You’ve been taught to write for many years by now. You know the rules. But much of what you’ve been taught might be costing you conversions, authority, sales, interactions, and customers. The good news? These mistakes are easy to fix.
Here’s the quick version:
- Tell the reader they’re wrong
- Make the consequences of a problem clear
- Break the rules of writing
- Writing is a social interaction between strangers
- Channel your inner Bob Dylan or Bronte Sister
- Sell two or more things at the same time
- Use and avoid cognitive biases at every opportunity
Everything You Know About Writing Is Wrong
Teachers, mentors, and experts have taught you the wrong things almost from the moment you wrote your first paragraph. And there’s a lot of them. The one rule they never seem to teach you, however, is probably the most important one:
Once you start writing for the real world, these “laws of persuasive writing” no longer apply. Why? The person you’re writing for changes.
In school, teachers taught you to write to make it easy for them to mark. They want you to demonstrate what knowledge you’ve retained in a way that’s quick and easy for them to assess. Expert bloggers, copywriters, and marketers repackaged these rules. They then sold them back to you, along with vague tips like “write for your readers” to make them appear valuable again. However, most of the time, these so-called rules do the opposite. The good news? Persuasive writing is a lot easier than you think.
Tell the Reader They’re Wrong
People don’t care about what you know. At least, not unless you give them a reason to. Your job as a writer is to provide them with that reason.
Find a problem that they care about–one that gets to the core of their values–and point it out. You don’t even have to be as bold as much as I was in the introduction here.
The words you choose and how you present an idea can indicate to the reader that their current beliefs are incorrect. For example, words like “however,” “but,” and “unless” suggest that you have a better alternative. Here’s what I mean:
“SEO generates sales. However, this practice only works when it’s combined with other effective marketing practices and principles.”
“People think safe cars are ugly, but the Mazda RX8 breaks this mould.”
“Higher pay motivates employees unless they’re worried about one thing,…”
Make the Consequences of the Problem Clear
A problem is only a problem if it has tangible consequences. You have to make readers understand why failing to address the problem matters. At the beginning of this article, I made it clear that not improving your content will cost you money. (The sense of urgency was a bonus.)
If I had just said that I could make your business content better, some of you might have kept reading, but most visitors wouldn’t have bothered. You could have replied, “my content is good enough,” and wandered away.
Break the Rules of Writing
I recently took a quiz to test my writing skills. One question offered me two sentences and asked me which one was the better sentence:
How would you answer the question?
If you say the first one, you’re wrong. And if you say the second one, you’re wrong. The right answer? It depends on who you’re writing for. (Larry McEnerney from the University of Chicago includes a fantastic, in-depth explanation in his YouTube writing lecture.)
If you think back to elementary school, you’ll remember that the sentence’s subject (the noun) is the reader’s focus. And most of the time, the subject and emphasis are at the start of a sentence. Apply this information to the two sentences presented in the quiz.
If the dog is listed first, the dog is the focus. So, if I’m writing a piece for a dog lover, the first example is the best sentence choice because the dog will be of most interest to the reader. If your reader is a cat person, the second sentence is the better choice.
This writing rule isn’t the only mistake your teachers made. Sayings like “never start a sentence with “and” or “never end a sentence with a preposition” are nothing more than guidelines. Break them every time it’s better for your reader. They will reward you for it.
Writing Is a Social Interaction Between Strangers
Speaking to someone involves many complex processes, but at the core of that is a shared knowledge base between conversation participants. Here’s what I mean:
“Sally rolled the ball off the table.”
It’s a simple sentence, right? Not exactly. There’s a lot of information coded into it. The speaker and the listener both know:
- Who Sally is
- That “rolled” tells us there was an action
- That Sally was the doer of the action
- That “rolled” indicates how much force Sally used
- What a ball is
- The object (ball) is round
- What a table is
- The table is above ground since the ball fell off of it
- The ball is in a different location now than it was before
If you explained this same event to someone who doesn’t know Sally, your language would change. For example, you might say, “My friend Sally rolled the ball off the table.” Now, apply the same thinking to more complex sentences:
“Prefrontal cortical executive functions comprise several cognitive capabilities necessary for goal-directed behaviour and adaptation to a changing environment.”
I know what this sentence means, but chances are, you don’t. By using the sentence, I assume you understand all of these words and why they matter. If you don’t understand, what I know is irrelevant. And so is the content. Word choice isn’t the only thing you need to consider, either.
Sentence style, formatting, voice, layout, and other details depend on who your reader is, how they consume content, and why they’re reading it. Even how soon you need to demonstrate value will change with your reader, the channel, and the brand. These details can get complicated, but you just need to remember one thing: adjust to your reader.
Channel Your Inner Bob Dylan or Bronte Sister
Authors use story arcs. Composers use four or eight-measure phrasing within a larger emotional arc to tell a story. Why? These patterns and phrases deliberately build tension and instability in their works.
These moments compound, using familiar concepts and sounds, until the song or story reaches the climax. You experience the relief and satisfaction of the resolution, and suddenly, all is right in the world. Your business content can benefit from the same concept.
Identifying the problem and telling readers where they’re wrong creates instability and makes room for them to change their minds. Then, you provide them with solutions and bring relief. You provide value.
If you’ve ever binge-watched an entire season of a TV show or made someone wait until the end of a movie so you can see how it ends, you know why this works. You can use this same technique on a smaller scale, too.
Paragraphs and long sentences both benefit from building tension and providing relief. Use minor points of instability and uncertainty in earlier sentences. Gradually, turn up the dial as you move through your work and drop the mic at the end. And don’t forget about sentence rhythm, sound, clarity, and other vital aspects of effective writing.
Sell Two or More Things at the Same Time
When you write, you might think you’re selling a product or service to the reader, but that isn’t the first step. Long before you ever get to the product or service, you need to sell your content to the reader. Otherwise, they’re not going to stick around long enough to get to the product or service.
And don’t forget the needs of the business (branding), SEO (keywords and word choice), and website structure (links). These often threaten to derail great content. But that’s the difference between good writers and talented writers. The best content writers understand how to balance these things while still keeping the reader engaged and providing value.
Use and Avoid Cognitive Biases at Every Opportunity
Our brains are built to use heuristics to make snap decisions. Unfortunately, these decisions aren’t always correct. They often lead to survivor bias, recency bias, anchoring bias, and a whole list of other errors. However, the most innovative content marketers use knowledge of biases to avoid making mistakes and take advantage of them.
Consider these headlines:
“Five SEO Tools All Successful Dental Websites Use”
“This Tip Increased Email Marketing Leads by 45%”
“Seven Things All Successful Entrepreneurs Do”
These headlines are all very clicky. And they’ve been proven to work, but why? They work because readers think that they can use this information to become just as successful as the people they’re reading about. Unfortunately, this is survivor bias. Survivor bias can lead to failure.
Survivor bias is when you get so focused on specifics that have met a specific set of criteria. Unfortunately, we forget to look at all of the other confounding factors that might influence results. And frequently, it’s the things you forgot about that make all the difference. (The most well-known example of survivor bias is a WWII plane study. It’s a fascinating story and a good read if you’d like to learn more.)
Dental websites, for example, might use the same SEO tools, but they probably also have large marketing budgets. The increase in leads could be due to warmer weather or some environmental factor. Those successful entrepreneurs might have had wealthy parents. Your job is to recognize biases. Then, use them if and when it suits the reader.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but all seven of these tips boil down to changing how you think about writing and how you approach the process. Write the way your target audience reads, not in the way you were taught to write. You might even find it helpful to create a template you can use with the problem, pain, cost, and other points you need to make in your content. At the very least, you’ll find them to be helpful prompts the next time you sit down to convince someone you know something. To help, I’ve made a quick infographic you can take with you.