Want to write more persuasively? Avoid these 4 common mistakes.
Elon Musk, Ronald Reagan, and Oprah Winfrey—what do these individuals have in common? They are all masters of persuasion.
Persuasion is an instrumental life skill. We use it every day, whether we are debating a hot-button issue in school, pleading with our three-year-old to put her shoes on, or writing a political treatise.
But using the written word to persuade others requires a unique skill set, one that many people feel ill prepared to wield. No matter your goal, avoiding these common mistakes in your persuasive writing can help you take your influence to the next level:
1. Back-loading your argument
Think about a piece of writing that convinced you of something. Maybe it was your college’s admissions brochure, or the product specifications for a new laptop. What information was listed first?
Great persuasive writing provides its audience with context clues about which details are most important—in other words, it provides its argument in an ordered, logical way. For example, the college might lead with statistics about its world-class facilities, while the laptop manufacturer might emphasize the strength of its new battery.
You can improve the clarity and impact of your own writing by opening with your strongest argument. For example, placing a subjective argument before your fact-based claims can lead your audience to assume your arguments are based on emotion, rather than fact. This can be highly inefficient in many realms, including the workplace. Take time to weigh the relative importance of each claim you make, and then structure your writing accordingly.
2. Relying on faulty logic
There are more than a dozen logical fallacies, such as the Straw Man Argument, which build an argment in a way that doesn't actually add up if you examine it more closely. Occasionally, we may use them in our writing without realizing it, or we may use them to purposely manipulate arguments and mislead our audience. Take election season—during this period, television is rife with political ads that resort to personal attacks on an opponent in an ad hominem deflection. You might also remember one of the most famous examples of a logical tangent: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
The goal of a persuasive writer should be to guide his or her audience toward a common realization through the use of credible, logically sound arguments. Fallacies are a crutch, and they diminish your credibility and integrity as an author.
3. Writing without your audience in mind
Before you type your first word, consider who your audience is. What do they know about the issue at hand? What do they believe, and how can you reinforce or change that perspective? Understanding your audience is key to a well-balanced argument—and, more generally, to successful persuasive writing.
Your audience also affects the tone of your piece. If you’re writing an editorial for a campus newspaper, you will likely level with your audience—college students—in a way that you would not if you were writing for a corporate law magazine. For example, writing about a “justifiable” retaliation against massive student loans and a “justifiable” cause of action in the legal realm requires a different approach based on your audience’s level of education and legal experience. Just as you would review a source for a research project or workplace presentation, review your audience when crafting your draft.
4. Underemphasizing logos
At its finest, persuasive writing balances ethos (or appeals to authority), logos (appeals to logic), and pathos (appeals to emotion). And yet at times persuasive writing focuses on ethos and pathos to the detriment of logos.
Ethos and pathos are not without their uses—they allow the writer to fully engage his or her audience. Memorable writing contains anecdotes that can play to the audience’s emotions and sense of trust. An advertisement for an animal shelter, for example, appeals to your sense of sympathy and your trust that shelters will treat animals humanely.
While ethos and pathos can maintain the audience’s interest and trust, too much of these elements can make your writing memorable for the wrong reasons. For instance, if you were writing a proposal for a salary increase, an appeal to emotion (ex: "I'm trying to save up for my kids to attend college") alone would likely be unsuccessful. It might also make you seem unprepared or immature. Now, rely on logic like "Since Bob quit, I've taken on new responsibilities in the office and should be compensated for the extra work I'm doing," and you'll have a much better chance at that income bump.
Logos should be the meat of most persuasive arguments. Truly persuasive writing addresses conflicting viewpoints. It also provides evidence to support your belief that your claim is the best claim.
A talented writer can skillfully interweave elements of emotion and authority with arguments that are based in sound logic. Persuasive writing feels natural and effortless—not like a chore to read. By being attentive to the structure of your essay and the strength of your claims, you can capture your audience and convey your message in a meaningful way.
Sydney Miller is an Online Marketing Coordinator for Varsity Tutors, the leading curated marketplace for private tutors. The company also builds mobile learning apps, online tutoring environments, and other tutoring and test prep-focused technologies.
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