. They found that disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding.
Yet this is not a new insight. Epictetus knew it 2000 years ago, “Every living creature is attached to nothing so strongly as it is to its own interest.”
How do you apply this insight? Firstly, by using the words you, your and you’re. Literally, focus your writing on your reader. Make your writing about them.
Secondly, recognise how your reader is distinct. Why? We define ourselves not by how we are the same as others, but how they are different. Highlight the differences of your audience. For example, if you’re reading this you’re self-motivated, interested in business, and actually are doing something to pursue that passion. Despite how normal that feels to you, it’s exceedingly rare.
Thirdly, make sure not to alienate your reader. Don’t make ‘inside’ jokes that only three people will get. Don’t use jargon they don’t know. Don’t threaten their identity.
When you’re looking to persuade, you are never writing for yourself.
Now you’re aware of the persuasion principles, you can use your understanding to make your copy more persuasive. Do that and you will increase your sales and grow your business. Remember, persuasion is power. Yet knowledge of persuasion is not enough, you must apply your knowledge. You must embed these principles in your copy.