Persuasive writing isn’t the exclusive preserve of heart-tugging fund-raisers and slick advertising copywriters. In fact, to really give your career a boost, try thinking of everything you write as essentially persuasive in nature.
I’m not exaggerating. Remember, even a routine e-mail has to persuade the reader to open and, finally, to read and maybe even respond to it – no small feat when you consider how many other e-mails it’s competing with. (How many e-mails do you get each day? How many do you delete before opening?)
The first commandment of persuasive writing is: “know thy reader”. It’s actually the first rule of any form of successful communication, and it explains why we get all those phone calls around dinner time asking us if we’d mind completing a short survey (while our dinner cools). I hate to disillusion you, but that person collecting information about you isn’t really interested in your friendship. They are, however, interested in getting to know you better.
And that’s so their employer’s sales/customer relations departments can communicate with you much more persuasively. Basically, they want to know whether you might be interested in their particular product or service and, primarily, whether you can afford it. By the way, this explains why most of us are not on the local Ferrari dealer’s mailing list.
To persuade anyone of anything, you first must get their attention. To do that, it helps if you know what they’re interested in. And if you don’t know your audience really well? Then you can always appeal to that old standby…self interest. If there’s a benefit to be gained by reading your e-mail, (time-saving, cost-saving, image-enhancing, productivity-boosting…) tell your reader about it pronto – like in the subject line.
I like to use the subject line the way a newspaper uses a headline – to identify immediately what’s of interest and value to the reader. This captures their attention and persuades them to move on and read the first sentence of your e-mail. It’s in this first sentence/paragraph where you elaborate on the subject line. Explain why the reader should continue reading – identify the important issue or benefit. But save all the details, explanations and situational history for the following paragraphs (the ‘body’) of your e-mail. Try keeping that important first paragraph short, certainly no longer than three short sentences – and even that’s stretching the reader’s already short attention span.
And by the way, nobody said subject lines have to be short. Don’t use those boring one- or two-word subject lines. “Meeting”, for example, isn’t a subject line, it’s a label. It tells the reader nothing about why he or she should attend that meeting. Instead, identify a reason for attending. Try something like: “Vacation schedule-planning meeting, 9:00 a.m. Friday”. Even if there isn’t a readily identifiable benefit, at least provide enough detail so the reader can decide what to do with your message. Try to address in the subject line the first questions every reader asks: Why should I read this? What’s in it for me?
And like I said, to really answer those questions, you’ve got to know what motivates your reader. It’s not only the first rule of writing persuasively, it’s also the first rule of successful communication. Remember, you can waste a lot of earnest time and energy trying to persuade somebody who can’t see any benefit in listening. More about this later…