I’m a terrible writer and so can you.
[this piece previously appeared on Medium with the title above]
Our business writing is often so bad because we try to entertain rather than persuade. Too often we use fiction writing techniques when we want to convey facts and insights. If you’re writing for business, you want your readers to believe you more than like you. To do that you must get to the point and persuade them.
This piece will lay out thirteen tips that will help you persuade, convince and close business.
1. Before we write we must choose what to write about.
Pick a topic that makes you feel something: joy, pain, anger, hope, something direct and immediate. Topics that make you feel are much more likely to persuade your reader. Fear, disgust, disdain, admiration, aspiration, love. That’s a continuum of strong feelings. There are probably a thousand feelings in between those six you can choose from, but you need only avoid these: indifference, disinterest, malaise. If you yourself feel a charge when writing about it, you are halfway to engaging and influencing your reader with feeling as well.
2. Use your audience’s words not yours.
You might be comfortable talking with this audience, they may be your customers or employees, but the words in your head are different from those that come out in natural conversation. The old advice of “write for yourself?” It doesn’t work. Write for the reader in the words they expect to hear. A four or five-minute blog post isn’t going to change much of how they think or act, so don’t try to convince them to use new words or concepts when you’re trying to convince them of something much more important.
3. Create Curiosity.
Your first words should evoke a desire to inquire because the first judgment people make is whether or not they even want to read your writing. This goes for email subject lines, blog post headlines and titles for talks and webinars. Something provocative that makes a reader wonder why you said it, how you came to the conclusion or what details are hidden below are all good ways to go. My advice is to go back a week and look for the things you forwarded by email to a colleague or that you chose to share on social media. You’ll find lots of good examples there because they made you curious.
4. Persuasive writing comes from pacing, mimicry and suggestion.
You have a better chance of telling people what to think if you first acknowledge that we all think to ourselves while we read.
Now, I bet you think this can’t be possible. And you’re probably thinking there’s no way to really do this with simple language. Ok. I’ll hear you out. But one thing first. Stop here for a second. . . . Now go back a few lines. How did I do? Are you having thoughts other than those contained in these words? Have I shifted your thinking on how good writing works? Could you do that or better? I bet you can.
Here’s a few more lucky tips.
5. My only grammar rule: Sentences won’t be written passively by you.
Passive sentences provide information without action; they lack intent or consequence. Direct sentences do all that at once while creating focus for the reader. Reading “the cake was eaten by my friend” is like reading a coroner’s report from the bakery. “My friend ate the cake,” has action and consequence and puts the reader at the beginning of the tale, not in the juror’s box getting it all second hand. Direct sentences are just easier to read and understand; why make your reader work harder than necessary.
6. Skip the jargon and junk words.
You know jargon when you see it. It’s chrome-plated plastic. It’s faux-leather, faux-fur furniture. It’s something trying to be more than it is or ever will be. Drop the Jargon. And while you’re at it, take out the junk. Take out any word that can’t pass the pen-cap test — hold your pen cap over it and re-read the sentence. Still make sense? Cut the junk word. Readers only remember a tiny bit of what you write. They won’t understand the jargon or remember the adjectives or be persuaded by the adverbs. Just junk ‘em.
7. Remember Occam’s Razor – the simplest solution is the best.
Writing that is too long or too full of unneeded words, is too dense to be persuasive. Readers read brevity as intelligence and if you’re lucky, as wit. More words won’t make your writing more important. And in fact, it makes it less persuasive.
8. KISS Vocabulary.
Using a simple vocabulary, one rung below an eighth-grade reading level is ideal. Make it easy. Easy reading is easier to remember and will more easily persuade. Remember you want your reader to get to the end and get the point.
Now, it’s time to taste my own medicine.
Here’s a screencap from the drafting process of this article. I used Readable.com to test the grade level and get other tips about long sentences, overuse of adverbs and such.
That draft scored just over an eighth-grade level. Some long sentences. A hard word that’s also an adverb. I revised all of it. No one said persuasive writing was simple to create; just that simple writing persuades better. Simple language is simply better. It’s a better way to write; it’s a better way to talk; it’s a better way to communicate. Period.
9. One fun thing about simple writing is rhythm.
Big words, adverbs and long sentences get in the way of keeping the beat. And short words are your words, so your writing becomes your rhythm. I like that sound. I like that rhythm. Do I like how I write when I write with rhythm? You bet.
10. Words make pictures in your mind.
Trial lawyers use visual language to convince a jury by putting them in the scene. You describe how it feels, sure, but it also helps if you can add a few other senses – have them smell something, taste something, hear something. Put your words in your reader’s head and help them see your point.
11. Court danger, but don’t put your reader at risk.
As I’ve said, readers live, think and feel through your words on the page. If you take risks as a writer you will be rewarded. Take on a powerful company, person or idea and relish the reaction: “He can’t say that!” “She should be careful!” You can create these powerful thoughts and feelings, wake up your reader and get them to pay attention. But the key is to choose your side wisely; you want a rivalry, not a revolt.
12. Write regularly.
Kurt Vonnegut famously said that writing was easy and anyone could do it. “It’s a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump,” he thought. I think of it this way. Writing is like running. Do a little every day; build your endurance. Slack off for a couple weeks and a mile feels like a marathon. People who want something practice. So if you want to be a better writer….
13. Close clever.
This article has looked at a dozen ways to produce persuasive business writing. Twelve techniques with a single point: persuade. We persuade when we make people feel something they hadn’t felt the minute before they started reading our writing.
Think back. How did you feel when reading the original title of this piece? “I”m a Terrible Writer And So Can You.”
The first words you read confessed that I was a terrible writer. And the writing itself was awkward. But did you dismiss my advice and move on? No. More likely, it opened your mind to reading what could have been a boring “how-to” article on writing. You might even have been amused, or felt accepted or recognized. All because the writer admitted his weakness up front and made you feel something.
You see, persuasive writing is feeling. And it can be any direct or immediate feeling that the words create in the reader because those feelings created by those words are “getting through to you.”
Makes sense, huh? Make people feel and you’re halfway to making them believe you, trust you, follow you. Only then you can help them make a change that is critical to their success.
Writing that doesn’t make your reader feel is just terrible. And that’s a clever close.