Persuasion is not simple, and we should be grateful that it is not. Can you imagine a world in which someone had so mastered persuasive techniques that he or she could talk anybody into anything? Fortunately, most people resist persuasive messages most of the time. Also fortunately, each persuasive message must compete with a number of other messages for alternative products, services, and ideas. For this reason, persuasive messages work best when they meet the preexisting needs of the audience.
In terms of structure and content, a message is considered persuasive when its primary objective is to sell a product, service, idea, or course of action when that reader may ignore or resist the message. All persuasion involves a shift in the receivers perceptual frame. Successful persuasion convinces the reader to view the product, service, or idea in a new way and to act on that new perspective. Before you can ask your reader to take a particular action, you must convince him or her that your message has something worthwhile to offera benefitand that what you say is true. Furthermore, you must achieve these objectives in spite of the fact that your reader may suspect that all persuasive messagesyours includedare untruthful to some degree.
The most successful persuasive messages are those that offer the audience real benefits or other helpful information. The more the reader has to gain, the easier it is to prepare a persuasive message.
Your ability to persuade will depend heavily on whether the reader perceives you as authoritative and honest. Many TV ads use sports figures to advertise products in the hope that the figures success in sports will carry over and convince viewers that the person knows a lot about how to treat painful injuries or select comfortable underwear. There are four basic kinds of credibility:
Short-term credibility: You offer facts and figures to prove that you are an expert, and your evidence is sound (logical).
Carry-over credibility: You know a lot about one subject and have been honest about it, so you will probably be honest about a new subject, too.
Official credibility: Your particular position or office shows that you should be credible.
It is an unfortunate fact of modern life that people have become accustomed to being lied to. No groupincluding business leaders, politicians, military leaders, teachers, doctors, the press, scientists and even rabbis, ministers, and priestshas consistently demonstrated that it deserves to be afforded high credibility. The public lacks trust because members of these groups have provided false information in the past, covered up mistakes, and otherwise misled people who relied on them.
Because credibility is currently in such short supply, it may well be the single most important factor in persuasion, and the single most important factor in credibility is character. Fortunately, you have almost absolute control over your character: If you want to be believed, do not lie, withhold important information, or otherwise mislead those who look to you as an authoritative source of information.
First, be sure that you are authoritative. Your expertise, or knowledge of a particular subject, plays an important role in whether you are perceived as credible. Make sure that you know your subject, product, or service thoroughly, and admit it when you dont know something. No one expects even an expert to know everything. When you need additional time to answer a question, say so, and then follow through.
Second, you will also be perceived as more credible if you are friendly, warm, and open. Indeed, in the short term, the audiences perception of your credibility may hinge more on your attitude of friendliness and openness than it does on your actual record of expertise and honesty. Remember, however, that the opposite is true for long-term credibility. That will depend on a consistent record of honesty.
You cannot expect someone who has no interest in your subject to be persuaded by even a first-rate message. Direct-mail advertisingpersuasive messages sent to groups of people who theoretically have a lot in commontypically has a success rate of less than 10 percent; fewer than 10 out of every hundred people who read them have sufficient interest in the product or service to feel motivated to buy. Not all people find the same appeals equally persuasive. More so than other messages, a persuasive message prompts the reader to ask, How will this message benefit me? You will need to provide an answer to that question quickly, interestingly, and believably if you are going to overcome your readers natural resistance to being persuaded. Such resistance may be caused by one or more of the following factors:
Unless your readers have had a definite positive experience with the suggested behavior, they will be inclined to focus on the negative aspects and the associated costs. To overcome the readers tendency to accept the negative in the absence of a strong belief in the positive, you will need to appeal to the readers self-interests. You need to convince your reader that the action you are suggesting will prove desirable and will be more beneficial than the many other ways that the readers time or money could be spent.
Using negative appeals to persuade people to stop smoking, for example, has not been especially successful because people tend to think that the negative consequences of smoking will not apply to them, that they will be one of the exceptions, and that, even if the negative consequences do apply to them, it will be many years in the future before they will need to worry.
Another factor to consider in the persuasive process is the difference between your readers current situation, perspective, and beliefs and the situation, perspective, and beliefs you would like to persuade him or her to have. The greater that difference, the more difficult the persuasive task. The more expensive the product or service, the more deeply held the conviction, the more effort usually required to persuade the reader to act, whether that action is placing an order or adopting a new belief. Buying a house and buying a pack of gum are both purchasing decisions, but the energy required to make the one decision greatly outweighs that expended on the other.
These categories correspond roughly with Maslows hierarchy of needs and are also somewhat hierarchical. Abraham H. Maslow (Motivation and personality, 2d ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1970, pp. 35-58) hypothesized that human needs fall into five categories.
Maslows theory was that we satisfy the basic (lower-level) needs, for safety and security and social needs first, and then we turn our attention to satisfying the higher-level needs. Although recent studies have shown that Maslow was not entirely correct, the theory of a hierarchy of needs does help explain why people may or may not respond to a particular persuasive message. Because the basic needs contribute directly to survival, people desire to have them satisfied all the time.
If you can demonstrate that your product or service is able to satisfy a basic need, your message will appeal to a larger audience than it will if you are appealing to a higher-level need. Also, if you can show that you can satisfy several needs at the same time, your message will have a greater chance for success.
Appeals to health and wealth (when believable) will appeal to larger numbers of people more strongly than appeals to pleasure or curiosity. A number of recent polls have indicated, for example, that people are more willing to spend tax dollars on new prisons (an appeal to safetya negative appeal to both health and wealth) than they are on education (a positive appeal to pleasure and curiosity).
You must begin, however, by selecting your appeals from the standpoint of what the suggested behavior, idea, or product will do for someone rather than by examining the full range of human needs. Begin by asking yourself how the behavior, idea, product, or service will contribute to the readers health, wealth, pleasure, or curiosity. Your appeals may be either positive or negative.
Positive appeals focus on what the reader will gain by taking a particular action. Negative appeals focus on avoiding a loss. Positive and negative appeals correspond with the polarities of the direction metaprogram. For more information on the direction metaprogram, see the section on metaprograms in Relationships and Rapport.
|Positive||Acting will make your reader feel better or live longer.||Acting will help your reader earn or save money or time.||Acting will make the reader think better of him- or herself, or the reader will enjoy acting.||Acting will answer questions the reader would like answered.|
|Negative||Not acting will make your reader feel worse or die sooner.||Not acting will cost your reader time or money.||Not acting will deprive the reader of enjoyment or make the reader think worse of him- or herself.||Not acting will leave important questions unanswered.|
Appeals may also be either emotional or rational, depending on whether they appeal primarily to the readers emotions or reason. Emotional appeals rely on feelings and presuppositions rather than on logic, whereas rational appeals attempt to be objective in evaluating the evidence available. Emotional appeals may use emotionally charged labels; use explicit and implied analogies as proof; omit or distort logical, objective evidence; and use sensory-based vocabulary.
Rational:   Smoking in public should be illegal because nonsmokers are exposed to the unwanted effects of second-hand smoke.
Rational:   Just as your body requires a variety of vitamins and minerals for good health, your brain also requires a variety of nutrients. IQ-mite provides the essential nutrients for the health of your brain.
Rational:   An all-electric home gives you clean, efficient heating.
Rational:   Busy people are sometimes hard to reach. Code-a-phone can help make sure you receive your important calls, regardless of where you are when people call.
Emotional appeals tend to manipulate the readers feelings. In some cases, such manipulation may be unethical. In other cases, emotional appeals are the only appeal possible. Why eat at one restaurant rather than another? Chew one brand of gum rather than another? Attend one movie rather than another? People do many things for emotional satisfaction. People eat cheeseburgers and french fries because they like the taste and not because they have a logical reason for it.
Emotional appeals become manipulative when the decision is so important that it should receive careful, objective consideration (important health issues, major purchases, and other major life decisions). Regardless of whether a decision should have a logical foundation, however, emotion always plays a role in the decision-making process. People dont buy one house rather than another only because it seems a better investment. They also consider the feel of the house based on a variety of intangible, emotional factors.
For this reason, persuasive messages are typically most successful when they appeal to whatever logical, objective evidence is available and include appropriate emotional appeals. Regardless of the logic of your message, the final component in the decision-making process is always a feelingpeople act because doing so feels right.
Rapport is easier to achieve when you are sending a solicited persuasive message than when you are sending an unsolicited message. As with positive replies to requests, solicited sales letters may use answers to the readers questions to help establish rapport. Unsolicited sales letters need to capture the readers imagination by using an appeal designed for a particular audience (men, women, home owners, automobile owners, subscribers to a specific kind of magazine, and so on).
Because unsolicited sales letters are typically prepared as forms for mass mailings to large numbers of people, they typically use a headline and simulated inside address to catch the readers attention while maintaining a fairly traditional letter format.
Unsolicited sales letters also try to create visual interest by using color, changing the width of paragraphs, using numbered and unnumbered lists, and adding graphics to break up the text. Also, because people frequently quit reading at the end of the first page, unsolicited sales letters often include a lead to the second page to help encourage the reader to continue.
Unsolicited sales letters also typically include a postscript that provides the reader with an additional benefit or some kind of increased value for acting promptly. In business letters, postscripts have only two legitimate functions: The first is to add a personal note to a business letter. Such notes must, in fact, be personal, and they are often handwritten. Their second legitimate use is to add a benefit to an unsolicited sales letter. In other letters, a postscript suggests bad planning.
The persuasive process has often been viewed as a four-step process, known either as the Four Ps of Persuasion or AICA or AIDA.
Either of these ways of viewing the process of persuasion fits nicely with the standard structure for all effective communication: Pace, Lead, Blend Outcomes, and Motivate.
What exactly do you want your reader to do, think, or believe, and what is he or she currently doing, thinking, or believing? You can catch your readers attention and establish rapport by promising something your reader desires or wishes to avoid.
After catching the readers attention by promising a benefit (or the possibility of avoiding a loss), maintain his or her interest by creating a believable picturea mental imageof the reader enjoying the benefit or avoiding the loss.
In persuasive situations in particular, be aware that you have a vested interest in what the reader does. For this reason, be especially careful to recognize that the reader also has an interest in the outcome. As the one doing the persuadingas a salespersonone of your jobs is to help your reader make good decisions.
That requires that you honestly assess whether the decision that would be best for you is also the decision that would be best for your reader. Can your reader really afford the product or service you are selling? Is your product or service well-suited for meeting your readers needs?
In general, ethical answers to such questions will serve you in the long run. If decisions prove less than good for those doing business with you, they will experience what is commonly known as buyers remorse. Unhappy customers complain, may demand their money back, and they certainly will tell others.
The action you request, the push you give your reader, will depend on the kind of product, service, or idea you are selling. When your product, service, or idea requires a major change or commitment on the part of the other person, you will generally be more successful if you ask him or her to take small steps in the direction you want him or her to go rather than asking for a major commitment all at once.
Whatever action you are requesting, make the action clear and as easy as possible (include a form, reply card, or toll-free number), and encourage the reader to take some action quickly, even if only to request more information.
Presuppositions will work either for you or against you. There are no neutral presuppositions when it comes to motivating the reader to act. Use presuppositions to encourage your reader to act in the way you desire, but avoid presupposing that your reader has no other options because readers are well-aware that they do.
Not this:  Why not place your order today? [Presupposes that the reader might not want to order.]
Not this:  Because you cant afford to miss this opportunity, I am sending you an XYZ today. When the carrier arrives, simply give the driver your check for $129.95. Im sure youll agree that it was well worth it. [Presupposes that the reader has no choice but to purchase the product from you.]
Say this:  To order. . . . [Presupposes that the reader will order.]
Or this:   When you place your order by 1 September, you will also receive. . . . [Presupposes that the reader will order.]
Persuasion is always a matter of percentages. A letter that is technically perfect (in grammar and style) may fail to persuade, whereas a letter that is poor in many respects may succeed. The differences between successful and unsuccessful persuasive messages are not always obvious. Technical perfection, however is rarely a principal factor. What counts the most is the readers perception of how much he or she will benefit from acting as you suggest. In addition to writing the best letter you canto avoid losing those readers who expect technical perfectioncontrol your readers perception by image building.
Building the Image
Successful persuasive messages usually have a quality of life not found in routine positive or negative letters. This quality of life comes from the mental image the writer has of the objective of the message; the audience; the product, service, or idea; and the possible benefits. The clearer and more positive the writers mental image, the more persuasive the message will be.
Your first task as a persuasive writer is to create an image of the benefit that will be clear enough and dramatic enough to catch the readers attention. To do this successfully, you must pace the reader by beginning where he or she is. You cannot build an image for which a foundation does not already exist in the readers mind. In many ways, the persuasive message is a journey from a foundational image the reader already has to the image you wish to create. For your reader to see your finished image, you need to begin with the one the reader sees already and alter it in a step-by-step process until the new image is established. The following are typical beginning images:
Moving the Reader
As mentioned previously, not all people will respond to a given persuasive message. People who are afraid to fly, for example, will not only fail to respond to airline ads, but will actively avoid reading them. Persuasion begins with the right opening image for the selected audience.
Once you have used an appropriate attention-getting image for your audience, your next step is to begin leading the reader from the starting point to your goalthe image that will elicit the desired action. Introduce changes in your opening image carefully, and keep the reader in the picture as you build on the original image. The following techniques will help you keep your reader with you as you move from the opening to the final image.
Say this:   Flying gets you there faster. But more important than how fast you get there is how ready to work you are once you arrive. [The transition between sentences is a logical comparison.]
In Sample 27 the underlined words and phrases indicate the main appeal. The appeal to wealthsaving time and being more efficientis stressed throughout. Secondary appealsto the pleasure of flying in a private plane or owning a status symbolmight well be added to a full sales message, but the focus should remain on the single, primary appeal throughout the message.
As you move your reader from the original image to the final image, you are setting the stage for the action you desire. Your final image should lead naturally to the action you want your reader to take, but unless you provide a gentle push, the image you have so carefully crafted is likely to fade before the reader acts. The push, however, must be gentle. If your language is too strong, you will increase your readers natural resistance to action.
On the other hand, if your language is not strong enough, your reader will lose confidence and interest:
In general, the best requests for action tell the reader explicitly what to do and how to do it, make the action as easy as possible, provide a reason for acting promptly, and give the reader one last view of the benefit to be gained:
When your audiences belief system differs greatly from yours, you may have to begin by asking for a smaller action. Because a small commitment will often lead to a larger one, it may be better to ask for a series of smaller commitments than to ask for the final action you desire:
Because we all consider ourselves unique, we have a natural tendency to be skeptical of messages that do not seem to address the needs that are uniquely ours. One of the standard ways persuasive writers attempt to recognize individuality is by identifying the reader by group membership:
The problem with group identifications like these is that in todays society most of us do not identify strongly with the groups to which we belong. Homeowners, for example, do not all perceive their needs to be the same, and the same appeals would not work equally well with all of them. A message to homeowners in general may fail to acknowledge the uniqueness of the individual reader.
To make sure that each of your readers feels that you understand his or her situation sufficiently well to be able to help, address your readers one at a time. When possible, use a mail merge program and a database to create individual, personal letters. When the cost of that would be too high for your purposes, use a simulated inside address to help make the letter seem less like a form:
|Not this:||Dear Homeowner:
|Say this:||Because your home is
Important to you...
|Not this:||Dear Student:
|Say this:||As a student
You know how
Frustrating it is...
Naturally, your reader will still recognize your message as a form and will suspect that it may not apply to him or her. You can help overcome that resistance by designing your message for easy readability and by mentioning your main benefit early.
Special techniquessuch as color, narrow columns of type, paragraphs of varying widths and lengths, numbered and unnumbered lists, and graphic aidsmay help increase reader attention to your message.
The next section, Writing Persuasive Messages, shows you how to apply persuasive strategies to solving several common business problems calling for written solutions.