Persuade the brain too

Although most advice on writing to persuade focuses on emotion, including my previous post, would-be persuaders also need to know how to wield logic. Especially if they need to overcome skepticism, as in homeopathic cures, or build trust, as in investment advisers.

So while the heart may be a key sticking point when it comes to persuasion, don’t forget to talk to the brain too. You can make your case in two ways:
1. cite specific cases that lead your reader to a general conclusion, e.g. 90 per cent of the 1,000 people who consumed less than 1,000 calories a day for a week lost more than five pounds
2. argue from a generally accepted statement to a specific conclusion. e.g. calorie restriction leads to weight loss, so I should eat less

The specific-to-general approach works only if skeptics can’t take serious issue with your conclusion. For example, if the dieters also worked out for an hour each day, you could not insist that the weight loss was caused mainly by the calorie limits.

So be careful that your evidence and conclusion can bear the weight of close scrutiny.

Even if your case is strong, you may be wise to also explain why. For example, with the weight loss argument you could simply explain how burning off more calories than you consume produces weight loss.

Here, you have to make sure your explanation is clear and accurate. A teeth whitening ad that’s been popping up all over my internet lately pretends to provide a scientific explanation, but the over-blown wording quickly told me it was bull. It talked about “powerful oxidizing solutions” that “penetrate the porosities in the rod-like crystal structure of enamel and oxidize interprismatic stain deposits.” Dentists, correct me if I’m wrong.

One of the reasons content marketing is overtaking the hard-sell tactics of the teeth-whitening ad and its ilk is the growing sophistication of consumers. We want not only examples of how your product, service or expertise has helped others, but we also want to understand why.

Products like the teeth whiteners, from an alleged mommy blogger, may sell well at first because ad saturation lets them find enough stupid or desperate people. But they don’t have the strong legs of products and services with claims can be backed and explained.

There may have been a fool born every minute in P.T. Barnum’s time. But with today’s sophisticated consumers and the ease of googling suspect claims and critical product blogs, people who are in business for the long run are best to assume that their readers are smart and skeptical.

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Blogs, emails etc: write for readers’ eyes

If you write emails, web content or anything else read on a computer screen, you need to make it look like fits into a big F .

Eye-tracking studies confirm that online readers follow an F pattern. They focus the most attention on the top horizontal line of the F, then scan down, eyes left.

The first 25 words
That means you need to summarize your main message and give your readers an important reason to continue reading — all in the first 25 words, across the top of the F.

Then you need to give them flush-left bullets, numbers, subheads, bolded words or other signposts that help them refocus.

At journalism school, they drilled into us the importance of packing who, what, when, where and why into the lead paragraph.

The hook
While the main purpose of the newspaper is to provide news, online writing often has a long or short-term marketing objective. What’s more, if it’s a blog of other social media, you want to invite conversation. So in addition to the who, what, when, where and why of journalism, those critical 25 words need to answer the question: What’s in it for me?

Because readers tear through online content much faster than newspapers, this 25-word hook has to be strong enough to encourage readers to continue and pay attention.

Email
If you’d like to learn more about how to work with online reading patterns in html email newsletters, check out my newsletter, Focus left for online readers.

Recently I’ve been receiving more marketing emails from people who cram long lengths of text into a narrow, flush-left column. Points for sticking to the left. But the trouble is they seem to forget that people just won’t keep scrolling down a long screen.

Again, newspaper publishers had it figured out, with the most important features placed on the top half of the page, above the crease, as they say.

To sum up, here are my three pieces of advice:
1. Pack your main message and benefit into the first 25 words
2. Guide scanners with numbers, subheads and other signposts.
3. Spare me the long text.

Any advice to add?

Online reading is rewiring our brains

It’s no secret that the web has changed the way we read.  Whether it’s a blog, email newsletter, web page or other type of online content, we quickly scan, then link to something else, consuming information at break-neck speed.

This has some people worried. According to an intriguing article I recently read Is Google making us stupid? our new reading behaviour is rewiring our brains, just as hand writing, clocks, assembly lines and other innovations have through history.

The author, Nicholas Carr, laments our declining ability to read long   tracts, grasp ambiguity and think deeply. Lighten up, Nicholas. Before  you rush to judgment, let’s wait for the scientific evidence. In the meantime, let’s consider how this growing reading behaviour may be enriching our minds.

Snack vs feast

Nicholas cites a study of the online reading habits of researchers who snacked on many tidbits of internet information rather than finishing the long feast of research papers. Yes, they were not plumbing the depths of the articles. But, assuming they expended an equivalent amount of energy online snacking and thinking, most were still nourishing their minds, just in a different way.

Of course, it’s up to the individual, perhaps with a prod from a teacher, boss or coach, to decide whether to connect those snacks through critical thinking. It’s also up to us to decide how we slice, splice and spice the snacks with knowledge we consume from books, television, personal conversations and other sources.

Exercise the brain

Like muscles, brains strengthen through exercise. The more the reader thinks about what she is reading, the more her brain will develop. Like exercise, more difficult or faster thinking should produce more growth.  What’s more, cross-training with different kinds of mental activities, from solving Sudoku puzzles to playing the violin, should build a better brain.

So let’s not be too quick to dismiss scanning and linking as part of a healthy brain workout.

Nicholas implies that the quick summaries we find on the Internet lack the depth of longer texts. But good online content succinctly captures the important points and perspectives. That makes it easier to link these golden nuggets to each other, to make sense or even gain insight from the rich range of sources the internet offers.

Well-written content summarized for online reading is not superficial. It spares readers from having to wade through unnecessarily long writing. It’s quite similar to the skill of newspaper writers and editors in summarizing the most important information in the first paragraph. Of the abstracts for academic papers. It’s not new.

Get to the point

The leap to scanning and linking has simply made clear, concise summaries more important than ever. People writing email newsletters, blogs, web sites or anything else that’s read on the screen need to make it easy to grasp the basic essence of their message. In this way, they also make it easier for  readers to mentally link their messages to the main ideas from other sources.

So yes, Nicholas, how we read is changing. But there’s no need to rush to judgment. The couch potatoes passively absorbing laugh-tracked sitcoms or cat photo web sites probably aren’t growing as many brain cells and synapses as the people who are learning Mandarin or analysing DNA sequences.

Get smarter

My answer to the question: Is Google making us stupid? is No.

Maybe Google may help us evolve into smarter beings, providing we don’t abandon other brain-stimulating activities.

In fact, I’ll bet neuroscientists will confirm that people who combine energetic snacking on internet tidbits and focused feasting on long, complex texts will develop bigger, better brains.

What do you think?