Writers On Writing / Tony Spencer-Smith Talks Persuasive Writing

Words have a wonderful power to influence others – if we know how to use them By Tony Spencer-Smith A great deal of what we write is intended to persuade people to think or act as we want them to. And yet we seem to have lost the plot a bit when it comes to […]

Words have a wonderful power to influence others – if we know how to use them

By Tony Spencer-Smith

A great deal of what we write is intended to persuade people to think or act as we want them to. And yet we seem to have lost the plot a bit when it comes to the art of persuasion.

For most of Western history, from the time of the ancient Greeks, the study of rhetoric – the art of using language effectively and persuasively ­– was a centrepiece of education. Nowadays it is hard to find.

As Jay Heinrichs writes in his book Winning Arguments: from Aristotle to Obama – everything you need to know about the art of persuasion: “What a thing to lose. Imagine stumbling upon Newton’s law of gravity and meeting face-to-face with the forces that drive the universe.”

So little do we know now about rhetoric that it is almost always used in the phrase “empty rhetoric.” It is seen as mere sound and fury, disguising a lack of good ideas, or worse still, an attempt to bamboozle us into acting wrongly.

Yet rhetoric, in the hands of someone with important things to say, is a marvellous tool.

Coping with a sceptical audience

Often, our readers are less than eager to be persuaded by us. If they were, they wouldn’t take much persuading.

There are all sorts of reasons they might be resistant to your messages; perhaps they feel manipulated, don’t see why they should listen to you, or just don’t want to believe what you are telling them.

The success of a message is as dependent on the way it is presented as on the content. This fundamental rhetorical truth is nowadays being confirmed by intriguing neurological research.

In 2004, researchers at Emory University in the United States had the remarkable experience of actually seeing something called the confirmation bias at work in their subjects’ brains.

The confirmation bias is the tendency for people who have made up their mind about something to ignore evidence to the contrary – or even to perform the spectacular mental feat of twisting that evidence so it seems to support their own beliefs.

The researchers used brain scans on 15 strong Republican and 15 strong Democratic supporters during the 2004 presidential campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Each was presented with blatantly self-contradictory statements by the candidates they supported.

The researchers watched intrigued as they saw the reasoning parts of their brains staying inactive while emotional circuits lit up and pushed aside the contradictions, leaving the subjects even more committed to their chosen parties!

In his book The Secret Language of Leadership, Stephen Denning, a world authority on the persuasive power of storytelling, underlines the serious implications of the confirmation bias for leaders who try to change a cynical audience by simply wading in with reasons as to why they should change.

He writes: “If a leader offers reasons at the outset of a communication to such an audience, the maneuver will likely activate the confirmation bias and the reasons for change will be reinterpreted as reasons not to change. This occurs without the thinking part of the brain being activated …”

There’s a huge lesson there for communicators: regaling people with convincing facts when they are not ready for them can be seriously counterproductive.

You need to win people’s minds

This doesn’t mean that building a strong rational argument is not an important component of effective communication. You need to prove your point.

It is no good expecting people to take what you say at face value. You need to provide facts, figures and examples, and these need to be presented in a logically convincing manner. Using detail deftly and structuring your material effectively is a vital part of persuasion.

But few of us are truly convinced by logical argument alone. And even fewer will be moved by facts alone to go out and act on their convictions. Most of us need appeals to our emotions as well.

I’m not saying that emotional appeals have to be illogical. They do not have to override reason, but can work with it to get action.

You must win their hearts before they will listen to you

So to win people’s hearts, to make that vital connection with them that will get them listening to you, you need to make use of a rich range of techniques, from rhetorical and literary devices to storytelling.

By being aware of the sound and rhythm of the words we use, by tapping into the power of narrative, and by using devices like antithesis, we greatly increase our chances of influencing our readers.

For instance, we can use metaphor, simile and analogy; these are all related literary devices – they involve comparing one thing with another.

They have enormous power to bring ideas to life for readers, to turn the dry and complex into vivid and motivating images. While in his prime, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali used simile very effectively to praise his own prowess: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” That wonderful use of language lives on as much as the memory of his boxing feats.

Truly persuasive writing is a potent blend of intellectual and emotive appeal.

Tony Spencer-Smith is presenting his advanced writing course The Secrets of Persuasive Writing at the NSW Writers’ Centre on Saturday 20 October 2012.  He is a corporate writer and writing trainer based in Sydney. His editorial consultancy Express Editors works with blue-chip corporations and government and not-for-profit organisations. His bookThe Essentials of Great Writing was published in Sydney in 2009. Tony is also an award-winning novelist and has been Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest magazine as well as a senior newspaper journalist. 

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