How-to Guide to Persuasive Writing

How-to Guide to Persuasive Writing

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.

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.

Talia Wolf, GetUplift.co
“The most important factor in writing persuasively is understanding your customer.

If you understand her motivations, concerns, emotional drivers, and the real reason behind the actions she takes on your site (purchase, subscribe, download etc.), you can write copy that persuades her to take that action.

For example, working with an e-commerce client this year, we noticed a repeating theme in our customer interviews: many customers said they were worried about the durability of our client’s product.

So we asked them to explain what reassured them and convinced them it was a high-quality product. Then we used those answers as featured reviews on the website and as the landing page subtitle.

We used the customers’ words (and their voice) to address a concern many prospects had right from the get-go. Before prospects could even worry about a durability issue, they saw people praising it. And it wasn’t us saying they have a durable product, it was other people – social proof.

This persuasive copy increased revenues by 35%.”

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:

Nic Meliones, BitWall
“I always focus on the outcomes for the other party.

They want to know, as early as possible, what they stand to gain from this interaction. Before starting to write, I thoroughly research my counterpart’s wants and needs.

I define the outcomes that will be beneficial to them, and then I use these outcomes as the driver of the conversation. I always put myself in the recipient’s shoes and fully focus on how they should feel and act upon reading the message.

In my mind, the key skills for persuasive writing are empathy and a clear focus on outcomes.”

Build Trust

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:

Oren Klaff, Pitch Anything

“It comes down to the presence of two neurotransmitters – dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is the chemical of desire. Norepinephrine is the chemical of tension.

If you want someone’s undivided attention, you have to provide these two neurotransmitters, you need them both coursing through their brain. Each chemical has a different triggering mechanism.

To give a dopamine kick – offer a reward. To give a norepinephrine kick – introduce real consequences, make it clear that something will be gained or lost.”

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:

Joanna Wiebe, CopyHackers and Airstory

“Agitating the problem is all about giving specific examples that bring the problem to life. A big part of great conversion copywriting is making the reader feel their happiness, their loss, their joy and, yes, their pain.

This is where most people pull back but it’s where you should lay it on thick. To agitate well, look through customer stories (often found in product reviews, testimonials, Reddit discussions, forums) and identify the specifics they use. Then just mirror those back on the page.

This works great in email and on landing pages. Our most popular example of ‘mainstream agitation’ is for the Sweatblock home page.”

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:

Karl Blanks, Conversion Rate Experts
“Write like a human, write in the same way you would actually speak to someone in real life. Record yourself saying what you would say if you were face to face with someone.

Get it transcribed, tidy it up, but make sure all of the things you would say in real life are the things you would be saying in writing.”

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:

David Hohl, Screenwriter

“I suggest reading pieces that are from the group you are writing for. Study their language, their goals, and their tone. Then match it in your writing in a subtle way.

Show that you think like they do, and do it in language they are comfortable with.”

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:

Talia Wolf, GetUplift.co

“The most successful persuasive copy uses the customer’s words, language, and voice. The only way to do that is by speaking to them.

The more customers you speak to, the more you’ll understand why they buy from you and will be able to turn those answers into persuasive copy.”

Momoko Price, partner at Kantan Designs, is also a big believer in using customers’ own words:

Momoko Price, Kantan Designs
“The biggest mistake people make when attempting to write persuasively is thinking it’s about ‘coming up’ with a narrative on their own, and then peppering it with copywriting ‘tricks.’

The reality is for most scenarios, you can get big wins simply by sussing out the central conflict and relief related to your product from your customers (i.e. the before and after experience they’ve had with your product), and sticking it on the page in the right order.

The time I optimized the Petdoors.com home page for my course with CXL is a great example of how powerful persuasive copywriting can be, especially because our goal was to optimize an e-commerce home page.

Many people assume that you can’t really use persuasive writing on e-commerce home pages because visitors’ motivations are too varied. People also sometimes assume certain products (like say, pet doors) are “too boring” to build a persuasive sales narrative around, so they don’t bother trying.

For petdoors.com, we did voice-of-customer research and quickly discovered a detailed, engaging narrative that included stressful pain points, deal-breaker needs, and requirements, and an overall strong motivation to keep pets happy while minimizing personal inconveniences.

We put those messages on the page, tested the new page against the control and saw a 92% increase in revenue per visitor and a 51% increase in e-commerce transaction rate.”

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:

  • Imagine
  • Hassle-free
  • Lifestyle
  • Accountability
  • Results

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.

Personality

Should we let our personality show in our persuasive writing?

Nathalie Nahai, Web Psychologist & Author of Webs Of Influence (2nd Ed), says YES:

Nathalie Nahai, Webs of Influence, Web Psychologist
“One of the most important elements of persuasive writing is to allow your personality to shine through.

While people sometimes take this as a carte-blanche to over-share or be overly familiar with an unknown audience, I’ve found that the best connection usually comes when you write in a way that expresses your quirks, values, and warmth.

Whether you’re communicating as an individual or a brand, people tend to prefer engaging with those they consider to be genuine, so if you allow yourself to write in such a way that people can get a sense of who you are, you’re likely to be more favourably received and more persuasive as a result.”

Professional copywriter Brian Lenney strongly believes in the power of vulnerability:

Brian Lenney, Winsome Writing
“Someone told me once that the same sun that melts wax hardens clay.

If you put yourself out there some people will LOVE YOU and some people will literally despise you for the exact same reason… Being vulnerable isn’t easy and brings a lot of risk with it because you’re dealing with the uncertainty that comes with letting others get to know you a bit….”

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

Information Structure

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:

Momoko Price, Kantan Designs

“I tend to approach persuasive writing with a very general mindset I call ‘Why > Try > Buy.’

In other words, open with a relevant, customer-centric desired outcome (Why), then move on to showing/proving to the customer how your product delivers said outcome (Try), and then close with a clear, undeniably valuable, easy-to-acquire offer (Buy).

This overall structure can take on a whole bunch of specific forms across web, email, and ad copy, but the overall flow almost always comes back to a basic Why-Try-Buy backbone.”

Choose the formula that resonates with you and let it guide the flow of your writing.

Visual Structure

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.
  • Captions

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:

Nic Meliones, BitWall
“Paragraphs of text can sound natural while speaking; however, reading content that doesn’t change pace or style leaves the reader without any points of emphasis. To avoid that, I vary my writing between paragraph and bullet-point style, using bold where needed.

Being intentional about how I write helped my company secure a very important partnership. After our initial meeting in which we discussed our potential collaboration, I sent an email to key stakeholders.

In this email, I used several strategies. First, I used bold headlines to outline the key next steps for this partnership. That helped everyone grasp the proposed strategy.

I also included a screenshot from our live product demo, which helped them visualize the opportunity. It was a short email that was easy to understand, and, most importantly, it confirmed that all parties had a shared vision, and showed that we understand our potential partner’s needs.

As a result, we quickly received support from key executives, and turned our ideas into action.”

Conclusion

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.

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How-to Guide to Persuasive Writing