The eight (8) ingredients of persuasive writing

Persuasive writing is the art of creating copy that induces readers to take a particular course of action … such as buying a product or service, signing up for a newsletter, altering their behaviour, changing their opinion, voting, and so on. But how do you write persuasively?

Why does one piece of copy resonate with readers and another fall flat on its face? Why does one advertisement sell, another fail to cover its costs? What distinguishes a winner from a loser in the realm of commercial writing?

Answer … persuasiveness!

So how do you write persuasively?

Not sure … but a persuasive piece of writing nearly always contains eight characteristics:

  • It attracts attention
  • It focuses on the reader
  • It highlights the benefits of a product or service
  • It shows why a product or service is different
  • It provides proof of superiority
  • It demonstrates value for money
  • It establishes business credibility
  • It calls the reader to take some action

[1] How to gain attention

If the reader you are aiming to persuade does not read your copy then, no matter how persuasive it is, it cannot do its job of convincing him or her to do something. It will be commercially worthless.

There are plenty of ways to gain your readers attention.

Simple headlines are best. Avoid subtle or clever headlines. Instead, keep to the point and make sure that a headline states a clear benefit. For example: “Get rid of unsightly warts ― without using acid”.

Appealing illustrations, such as photos, sketches and other images, always get noticed. They become irresistible when they are spiced up with sexual overtones.

However any visual must be appropriate to the topic you are writing about or you run the risk that the reader will feel conned when they read the copy and will reject your message.

Specific claims in the headline or strapline will outdraw the usual vague claims and arouse interest.

For example, instead of “We will help you reclaim your overpaid tax”, a tax-advisory firm could state “Last year, we reclaimed over €50,000,000 in overpaid taxes for our hard-working clients”. The figure of 50 million gains the reader’s attention because it is specific and credible.

Asking a provocative question will arouse interest. For example, “What do French ladies have that other women lack?” Curiosity, if nothing else, will ensure that the next sentence will be read.

Using current news in the headline or strapline can garner attention. Announcing that something is new or improved can also draw people in.

[2] Why focus on your reader

Your readers are not really interested in you, your firm, your products or services. Their primary interest is themselves … their aspirations, problems, fears, hopes, needs and dreams. Isn’t that true for all of us?

To be persuasive, your copy must address your readers’ preferences and requirements. You can only do this if you are writing for a specific reader whose needs, behaviour, attitudes, traits and foibles you understand.

So how do you find out what your readers’ needs, attitudes and other characteristics are?

It’s relatively easy but it does take a bit of research and leg-work.

If you are addressing a particular industry, attend their trade shows and read a few issues of their trade magazines. You could also interview one or two working members of the profession either in person or over the telephone.

To understand your readers better, you could attend some live focus group sessions or at least study the transcripts. You could even go on sales calls with salesmen and women.

The better the feel you have for your readers, how they think and what they think about, the easier it is to address their concerns persuasively.

There are several ways you can focus on your readers:

  • Address the reader directly using the pronoun ‘you’ … ‘you’ is one of the most important words in marketing.
  • Write from your reader’s their point of view … for example: “How to beat those cheap imports that are putting you out of business.”
  • Try to use copy that speaks directly to your reader’s personality … if you are promoting a DIY product, for example, address the home handyman.

You should have no problem focusing on the reader and what he wants provided you understand him or her.

[3] Why highlight benefits

Why would the reader take whatever action you ask of him or her without first knowing the benefits of doing so? All successful copy discusses benefits without fail.

When you are writing sales copy, your prospects will want to know, not just what a product is and what it can do, but how it can save them money or time, make them healthier, more attractive or fitter, grant them novel insights, train them and so on … ie improve their lives.

Benefits depend on features. The degree to which you should discuss benefits rather than features will vary depending on the audience.

With ordinary consumers you should focus on the benefits and only mention features to convince your prospects that your product can deliver those benefits.

But with professionals (such as engineers, medical practitioners, accountants, lawyers etc) you should describe the features in detail. But in doing so you are assuming that the specialist reader will see the benefits the features provide. Thus it is best to link each feature to its benefits.

In copy that discusses technical products or services, explaining features clearly makes the associated benefits more credible. For example, don’t just say that a feature delivers more power; to be convincing you need to describe how it delivers more power.

[4] Show why you are different                                   

This means measuring yourself against your rivals, whether in consumer goods, commodities, industrial products, political messages or whatever.

In any supermarket you will find tens of different brands for what are essentially the same products (eg, soap) and you have to show that your product is different and better. This differentiation could be based on quality, ingredients, packet size or price. There are many more criteria.

Companies that create a commodity-type product often differentiate themselves on the basis of an intangible benefit such as expertise or service.

For example, British Oxygen (before it became a member of the Linde Group of Germany) could not claim that its product (oxygen) was better (as one molecule of oxygen is the same as any other) so they used their ability to combine oxygen with proprietary technology to show how they could benefit their customers.

It may be possible to claim that your product or service is unique. The US publication IPO Insider claims that it is the only independent investment analysis service that is tailor-made to help amateur investors. In doing so it distinguishes itself from other IPO (initial public offering) information services which target professional investors.

Industrial manufacturers of intermediary products (ie, parts for a finished product) can differentiate themselves from their competitors by stressing factors such as reliability, guaranteed delivery times for just-in-time manufacturers, superior servicing, no-quibble replacements of defective products or other variables.

The competition between politicians and political parties at election times provides case studies in differentiation, everyone vying to prove the superiority of their proposed policies and why they should be voted into office. Unfortunately, unlike most contractors, politicians are not required to guarantee their campaign promises with performance bonds.

[5] How to prove what you claim

Readers are a sceptical bunch, especially when you are trying to sell them a consumer product. They require proof of the benefits you have been touting and your claim that your product is different.

The best way to prove your case is to show a favourable track record.

There are several ways in which you can create the perception that your product or service is successful in delivering the benefits you are claiming. In your copy you can include:

  • case histories and success stories
  • testimonials from satisfied customers
  • lists or selected lists of your customers
  • specific results you have achieved for individual customers or groups of customers

An investment advisory firm, for example, can prove its track record by listing its successful stock recommendations showing the stock name, the purchase price when recommended, its percentage increase over a specific time period, and the cash profit an investor could have made with a €1,000 investment … all presented in a neat easy-to-read table.

British Oxygen, when addressing engineers, proves that its intermediate products of industrial gases are accurately blended by explaining in technical terms how they weight and blend the gases.

Whatever you do, do not cheat … all these ways of substantiating your claims can be verified easily. Industrial buyers usually do so but consumers are unlikely to bother.

[6] How to demonstrate value for money

Nobody is going to buy your product or service if they think that it is overpriced. That you are offering good value for money must always be shown.

There are four basic ways to show that your price represents excellent value for money:

  • compare overall cost of ownership against purchase cost
  • demonstrate that the price is a ‘drop in a bucket’ compared to the benefit
  • compare your prices with the prices of more expensive products or services that do the same thing
  • show the daily cost for the period during which the product or service will be used

Corporate buyers are especially concerned with the overall cost of ownership … the total cost of purchase, operating costs, support and maintenance, repairs and refurbishments, and so on over the expected life-span.

When you compare total costs of ownership for the same product or service between different suppliers you are likely to find that the one with the cheapest price represents the highest total cost of ownership.

So, if your price is higher, you should show that your offering is the cheapest over time.

Demonstrating that your price is just a drop-in-the-bucket compared to the benefits expressed in terms of money made or saved works in many circumstances.

For example, a regulatory compliance advisory service could stress the potential heavy costs of fines for non-compliance with health and safety or environmental regulations.

A seller of training courses could show that the cost-price of courses is just a drop-in-the-bucket compared with its students’ potential future earnings.

You can also show value for money by comparing your price with the prices of more expensive products that fulfil the same need.

If you were selling a high priced DIY (do-it-yourself) maintenance manual for machinery or IT products, for example, you could compare the cost of the manual with cost of having maintenance carried out by a service engineer.

You can make a high-priced product or service look more affordable by expressing the cost as a daily cost for the period time during which it will be used or effective.

For example, If you are selling home insurance and the cost is (say) €350 a year, you can say it costs less than €1 a day to protect your family’s home … which sounds like a very good deal indeed.

[7] How to establish business credibility

In terms of persuasive writing, your business story is probably the least important characteristic. Your reader only has an interest in your company to the extent that it relates to your ability to perform your side of a purchasing bargain.

How you establish your corporate credibility depends on where your company is in its life cycle. The credibility building technique of a long-establish company would be much different than that of a fresh start-up.

For a long-established company, brief details of when it was founded, how it grew, its financial, human and technological resources, locations and number of employees, sales figures and annual revenues, patents held, technical innovations achieved, awards and seals of approval … in other words, virtually anything it can brag about succinctly and without crowding the copy .. with an emphasis on awards, seals of approval and technical innovations in addition to its size.

A start-up of course cannot brag about any of these matters. It needs to establish credibility by showing that it is ‘hot and hungry’. It can do this best by concentrating on its founders and key personnel, using potted biographies to show the quality of its sales, technical and management teams and explaining the innovative nature of its technologies and business model.

[8] Call-to-action

All writers have an agenda, something they want to do with their writing. In the case of a novelist, it can be as simple as wanting to tell a good story. Or it can be as complex as using a storyline to point out something (usually a defect) about society or the physical world.

In the world of commercial copywriting the purpose is always to cause the reader to take some action … to buy a product or service, to change the reader’s opinion of, belief about or attitude towards a company and its products or services and so on.

But your readers won’t take the action you want unless you prompt them to … this prompt is called the call-to-action. To be effective, the call-to-action must be specific:

… buy now … call xxx xxxx now for more information … visit our website at yyy.com … send an email to xxxxx@yyy.com … visit our showroom … request a free estimate … sign up for our newsletter … vote for me … etc, etc

People won’t usually do anything unless you specify the next step precisely and directly in your copy.

And your website needs to be structured in such a way that finding the buy now button is super easy. There should be at least one such button on every page. You should put several buttons on a long page.

Conclusion

It would be hard to find a piece of persuasive writing that does not have these eight characteristics. But that is not to say that they are all contained in the same proportion. Some characteristics will be predominant, others subordinate … depending on the circumstances.

For example, highly-reputable companies such as Apple Inc, Samsung Electronics, Foxconn, Dell Technologies and Microsoft do not really need to prove their case and establish their credibility.

By comparison, in the absence of a track record, a tech start-up would need to prove themselves by stressing the benefits of their product or service or how they are different from their competitors … emphasising different characteristics compared to a mature company.

Nevertheless, all eight characteristics need to be present to some degree if the writing is to be persuasive.

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