Persuasive writing skills are among the few things in life that can give you massive returns. If you want to know how you can become better at writing persuasively, keep reading.
I have analyzed examples of masterful copy, and identified the 3 core elements they all have in common. They are:
- What you say
- How you say it
- How you structure it
We’ll go through these one-by-one and define what you can do to ace them all, and get your reader to take the desired action.
Table of contents
What you say
Know your audience
The first secret of persuasive writing is knowing your audience and what matters to them.
Talia Wolf believes that customer research is the foundation of persuasive writing.
Customer research can uncover bits of social proof – one of Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion – which can be extremely powerful in copywriting.
Do you know your audience? Before sitting down to write compelling content, ask yourself these questions:
- Who is my reader?
- What drives them?
- What are their hopes?
- What are they trying to accomplish?
- What are they struggling with?
- What is their biggest fear?
- What do they worry about?
- What do they want?
- Why do they want it?
If you don’t know the answers, you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. All you need to do is ask your customers. Don’t assume that the things your audience needs and wants are the same things that you need and want.
Nic Meliones uses his persuasion skills day in and day out – in his interactions with investors, customers, influencers, and his own team. As a startup CEO, this is his job. Here’s how he crafts high-stakes communications with the audience in mind:
Next time you are reading a persuasive piece, ask yourself – do I trust the author? If you don’t – will you take action? I won’t. I wouldn’t even finish reading. That’s why it is critical that we build trust first and foremost.
Trust = Rapport + Credibility
To build rapport, tell a story – either your own or that of your customer. The hero of the story starts out where your readers are – they have a problem, things are not working. Then they try different things – still no luck. And then finally, they arrive at the solution that you are sharing now.
Now is the time to pour in the value. Do research, interview people, and share the most valuable insights with the reader. It becomes obvious to them that you’ve done your homework and you really know what’s going on.
If you are an expert on the subject, watch out for the “curse of knowledge.” Experts tend to get bored with the ABCs, they want to dive deeper and talk about complex things. In my personal experience, this can break rapport. Even though some points may seem trivial to you, they could be invaluable to the reader. Keep it simple.
Agitate the Problem
When we are writing persuasively, our goal is to get the customer so emotionally fired up, so flooded with motivation to solve the problem that they will take action right away. We need to hold their attention long enough to get them engaged, motivated, and finally – committed.
In his book Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff talks about attention as a cocktail of chemicals served to the brain as a result of any interaction – including the interaction with the written word:
What does it mean for persuasive writing?
It is not enough to talk about the benefits of what we are offering. We need to talk about our readers’ problem in excruciating detail, and really drill down on the negative effect it is having on their life. We can’t be afraid of tension – we have to create it. We have to agitate the problem.
Joanna Wiebe is a master at this:
People are more motivated by fear than desire. If we draw their attention to the massive pain that can happen if they don’t take action – they will be twice as likely to act.
How You Say It
Voice and Tone
Never write something you wouldn’t say to someone in person. The way we are taught to write is usually the opposite.
Karl Blanks from Conversion Rate Experts strongly recommends:
The more similar you feel to the reader, the more they will be influenced by you. With this in mind, write as much as you can in their voice, use the same words and phrases, sentences of the same length.
David Hohl uses this technique to give his writing the most impact:
Words You Use
Your best friends are the words your readers use to describe their problem and their ideal solution. Surveys, interviews and on-site polls are great ways to learn what those words are.
Talia Wolf believes in taking the time to learn the language of your customers:
Momoko Price, partner at Kantan Designs, is also a big believer in using customers’ own words:
Besides high-value words specific to your audience, there are words that are influential in general, like the 21 words identified by Dr. Frank Luntz in his book Words that Work. Here are the top 5:
This article offers detailed guidance on how to apply Dr. Luntz’ discoveries in your writing.
Grammar and Style
Correct grammar is a must. We don’t want our credibility to take a hit because of a misspelling, so make sure and double-check your work.
At the same time, we are not writing to get a good grade – we are writing to get ideas across, to get them understood, and to get the reader to take action. It’s ok to bend the language a little bit, if that’s what it takes to get the job done.
Make things as clear as possible. Stick to short words and sentences.
Introduce bite-sized ideas and separate them into paragraphs. If a sentence gets longer than 10-15 words, use punctuation to make the ideas distinct.
Make paragraphs short – the piece will look less intimidating. Hemingway App is a useful free tool that will tell you if your sentences are too complex.
Be concise. Cut all unnecessary words. If detail doesn’t add to the message, chop it out. If you ever find yourself putting any filler into your writing – stop and take out that section.
If people see filler, they become programmed very quickly that what you are saying isn’t valuable, and they tune you out. You can’t bore a person into taking action, you have to give real value.
Should we let our personality show in our persuasive writing?
Nathalie Nahai, Web Psychologist & Author of Webs Of Influence (2nd Ed), says YES:
Professional copywriter Brian Lenney strongly believes in the power of vulnerability:
However, what Brian found was that “when you speak from the heart, people listen. This is true everywhere, in every context. It’s what makes us human.”
Bottom line – don’t be afraid to show your personality. It will make the content more memorable and motivating.
How you Structure It
In order to have impact, information has to be organized. Frameworks can help on this front.
Frameworks are structures you can hang your content on to help your readers relate to what you are saying.
If you are new to frameworks, start with Why? > What? > How? > What if? – a favorite of Eben Pagan, creator of best-selling information products.
Why? > What? > How? > What if? framework speaks to the 4 learning styles all people fall into:
- Why? people want to know – Why am I doing this? What is the outcome going to be? They need a clear picture of the outcome to get motivated.
- What? people want to know – What are the concepts behind this? What is the data? They want to see how it all fits together. They need intellectual comprehension of the whole thing before they can take action.
- How? people want to know – How am I going to get to the outcome? They want a specific set of steps.
- What if? people want to know – How do I put this into action? They want to translate what they are learning into immediate action.
To give all these people what they want, we start by painting a picture of a great outcome and avoiding the bad outcome (the Why), then we provide a set of key concepts and principles (the What), after that we offer a process to follow (the How), and finally – we say when and where specifically to apply the process (the What If).
If you want to take a deep dive into copy formulas, check out this blog post by Joanna Wiebe.
Momoko Price follows her own tried and tested approach to structuring copy:
Choose the formula that resonates with you and let it guide the flow of your writing.
Presentation has a big impact on how the readers engage with content and what they take away.
On the web, most people don’t read – they scan. The secret weapon of a persuasive writer is the use of scannable elements that will catch the reader’s eye and communicate key messages.
- Informative subheads
- Bulleted lists
- Relevant Images, charts or graphs.
These “hooks” can help get your message across in a punchy and memorable way.
Nic Meliones pays close attention to the visual structure when he writes high-stakes communications:
Writing persuasively is a high-ROI skill. Any effort you put into learning to write with impact will pay tremendous dividends.
If you focus on the key elements of persuasive writing – what you say, how you say it, and how you structure it, you will be rewarded with engagement and a conversion instead of a bounce. Remember, Facebook is just a click away, so everything you write has to be compelling.
Here is a quick 7-point checklist you can use right now to make your next persuasive piece irresistible:
- Be clear who your audience is. Write about them and what they care about.
- Write enough to cover everything they care about.
- Write as if you were talking to them. Use the words they use.
- Double-check your grammar.
- Let your personality shine through.
- Use a framework to structure the content.
- Make the content scannable.
At the end of the day, writing persuasively is about understanding the needs of the reader, really getting where they are coming from. A persuasive writer is a professional empathizer.