The 6 principles of persuasive writing

Posted on 24 September 2015 by Lucy Gregory

Even if you’re not in sales, you need the power of persuasion: maybe you’re in HR and need staff to attend a training session; maybe you’re in IT and want management to agree to a new system; maybe you simply want busy colleagues to join you for a long lunch.

So what’s the trick to persuasive writing?

Robert Cialdini is a psychology professor in the US. In 1984, he wrote the first edition of his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It did rather well, selling over 2 million copies. In the book, Cialdini explains the six principles of persuasion. And here they are, with my own thoughts on how you might apply them to your documents.

1. Reciprocity

People don’t like being indebted to others, and we have a natural desire to repay a gift or good turn. A simple example: if someone invites you to a party, you feel obliged to return the invitation – even if you’re not that keen on the person.

How does this work in business? If you need to ask a colleague for a favour, do something for them first. They’ll remember your help and be more likely to offer theirs. If you’re selling to clients or customers, a free gift or free advice will encourage them to comply with your request. It’s one of the reasons why so many companies offer free downloads on their websites.

2. Commitment and consistency

‘Commitment and consistency’ is another reason why companies offer free downloads.

Once we commit to something, we’re likely to continue with it (have you ever signed up for a sponsored run to ‘force’ yourself to exercise?).

If you’ve downloaded something for free from a website or purchased a small item from a company, you’re more likely to return to that supplier when you make a larger purchase. The initial interaction causes you to identify yourself as a loyal customer, making it easier for the business to sell to you in the future.

In the world of business to business sales, a cold sales email will ask for a quick meeting or phone call. An easy ‘yes’ for anyone who’s vaguely interested in what you’re selling. Once you’ve started to build a relationship with your target, you can bring on the hard sell.

So take a long view: make it easy for your reader to say ‘yes’ to an initial request. And encourage them to commit publicly; we’re much more likely to follow through if other people have witnessed our commitment.

3. Scarcity

We’re all familiar with this one. How many times have you seen notices telling you an offer is for ‘limited time only’ or there are only ‘two items left at this price’?

This is unsurprising: limited supply often drives demand, thereby increasing value. Apparently, when British Airways announced it was stopping Concorde flights between London and New York because no one was using the service, ticket sales rocketed.

For best results, explain (1) the benefits of compliance, (2) what’s unique about your product, service or idea, and (3) what the person will lose if they don’t comply.

4. Authority

Have you noticed how toothpaste adverts always feature a dentist recommending the brand? There’s a good reason. It seems we feel a sense of obligation to authority figures, we’re more likely to trust them and we’re more likely to buy from them – even if we know they’re benefiting from the transaction.

We demonstrate our authority in business all the time, most obviously in biographies:

So and so has over 25 years’ experience doing X, Y and Z. Before working for us, she worked for these really impressive companies, in extremely important and challenging roles with fancy job titles.

This person clearly knows her stuff!

Some companies prefer to focus on personal details about their staff:

So and so lives with his wife Brenda, three children and a dog in the countryside. In his spare time (when he has any!), he runs marathons, brews his own beer and recites Shakespeare sonnets at the town hall.

Do you think this kind of information undermines a person’s professional authority?

5. Social proof

You’re walking down a street looking for somewhere to eat and you come across two similar restaurants. One is empty and the other almost full. Which one do you go in?

The nearly full one, right! Because if we’re not sure what to do, we tend to copy other people. The massive rise of peer reviews demonstrates this; we really want to know how other people behave and what they think.

But what about other applications? It seems you can encourage certain behaviour by telling people how others have behaved in similar circumstances.

HM Revenue & Customs ran a trial using this theory with late tax payers. Instead of warning people about penalties and interest, the Revenue sent out letters stating that most people in the town had already paid their tax. Payment rates increased by 15%.

So next time you want someone to attend a presentation, maybe mention that their colleagues have already signed up (but only if it’s true!).

6. Likeability

We say ‘yes’ to people we like. And we like people who are similar to us, who compliment us and who cooperate with us towards mutual goals.

How does this affect your emails? If you’re sending a cold sales email, can you mention anything you have in common with the recipient? Maybe Joe Bloggs at Company Y suggested you get in touch? Or did you attend the same conference last month?

Pay genuine compliments. We all love being flattered, even if we know the person has an agenda. But don’t be sycophantic.

Adopt a tone that works for your reader. Whether they’re old-fashioned and formal or chatty and casual, you’ll probably build a better relationship with them if you match their style.

Finally, be positive – everyone responds better to positive language than negative. Compare these two examples:

Example 1
Despite our best efforts, we will not be able to complete the project by Friday as previously agreed. This is due to a delay in receiving feedback on the reporting dashboard.

Example 2
We’ve nearly completed the reporting dashboard and it should be ready for you next week. To make sure we can deliver it on time, please could you send us your feedback by tomorrow.

The first example is polite, but negative, and it attributes blame to the client (never a good idea). The second example focuses on what the writer will deliver and when (without expressly mentioning the missed deadline), and what the client needs to do to make sure it happens. It’s a much better way of presenting the same information and more likely to achieve a favourable outcome.

So there you have it: the six principles of persuasion. Give them a go and let me know how you get on. And remember, these methods are not designed to manipulate or deceive your reader – they’re simply a way of choosing which information to present and how.