Persuade from the heart

If writing to persuade people were all that easy, I would have millions of subscribers and way more clients. And I would write notes to remind my teens to clean up after themselves.

But persuasion takes time and motivation.

Like you, I need to build awareness and credibility and convince readers that I can solve their problem or fill another need or desire. I have to answer the readers’ question: what’s in it for me?

Personal benefits
With people reading my blog, the benefit means providing advice that will make their writing easier and more effective. With my teens, it usually involves money or favors.

Whether you’re selling a product, pestering teens or pursuing a more subtle goal like building respect for your expertise, you need to focus on benefits. That means whatever you’re writing, from post to presentation, has to be more about the reader or audience and less about you and your product, service or expertise.

Emotions
You have to back up the benefits through emotions and logic. The balance will depend on the people you’re appealing to and the specifics of your objective.

For example, if you’re trying to sell safety devices to parents, you will stress emotion; if you want to impress geeks with your knowledge, you will emphasize logic. However, even if you are taking a mostly logical approach, you need to touch some of the emotions that propel everyone.

Today, I’m going to focus on emotional side of persuasion. I’ll follow up with the logical side next week.

Fear, frustration, pain
In order to understand what motivates people, you need to drill down to the emotions that drive them. Fear, frustration and pain are the big ones. The desire to escape the clutches of negative emotions like these is what compels people to think or act in a certain way. Maybe your readers are worried about losing their jobs, exasperated with an ill-informed call center rep or just want that damn headache to stop.

Unless you’re writing for a very targeted audience, you may need to tap into more than one emotion. So think carefully about your readers, then pick the most important ones. With business communication, the emotions may be more subtle, such as looking well-informed to their colleagues after reading your white paper.

To be credible, you need to demonstrate that you understand how your readers feel. So select feelings you share. Use an anecdote to explain. For example, a CEO can talk about learning the basics of customer service when he was a teenager working in fast food.

Stories
Anecdotes are one of the best ways to appeal to emotions. In addition to revealing feelings you share with others, you can tell true stories that reinforce your benefits. For example, you can talk about the customer who stopped biting her nails from stress because of how your software simplified her work. Or you can go on about the children you met who will eat because of their donation.

Unless you are a very gifted storyteller, you need to keep the anecdote short and to the point, including only enough physical detail to paint a picture and add credibility. No one likes people who tell stories that are too long, in conversation and especially in writing.

To keep it short, focus on the conflict and resolution parts of the story structure. Don’t spend any more time than is absolutely required to provide setting or develop character. You’re not writing the great American novel. Just a quick anecdote that supports your credibility or benefits.

If it’s a really good story, use it both in your opening and closing. In addition to doubling the emotional wallop, this technique can help link problem-solution-you in the reader’s mind.

As you revise, try to imagine you’re the reader. Does the anecdote move you? If not, rewrite until it does.

As you can see from this blog, I don’t believe in including graphics simply to make things prettier. But if you are writing for emotion, the right graphic works well.

A good example is the post from Darren Rowse that started with an anecdote about his youngest son learning to walk. This tied into his point about bloggers needing to start slowly. The photo of his two sons melted my heart.

One last piece of advice: Remember that a little emotion can go a long way. There’s a fine line between schlock and warm and fuzzy. Choose your stories and details carefully.

One last benefit: Keep coming back and tell your friends so I can afford to write notes promising to pay my teens for picking up. (I’d include a cute photo, but they’d be embarrassed.) Also, so writing can become easier and more effective for you.

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How to explain almost anything to almost anyone

Practical writing is often intended to provide information, instructions or advice. Whether you’re writing a report on your department’s sales, an instruction manual or a post on search engine optimization, you need to decide on the best framework before you begin.

This framework, which you’ll probably outline in the first paragraph, will kick start your writing. It will also make it easier for your readers or audience to understand and remember.

Although there is an infinite number of possible structures, here are some of the main ones to consider. The point is to have a framework.

Provide information
*by region
*by product or service
*from top to bottom or bottom to top
*under a memorable acronym, e.g. a CRAP month for sales (Cautious and Reactionary, Abysmal but Promising)

You can help your readers scan through your document, with subheads, bullet points and numbered points that reflect your framework.

You can reinforce these points visually through charts, graphics or photos.

You can provide context by
*comparing the new to the known
*explaining how the pieces fit into the puzzle
*emphasizing what the information means to or how it benefits your readers or audience

Instruct
If your objective is to explain how to do something, as in manuals, recipes or processes
*Start with anything the reader needs to do in advance. For example, recipes list the ingredients and the oven preheat temperature first.
*Use numbered steps dished out in chronological order.
*Explain each step separately, clearly explaining and deleting any unnecessary or unhelpful wording, but repeating any vital points as needed.
*Add simple illustrations to help readers identify parts or check that they are correctly following your instructions.
*Remember that your readers will likely refer back to the instructions. So make them easy to review, with subheads, diagrams, indexes or helpful reminders.

Advise
For tips on how to succeed at almost anything, where priorities are more important than steps in a process
*Use numbered points, but limits them to no more than five points; three are even easier to understand and remember.
*Lead with your most important point and conclude with the second most important point.

Although a popular blogging technique, this approach has been around for a long time. Who hasn’t been intrigued by those covers of Cosmopolitan magazine promising 5 Ways to Tell if Your Man is Cheating?

Long numbered lists work for instructions because readers continue to refer back to them as they assemble their furniture or set up their computer. With advice, they think about what they remember, not the whole list, so keep your advice short and focused. If you have lots of points to cover, consider breaking them into separate posts.

People reading yet another post called 10 Tips for Blogging Success will likely recall only the one or two tips most relevant to them. The same goes for the people who read your emails, reports and proposals. So make it easy for them to understand and remember.

Five tips for coming up with ideas

I’m one of those lucky bloggers who always has more ideas than time. But from what I read, it’s obvious some people aren’t so fortunate.

Let me share my five top tips:
1. Express your opinions about what you read, hear and observe
2. Recycle current content
3. Update older content
4. Respond to observations and questions you receive in your comments and other forums
5. Draw inspiration from your work and personal life.

Express your opinion about what you read, hear and observe
I’m assuming you try to stay up to date on your area of expertise. I’m also assuming you have opinions. Of course, you’re not always at the computer when they strike, so carry around a notebook or someplace else to jot them down.

If you’re one of those people who does not have strong opinions or the confidence to share them, maybe blogging isn’t for you. You can’t be shy.

Recycle your current content
I also write a regular email newsletter, so I go back and forth, revising the content to better reflect what works best in each medium and the different target readers.

If you’re producing content in another format, whether it’s updates to your website or tweets, consider how you can recycle it.

Update older content
I’ve written on related topics for a number of publications and clients. If I need to do a quick post and I’m stuck, I review past material and update it, to reflect developments, as well as the needs of this medium and its audiences. I also find that after I’ve had some distance from some content, I can always think of ways to improve it.

So dust off that old filing cabinet or external drive and see what’s in there. You may rediscover all sorts of magic content in your vault.

Respond to others
This post was inspired by a blogger who quoted me on the importance of quality over quantity. The writer also expressed frustration with the need to keep coming up with ideas, a concern I have heard again and again.

Many of my recent and upcoming posts respond to feedback I received on What’s your biggest writing challenge?, in the comments as well as LinkedIn discussions, email and personal conversations.

What better way to start a conversation than to ask and answer questions.

Draw inspiration from your work and personal life
I often share what I have learned from working on a project. It’s very satisfying.

I also post about words that annoy me, making a mental or written note when I come across them, then drafting the post when I’m in one of those moods when venting is fun.

I will reference my personal life when it backs up the point I’m trying to make. But seeing as this isn’t a personal confessional blog, I spare you from reading about my future singing star daughter, what my son found on Youtube today, why my almost-blind father feels he’s safe to cycle, the cute way my dog is looking at me, which friend is going gray fastest, today’s garden delight, the mysterious squeak in my car… Enough? I thought so.

My point? If it’s something people who read my blog are interested in, then it’s an idea I can use.

I realize I’m not the only idea machine. So please share what works for you.

Write to bite

Sound bites have long been a staple of news coverage. Politicians know that a quick and catchy phrase can deliver a prime spot on the TV news or YouTube. As great leaders have discovered, the best sound bites live on in our memories and lexicon. Sometimes they even change the world.

Bloggers, tweeters and almost anyone who writes should go for word bites, to enliven their content and make it memorable.

Before you can create a word bite you need to clearly and concisely identify what you want people to understand and remember. Then brain storm, applying these time-tested techniques.

Repetition, with a twist
Constantly hammering the same words is annoying, though sometimes effective. But add a twist and you can write with bite. Remember these examples?
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
I have a dream.
I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.

Similes and metaphors
All that glitters is not gold
Living next to you (the United States) is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant.

Compare and contrast
One step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

The paradox
What is the sound of one hand clapping?

So the next time you have an important point to make, ask yourself: What do I want people to remember? How can I make it more memorable and inspiring?

You may not end up on the evening news, let alone the history books. But if you create effective word bites, your message will live on in your audience’s minds. And maybe accomplish even more.

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?

Words that annoyed me this week

This post has been revised and moved to http://www.stickycommunication.ca/2010/09/words-that-must-die/