How not to argue
If you’re in an energetic discussion with someone, what’s a sure-fire way to get them to dig their heels in?
Flat-out tell them they’re wrong. Point out all the faults in their logic. Deny their point of view.
The more you do that, the greater the barrier between you. You’re building a wall (aye, Donald).
How to argue with a chance of winning
But if you want any chance of getting them to hear you, getting them to consider there’s a different way to look at the issue, if you want to be heard, they need to feel heard first.
To influence, persuade, and get buy-in to your ideas, you have to remove the barriers between you. You have to create connection, clear some common ground, so that then the foundations of your reasoning can be built together, one block at a time.
But Shelly, how do you know?
I’m a writing trainer. You’d think I spend most of my time training people in the skills of good writing. But really, I spend most of my time winning people over.
I teach plain language. And plain language is the polar opposite of most of the ‘rules’ of good writing you learned at university. It goes against all the things you learned about using higher-level, more complex language to sound more intelligent, against the written voice you’ve always believed is what will give you credibility at work.
The people I train have had those ideas reinforced (and been rewarded for them) for years – often decades. The only way I can get them onside is to make sure they feel heard, validated, affirmed in their position, and then gently persuaded to consider a different view. And to sit with that different view. To play with it. To experience it. And to decide for themselves.
I’m a professional mind-changer.
The principles are the same when writing
So, to be persuasive in your writing, you need to do those same things.
1. Acknowledge the reader’s position
Like in all good business writing, start with your bottom line up front. Tell them where the destination is before you start the journey. That’s always a thing. And then, address their concerns. In NLP it’s sometimes called objection inoculators. Don’t leave objections simmering away in the background. Address them straight up. Acknowledge them as real and valid.
2. Validate their concerns
There’s a careful balancing act here of acknowledging validity, showing you understand the thinking and can see that it’s a reasonable position, without adding fuel to the fire.
Try using phrases like:
- It’s a common and understandable position…
- We’ve previously believed…
- Understandably, we have fears around…
3. Know their points of leverage
Here’s where intimate insight into your reader’s way of thinking becomes vital. If you know your reader is swayed by financial benefits, address those – and do it hard. If you know they’re particularly concerned with efficiency, processes, streamlining, show them benefits related to those. If long-term strategy is their thing, focus there. Maybe it’s quality. Maybe it’s ego. Know your reader, and use what will sway them.
4. Emotion always plays a part
Again, it’s a careful balance. Most influencers in the workplace will respond negatively to writing that is overly emotive – we’re so used to being sold to through informercials and hard sales pitches. So don’t do that. But the occasional subtle and well-placed emotive word for impact will work. While we don’t want to overuse emotion, we also don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that there’s no place for emotions in business. That’s simply not true – humans run businesses. Humans are emotional. The end.
5. Everything else is an extra set of steak knives
After all that, hit them with all the bonuses. All the added extras!
Once you’ve addressed their concerns and leveraged their wants and drivers, show them all the benefits they never even considered.
Make it too good to say no to. Just too valuable, too beneficial.
Overpower their arguments – not by fighting against, but by winning over.
Ready to go?
Practice this in conversation. Then plan out a well-sculpted argument and write the damn thing.
You’ll never know whether you can win someone over if you don’t try.
What place does empathy have in business writing?
All the places. All. Of. Them.
If your writing isn’t empathetic to your readers’ needs, you’ve failed. End of story.
Who are you writing for? YOU?
All those bad, waffly, long-winded, not-fit-for purpose documents you see at work? Those are the result of writers writing to satisfy their own needs.
Don’t believe me? How about these needs writers have:
- the need to look good in their role
- the need to come across like they know what they’re doing
- the need to “do it right”
- the need to show evidence of enough work
- the need to sound knowledgeable
- the need to sound “professional”
- the need to not sound stupid
See what I mean?
Those are very real drivers, and I believe they are the root cause of most bad business writing.
But. If you switch your focus to your readers’ needs and write for them, not for you, magic happens.
What happens when you think about your readers
I’m talking about the kind of magic that happens when you:
- Give your readers the bottom line up front, instead of making them look for it.
- Omit those sections that no one ever reads, but that are there because they’ve always been done like that (or just push them further back, like to the appendices, if you need them there to cover butts).
- Answer your readers’ questions before you tell them all the stuff you want them to know.
- Acknowledge the fact that business readers skim-read, and then write to support that behaviour (headings, bullets, tables, white space)
We’ve been lying to ourselves
For such a long time we’ve tried to believe work and emotions are separate. But we do so much work on “soft skills” and emotional intelligence these days. We know those are vital!
We spend millions of dollars building empathetic leaders.
Can we PLEASE bring some of that knowing to our writing at work?
When I first started writing professionally I felt really confident in my writing abilities. I’d already been a writer with a masters in creative writing for almost 20 years. I’d published, edited, and taught writing at high schools, universities, and on an international academic stage. I was ready.
So it surprised me just how much editing feedback I got from clients. On one hand, I thought I’d done a good job finding just the right words and weaving and sculpting them in just the right way. On the other hand, my ego thought they should defer a little more to my professional expertise (*roll eyes here*).
In some client organisations, I’d get feedback from 10 or 20 people, much of it contradictory. Faaark.
I’d spend hours sculpting and polishing after the initial drafts. My confidence started to waver. Why couldn’t I get it right?
Well, I gotta tell you, that didn’t last long. I started sculpting and polishing less and less. Each time I’d write and submit work to a client, I’d invest a little less time to that last, wordsmithing stage.
And guess what? I still got the same amount of feedback. EXACTLY. THE. SAME.
You know why?
Language is subjective. Humans are fickle. We’re individuals. With our own experiences, biases, perceptions, values, all of it.
What that means for you and me when we write?
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT.
YOU CAN’T PLEASE EVERYONE.
No matter how much time I spend trying to find the perfect word or shimmery turn of phrase, someone will think there’s a different way to say it. They’ll think there’s a better way to say it.
Write purposefully, planned, and with a strong lens for clarity and your reader’s needs. Follow that with a strong plain language edit and a final proofread. Any minutes and hours you spend beyond that are likely to give you a low (if any) return on your investment of time and effort.
You can’t please everyone. Write what works for the majority, know people will always have ideas about alternative ways to say/write it, and move on. You’ve got plenty on your to-do list, right?
People are always asking me for templates. Have you got a report template, Shelly? A business case template, Shelly? A template that will save all the woes of the world, Shelly?
I’ll spare you the clichés about length of string and teaching men how to fish: I DON’T DO TEMPLATES.
Templates are only good if they’re designed for a specific purpose. There is no such thing as ONE magical template for any kind of document.
But we do have some really clear insights into reader behaviour. And from that, we can build a strong, successful, fit-for-purpose document structure.
What readers want
As humans, when we interact with text, we’re subconsciously looking for 3 things.
- What’s this about?
- Is it relevant to me?
- What’s the bottom line?
The importance of the executive summary or up-front framing
If you can answer those 3 questions before you do anything else in a business document, you’ve got your reader in the palm of your hand. They’re hooked. They’re engaged. And they’ll keep reading (or at least scanning through). It’s like mad-genius-evil-mastermind-writing-ninja material – so use your powers for good.
Answering those 3 questions is the basic formula for an executive summary. Of course, you can add more – but those are the bare minimum. If you don’t want to use an executive summary, make sure those 3 questions are answered in your introduction (or background, or scope, or whatever heading your douchebag template tells you is the starting point for saving the planet).
Let’s test this concept – what do you want as a reader?
Picture yourself going to your car and finding a piece of paper under the windscreen wiper.
(Note: Your version may contain less profanity. Whatever floats your boat.)
- What the f*ck is this? You wonder.
(You pick it up and see a company logo – it’s a flyer, not a ticket, thank f*ck)
- What are they selling? You wonder.
(There are pictures of food. It’s a restaurant. You’ve been known to eat occasionally. There’s potential here.)
- So are the prices any good? You wonder.
(That’s the bottom line – now that I know what they have to offer and that I’m interested, this is the deciding factor. Let’s say they’re cheap AF and sound worth trying so we have a happy ending to our scenario. You’re welcome.)
The rest of the document structure depends on content and purpose.
In a nutshell: the rest of your document needs to be structured in terms of what is most relevant to your reader, and then what they need to know so that you can achieve your purpose. Note the difference here – it’s not about what you want them to know – it’s about what they need to know from where they sit. Those can be vastly different things.
In fact, that warrants more discussion. Here’s Part 2!