Blog Business Writing 3 Steps to Writing Persuasively

3 Steps to Writing Persuasively

A.J. Ogilvie

A.J. Ogilvie

Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California

Published Apr 10, 2022

woman shaking hands warmly with a colleague

Is a key part of your job persuading people?

If the answer is "yes", do you have specific, repeatable strategies you can use to persuade people?

Don't worry—most leaders don't.

But if you don't have these strategies to rely on, you might not have the right set of tools for one of the most important parts of your job: getting people to agree with you.

In this blog post, you'll learn how to use one of the most effective tools for persuasion: framing.

Contents:
  1. What Is Framing?
  2. Examples of Framing
  3. How Do I Frame a Message?
  4. Step 1: Begin with your audience
  5. Step 2: Center your message around your audience’s values—not your own
  6. Step 3: Keep it short and focus on the reader
  7. TL;DR

What Is Framing?

Framing is communicating strategically.

Framing has multiple definitions, but this is mine: framing is the strategic use of words and language to construct a reality for your audience so that you achieve your desired goals.

You’ve likely used framing unknowingly at some point in your work career.

Perhaps you were giving feedback to someone, and you deliberately "sandwiched" your feedback: you started your feedback on a positive note by identifying what they were doing well, then described something they needed to work on, and then ended again on a positive note.

This "sandwich" example aptly illustrates the framing definition; you strategically selected and sequenced particular words so that your audience saw the feedback as constructive and helpful.

The reality you constructed for your audience was that they were doing well but had some things to work on, and this reality is more likely to mean that your audience will apply the feedback and grow from it.

You could have, instead, only provided them with the negative feedback which could have risked creating a reality for the audience that their performance was all negative.

This "sandwich" example is perhaps one of the more obvious and less high-stakes examples of framing. For leaders, however, framing is a high-stakes game.

A leader’s success is contingent upon their ability to achieve buy-in and alignment from stakeholders. And to do this, leaders must transform how they think about communication and persuasion.

Instead of seeing writing and speaking as the mere transmission of words, leaders need to see communication as an opportunity to craft new realities for their audience.

Examples of Framing

Politicians have long used framing to gather support for a piece of legislature or gain voter support.

When former US President George Bush wanted to pass a law that weakened environmental regulations on industry in 2003, he named the bill the Clean Skies Act.

Anyone trying to understand the Clean Skies Act would learn about the bill through this frame, or "reality", of "clean skies," which would make it hard to see the bill as anything but pro-environment.

Similarly, when former US President Barack Obama rolled out his landmark 2009 health care bill, he didn’t give it a boring name like Health Care Act 4257. He strategically framed its label and called it the Affordable Care Act, knowing that people’s primary concern with health care is affordability.

If he could get Americans to see that this bill addressed their concerns, and they would assign the bill positive associations, then the legislation had a higher chance of success.

How Do I Frame a Message?

One of the most challenging parts of framing is that we have to rewire how our brains think about communication.

Few of us think very deeply before we communicate—we don’t think before we speak. Which, most of the time, is okay.

But when we’re working on an important project or initiative, it’s critical that we’re aware of our thinking and make sure we pause and think strategically.

Keep reading for three steps that will enable you to get the results you want from your communications.

More of a visual learner?

Learn how to write more persuasively in this video training:

Step 1: Begin with your audience

Regardless of what kind of message you are crafting or medium you are working in, you must start with your audience.

You want to deeply understand who they are, what they care about, how they see the issue, and what their motivations are.

Most importantly, it’s key to figure out what kinds of problems or issues they have.

Example: Getting execs to introduce paternity leave

Let's say you want to encourage company executives to adopt a more generous paternity leave.

First, you need to figure out who they are and what they care about.

  • What do execs frequently talk about?
  • What kinds of wins or successes do they like to highlight?
  • What kinds of evidence do they provide for their ideas or proposals?

You want to identify two or three values that they hold before you move on to step 2.

woman pointing to audience member while giving a presentation

Step 2: Center your message around your audience’s values—not your own

Using our example, say you found that the execs at your organization care deeply about keeping up with their competitors.

They believe strongly that the company’s future success relies on their ability to recruit and hire top-level employees, and to do this they need to offer comparable, if not better, benefits than industry rivals.

You don’t really share their view. You feel that a longer paternity leave is a good idea because it is the moral thing to do.

That argument, however, won’t work with those executives who feel more strongly about the company’s competitiveness than they do the moral arguments for paternity leave.

Because you're acting strategically, you won't open up your meeting with them by extolling the moral value of a longer paternity leave for employees.

Instead, you are going to frame your meeting with them around what they care about: recruiting great talent.

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Step 3: Keep it short and focus on the reader

There is more to framing than simply linking your goal to your audience’s values.

You need to develop a simple and engaging phrase that your audience can both remember and retell.

There are many ways to do this, but one approach is to think of simple analogies or metaphors that strongly convey the values that your audience cares about.

Here are three potential messages for this paternity leave example that use analogies:

  1. "Increasing paternity leave to six months would further signal to up and coming talent that we are thought leaders in our industry"
  2. "With expanded paternity leave, we have an opportunity to truly set ourselves apart from our competitors"
  3. "In the race for top talent, expanded paternity leave would put us at the head of the pack"

TL;DR

  1. Understand your audience's values
  2. Write as if you share those values—even if you don't
  3. Craft a simple message with an analogy that explains why your proposal meets their goals

If pressed to distil the information in this blog post into one frame, it would simply be the following: "words matter."

And yet this seemingly obvious phrase conveys an idea that most leaders perhaps don’t take as seriously as they should.

Words matter, and they matter because words are how people make sense of the world.

When we use words that convey values that align with our audience’s values, we’re far more likely to engage them and, ideally, persuade them.

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A.J. Ogilvie

A.J. Ogilvie

Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California

A.J. Ogilvie, PhD, is a professor of business communication at the University of Southern California. He has taught business communication, consulting, and writing courses for over ten years, and has published research on the theories of teaching, learning and communication.

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