"Men die of their remedies, and not of their illnesses." (Molière)
Teachers of the very young report that nothing is more exciting to a child than the discovery that you can put marks on a piece of paper and have that influence people. Even for adults, writing retains an aura of magic; it seems by its very nature influential.
That is the influence of example. Writing is a concrete record of thought. It is a permanent model. It sets a good or bad example and influences by that example. Since it can be examined at any length, it is the place for subtly and nuance. Since it can be studied in depth, it is the place for deep layers of meaning.
Unfortunately, people think that all influence is persuasion. Because of that, writing tends to die of its remedies. Sentences are written for effect rather than for clarity. They are filled with emotion and drained of meaning. They try to incite rather than instruct.
Written words on a page are feeble goads. They don't flash, jangle, or prick. They are inert symbols. Only on one stringent condition can they provoke a mind to action: they must convey meaning. If they are to have a predictable influence, they must convey intended meaning. Flash, bam, and zowie cannot substitute for meaning.
Politics and advertising provide endless instances of words arranged ambiguously in the hope of being persuasive without being clear. "I feel your pain," is a metaphor, since it is physically impossible. It is a figure of speech meaning—well, indicating empathy of some sort. Asked why that metaphor instead of many clearer ones, a writer would probably point out the emotive effect of "feel" and "pain," together with the personal effect of "I" and "your." That is, the words are not chosen for their meaning in combination, but for their connotations separately. They are intended not to be printed but performed, so that voice and expression convey the meaning.
Slogans, on the other hand, are intended to be printed, and printed, and printed. "Best for the Job," is supposed to force its way into your mind by repetition. The hope is not that you will consider it but that you will just believe it. The irony is that everybody says slogans work on others, but not on them. If it could be shown that a famous slogan actually did affect you, would that be pleasing, or annoying? Is annoyance a form of persuasion? Slogans and mottoes have uses, but persuasion is not one of them.
Advertising copy tries to sound breathless, or authoritative, or snobbish, depending on the prospective buyer. Writers take it for granted that the tone of the ad is important. They can use just so many words, so choices must be made, and they are made in favor of style over substance. Ad makers give one another awards for style, but not for content.
This is a good idea on one assumption only: that people do not have free will. If minds are subject to self-control, then they can separate style from substance and respond at will to either or both. One can enjoy the style while ignoring the message. Or, one can look for information, just as if one actually wanted to consider buying the product. In that case, of course, flash and dash in place of clarity would be annoying rather than endearing.
When businessmen buy razzle-dazzle ads, they think they are paying for persuasion. In fact, they are paying for entertainment. They think they are controlling non-volitional minds. In fact, they are annoying prospective customers. Their attempts at persuasion work in reverse, because their idea of persuasion separates it from reason.
If people lack free will, then repetition and rote are all there is; readers are literate automatons. If people have free will, then meaning is king; minds that can consider things need things to consider. In neither case would entertainment be persuasion.
Business can entertain prospective customers, building up good will and perhaps even gratitude. It can also persuade. Writers too can entertain, or persuade. Trying to do both at once is a way to do both badly. It assumes that persuasion is not enjoyable on its own—like assuming that shoppers flock to the mall to socialize, and then sometimes get enticed into reluctantly shopping. Influence by means of reason is an enjoyable process because it emphasizes choice. Shoppers in the mall of ideas want to try out ideas, not listen to comics tell jokes.
If on the printed page meaning is king, then the secret of persuasion in writing is obvious—clarity. The way to influence readers to consider your written ideas is to write them with inviting clarity. To ask how writing can be made persuasive, ask how it can be made crystal clear.
Here is an excerpt from an owner's manual for a bicycle:
"To release the cantilever brakes prior to removing a wheel, firmly squeeze the cantilever arms together against the rim with one hand to create slack in the center wire. Firmly pull the center wire down until the anchor tab is clear of the cantilever arm. Disengage the anchor tab center wire from the cantilever arm, and release the cantilever arms..."
The passage is a careful and laborious description of motions that seem rather intricate. In fact, it tells you to unhook a wire. The passage is not fully clear because it is not fully conceptualized. It is as if you told me to open the door by saying, "Please close your right hand around the knob opposite the hinged side. While squeezing firmly, rotate your hand to the left, turning the knob as far as it will go. Still holding the knob, pull it toward you while stepping back until..."
Most people would quickly think of a better way: say open. That concept includes the entire description, along with many others. If a particular door had features that are not included, the concept would still be used as a starting point: "To open the door, you have to push on the button in the middle of the knob...."
Here is the bicycle manual example fully conceptualized:
"To open the brakes so you can remove a wheel, note that the wire is hooked into a slot in one brake arm. Create slack by squeezing the arms, and unhook the wire."
"Unhook" is a concept that contains the entire operation, which then becomes obvious. Connecting it to something you already know makes it clear and unthreatening. Seeing it put thus, you might even try doing it.
To express a truth clearly is to make it instantly at home in the reader's mind. To do that, the expression must include not just what it is, but where it goes—how it fits in with the truths already residing in the reader's mind. Persuasive writing makes the design clear first, then fills in the details. That's the natural progression for a conceptual mind: survey the scene, then zoom in.
When a mind can grasp a thought without fumbling, and fit it in without hesitation, then the thought is not only clear, but compelling. It is persuasive not because it sinks in unconsciously, but because it invites conscious consideration. It is not slack-jawed, but bright-eyed.
Personal persuasion has an advantage over printed text, because it can ask questions and respond to the answers. Printed text has an advantage over personal persuasion because it can be carefully arranged to be clear. From writing, personal persuasion can learn the importance of clarity. From personal persuasion, writing can learn to ask questions and invite the reader to participate.
Persuasive writing is so charged with clearly expressed meaning that its invitation to think is irresistible. It sticks in the mind not because of sly tricks, but because it fits with what is there already. By emphasizing choice, it uses free will as an ally, not an enemy.
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