5 Steps to Writing Persuasive Content

Updated: Mar 27

I have been through those moments when my mind was bubbling with ideas that I couldn’t wait to write about. However, the moment my fingers touched the keyboard, I would stare at the computer screen for a while figuring out how to connect and express abstract facts into a meaningful picture to my readers. After writing countless contents, I learned a 5-step strategy that guided me to write impactful web content, speeches, policy briefings, newspaper articles, and so forth. Understanding this strategy is pivotal to equip anyone who wants to be persuasive and inspire action through writing.

1. Understand Your Audience

Before you write, ask yourself; who are my audience? This is the most important block of your content structure since it determines the kind of language, tone, and context with which you will communicate your message. Putting your audience in mind helps you focus on what is most important to include in your content while leaving out non-essentials which would make your piece appear scattered and inconsistent. 

One of the best ways to identify and understand your audience, is to categorize it as a person, that is, looking at it in terms of age group, cultural setting, professional background, and where necessary, nationality. Understanding your audience through these lenses will help you determine how you would structure your content, as well as construct your ideas in a language and tone that they will easily understand, relate, and take action.

How you communicate with a policymaker for example, will not be the same as you would with your professor. The latter would certainly be able to follow your train of thought through theories and hypotheses as you build your argument to drive your point home. Conversely, your briefing or any other relevant content to the policymaker who might have only a minute or two to read your document, must bear a structure that reflects your main point is upfront. The New York bestseller authors Chip and Dan Heath refer to this technique as “BLUF'' (bottom-line-up-front). If you want to become an effective writer, avoid the "one-size-fits-all" approach because engaging with different types of audiences requires different styles of writing.

2. Envision Your Impact

Write with a purpose. Envisioning your impact is the “why” of your writing. It is the stage where you define the outcomes that your content will achieve on your readers. Remember some of the books or articles that altered the course of your life for the good? 

Imagine my fictitious character Happy. She woke up one Monday morning feeling pumped up. She put on her sports gear and got out in the fog and started jogging. Her husband asked what was the source of her drastic change. “Well last night,” she replied with a broad grin, “I read an article titled The Benefits of Exercising, the facts in it are mind-blowing!” The article informed and moved Happy to build a habit of healthy living.

This is what persuasive writing is about. The article did not “shoot words” in the dark. Every word and phrase was used to inform and inspire people like Happy to build healthy habits and become productive.

Persuasive writing is intentional and goal-oriented. This does not imply that we inflate facts to mislead our audience. It’s about being strategic. A persuasive writer is purpose-driven, aiming at writing content that transforms and moves readers to take the intended action. Think of writing outcomes like the moment you go grocery shopping. You want to buy groceries, and you have a goal to stay within a $50 budget. The moment you step into the store, you will not pick items at random, you will only buy what you need to stay within $50. Likewise, when you define your writing outcomes, you will choose words and expressions that build towards impacting your readers with desirable outcomes.

For instance, you apply for a business loan, and your bank asks you to furnish them with a business proposal as one of the requirements. Writing a proposal just for the sake of checking the requirement boxes will not be good enough for the bank to give you a loan. Therefore, when writing, your outcome must focus on getting a loan, and not presenting a proposal. The latter serves just as a means to an end. Once you determine your outcome, go back to the beginning to create it. 

3. Keep It Simple

In persuasive writing, less is more. We have been conditioned to think that we would come across as more appealing and strong if we populate our content with large word count and jargon. The truth is, your message can be louder with fewer words. In the era of massive consumption of digital content, particularly from social media, your audience’s attention is becoming rarer and harder to obtain and retain. 

Recent scientific evidence from Microsoft Corp. shows that an average person has an attention span of eight seconds. This means when the bank manager, for instance, reads with your business proposal, you have eight seconds to impress him/her before they lose interest and move on to the next thing. Organize your thoughts simply and concisely to keep your audience captivated and engaged. To this end, clarity and brevity are crucial to making your content persuasive and impactful.

We use writing as one of the means to communicate our ideas. Social media has made it possible to express our thoughts to as little as 280 characters. How would you engage with an audience that consumes 6000 tweets per second? Brevity is key. It is the art of using your words sparingly. Say more for less. For example, replace words like "very bad" with "worse". Capturing your readers' attention is not about congesting words and paragraphs, it is about being understood within the shortest time possible. The crispy your content is, the better. 

Having envisioned your impact, deliver it with clarity. In persuasive writing, readers are not your cryptography students. Position your main point on plain sight. Utilize the eight seconds window that you get on your reader's time efficiently. You have five seconds to capture their attention, and three to retain them to read the whole content. One of the best ways to do it is by using active voice rather than the passive one. Consider the following sentences:

"It is better to exercise every day".

 “Exercise every day". 

Each sentence will have different outcomes, although they both bear the same meaning. The latter is a call to action with an element of urgency, while the former leaves the reader with the "okay, so what" question.

4. Sell Ideas, Not Words

There is more to persuasive writing than presenting interesting facts to your readers. It is about selling ideas. It is easy to write: exercise at least three times a week. 

However, to convince your readers to take action, you need to show them evidence why it is good to exercise, and how it will benefit them. 

Consider readers like Happy in the previous example, who embarked on a morning workout habit based on the article she read. Perhaps Happy was persuaded by lines like this: 

"According to XYZ findings in 2019, people who work out at least three days a week are more likely to be twice as effective as those who don't."

The article didn't just encourage Happy to exercise but also gives assurance that she will benefit because it worked on other people like her. 

Persuasive writing must be credible. Since our decisions are a sum of the ideas we consume, we must substantiate our content with evidence if we plan to impact our readers. Taking action on your content may cost your audience financially, physically, or emotionally. 

Can you imagine your Board Chairperson approving a $7 million budget on new product development based on your hunch? Questions would probably linger on your decision-makers’ minds: how are you sure that this idea will work? Have you done any research?

Can we first have a prototype before investing $7 million? 

If you want to inspire your readers, do your homework. Validate your facts with the available authority on the subject matter. This could be the previous study, your first-hand experience from the products you developed, or the people you served.

5. Tell a Story

I spent twelve years of my career in the banking and mining sectors before I switched to public policy. I went back to school. In my early days in the Foreign Policy Analysis class, I came across something like this: 

"The possible outcomes (of different players' actions in the policy process) shall be X = {fx1; x2; x3; x4; x5; x6}"

If asked today about how to analyze foreign policy, the above function will be far from my mind as the heavens are far from the earth. The closest thing to my memory is a story about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our instructor dedicated a full session to take us back in the 1960s when the United States and the Soviet Union were inching closer towards a nuclear confrontation. It was like watching foreign policy in a movie theatre, not in the sense of entertainment, but being able to relate with it mentally and emotionally.

This does not imply that we should ignore methodologies like quantitative analysis of data. On the contrary, they establish proof and credibility of our ideas. However, think of your readers as customers who have a one-hour lunch break. When they come to your restaurant, all the time they have is to be served delicious and healthy food on the table, not listening to a cooking session.

The point of having a story is to help your readers conceptualize your ideas and assimilate them into their environment. For instance, your readers are more likely to understand that: "Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, large enough that more than1300 Earths can fit in it." However, if I write: "Jupiter has a diameter of 88,846 miles (142,984 kilometers)", my reader may not fully comprehend the massive size of Jupiter unless he is very familiar with mathematical dimensions.

What comes to mind when you hear: "I met a Good Samaritan"? An act of kindness from a random stranger. Jesus was teaching about loving your neighbor as yourself, then he was asked a question: "who is my neighbor?". He responded with a story. A Samaritan helped a Jew that was robbed and left for dead by bandits. At that time, Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies, no wonder we got the term Good Samaritan. Nail it with a story. It can be as short as one sentence.


© 2020 Mhando Mbughuni