There are three levels of writing you could be doing at any given time: private writing, descriptive writing, and persuasive writing.
Private writing is what goes into your personal journal; it’s the ‘stream of consciousness’ you unload onto the page to explore your thoughts and feelings.
Private writing is raw and unformed, but that's OK – you probably don’t intend anyone else to see it. You could call this “Writing 1.0’”: writing only for yourself.
Descriptive writing and persuasive writing are both examples of writing for an audience, but they are different in important ways.
- Descriptive writing gives the facts and lets the audience form their own conclusions. Examples include report writing, essay writing and journalism that reports on the news of the day. Descriptive writing is “Writing 2.0” – writing for yourself, but also to inform an audience.
- Persuasive writing gives the facts as well as your opinion, and seeks to influence the audience’s views, actions or conclusions. Examples include business case writing, proposal writing, and editorials, where journalists or commentators express a view on an issue of social or political importance. Persuasive writing is “Writing 3.0” – writing for yourself, writing for an audience, and in the context of a broader commercial, social or political environment.
Emotional Intelligence author Travis Bradberry says “Persuasive people are able to communicate their ideas quickly and clearly. When you have a firm grasp on what you’re talking about, (and) can explain yourself effectively to someone who has no background on the subject, you can certainly make a persuasive case with someone who does.”
To be effective in persuasive writing – Writing 3.0 – you will need to evolve your skills beyond private writing and descriptive writing.
For example, the way that most of us were taught to write at school is the wrong way to write when it comes to writing a proposal.
In an essay, we are taught to introduce our topic, explore it in the body of the essay, and then deliver our conclusion.
Writing like this is a bit like burying your gold at the bottom of the garden. No one will know it’s there but you.
This is the total opposite of what you want in a proposal. There’s no point burying your best ideas on page 23 if the buyer has already lost interest by then.
In proposal writing, your conclusion needs to come at the start of your writing. Then, everything else you say provides evidence explaining why they should reach that same conclusion.
A study into consumer behaviour by Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of the bestselling book Influence and emeritus Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, reveals why this is so important.
Cialdini’s study examined scripts used by the American Cancer Society when soliciting donations door-to-door. He found that a tiny change in wording delivered dramatically better results.
Instead of simply saying:
“Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?”
Staff were asked to say:
“Would you be willing to help by giving a donation? Every penny will help.”
Prospective donors who were asked the second variation of this question were almost twice as willing to donate – 50% donated, compared with 28%.
The second question influenced donors to act, because it gave an important layer of context: that their donation was worthwhile and would make a difference. Interestingly, despite the use of the phrase “every penny will help”, the amount they gave was not any less than the first group either.
And that’s the key to persuasive writing. When we are writing to influence, we need to make the reader feel something, and then to act on that feeling.