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How To Write A Persuasive Message

how to write a persuasive business or marketing message

 I borrowed the title of this article from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman's book is the basis for a series of articles I am writing as an "unpacking for business" exploration. When I read the book, I was struck by how many of the concepts of perception and decision-making, could have profound impacts on designing business processes, and communication.

I don't intend to delve deeply into Kahneman's masterwork as an academic exercises. The book is a brilliant and challenging work I savoured, and sometimes struggled with, one page at a time. The intent here is to take a deliberately "psych lite" approach and improve the understanding those ideas that make us better communicators, business owners, and marketers. To get the real depth of Kahneman's work, there is simply no substitute for reading it.

You will find the complete list of articles in this series by clicking on this tag: Kahneman.

The chapter on Cognitive Ease provides these ideas for shaping a persuasive message:

  • Familiarity and ease rule. That which is familiar, easy to comprehend, memorable, or in any other way unchallenging, slips more easily past our rational censors (which Kahneman calls 'system 2' or 'thinking slow'), and we accept it as favourable or true.
  • Cognitive ease vs cognitive strain. These are the terms that describe what is going on when we encounter something familiar or easy to understand, vs something foreign, complex and harder to understand.
  • Repeat yourself. Or ride on repetition in the environment (think memes on social media). Familiarity is hard to separate from truth. When we hear or see things we have seen before, even if those earlier exposures were fragmentary, we are more likely to have a positive reaction to them. The basics hold true here: for training and marketing, repetition works.
  • Visual contrast works. There is a reason something in bold seems to sink in or stand out better: high contrast and easy to read makes text seem "truer". For 'system 1' or the quick, intuitive, emotional, primitive part of our brain in control most of the time, easy equals true. This also reinforces what every good typographer understands: the right font has a powerful effect on the impact of a message.
  • Keep it simple. Counter-intuitively fancy academic language makes us sound less intelligent. Simple words and simple phrases leave that part of our brain "at ease". We are less likely to run simple language past our intellectual guards, so it slides by unchallenged. We assume, because we understand what you are saying, it is true, and you must be smart for saying so. There is a long tradition of seeing the 'plain-spoken' as more honest and reliable than people who use big words.
  • Make it memorable. Kahneman uses the contrasting example of "woes unite foes" and "woes unite enemies" from studies that show when things rhyme they are more memorable and described as more insightful. There is a reason why jingles, phrases with strong internal rhymes, and other memory hooks are effective in advertising: they work.
  • Tell the truth. While every successful dictator and charismatic sociopath, has used these and other tools to persuade the unsuspecting to swallow the most outrageous lies, it is still a difficult thing to do, especially over the long haul. Things which don't jive with our other filters for the truth: trust, education, and experience, risk creating cognitive strain. When that happens ,system 2, associated with our frontal lobes, the slow, rational, calorie-intensive part of the brain, wakes up and starts taking a second look. That is the last thing a manipulator wants you to do. The truth as we know it, or believe it, is a powerful precondition for cognitive ease.

Two final points are also worth passing on from this part of the book:

  • Cognitive strain has value. If you want people to slow down and really consider something carefully, don't make it too easy to read. Especially in this world where we skim so quickly over the surface of information, anything that makes us try a little harder to understand wakes system 2, and creates an opportunity to think, and not just intuit or feel. Maybe there is value in that 6-point legalease font size!
  • Branding works. Kahneman cites the work of Robert Zojanc who has spent his career showing that systematic (but not blatant) exposure to even the most 'foreign' signals (words in foreign languages, foreign writing systems, even random shapes) made people judge those signals to be positive when shown them later. They had no idea what they meant but they knew the "liked" them better than similar signals that were displayed less often or not at all. Mere exposure increases positive association, and the process is largely unconscious and automatic.

A deceptive message can be 'coated' with these tricks to slide more easily into our minds. It is even more important that a valuable and truthful message benefits from the same tricks. If it is worth communicating, it is worth communicating well.

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