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Harness Feelings, Emotions, and Narratives to Reinforce Your Arguments

Author Maya Angelou summed it up best: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

You cannot persuade most people through fact and logic alone. There are scores of people who believed that, who have been in situations where persuasion was critical and assumed that “the facts will speak for themselves.” You can locate many of those people in unemployment lines or jail cells.

It is imperative to give voice to your facts, and that involves relating them to human emotions – and that process usually involves telling a story.

Here’s a terrific example of a story used in a direct-mail piece for the Wall Street Journal; reportedly, it brought in $2 billion in revenue. and has been used as a model for countless other direct-mail pieces.

The letter connects feelings we all share about success in life, appeals to emotions, particularly fear of failure, and most importantly does so by telling a story that keeps us reading.

Here is the opening:

Dear Reader:

On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

Recently, these two men returned to college for their 25th reunion.

They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.

But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.

What Made The Difference

Have you ever wondered, as I have, what makes this kind of difference in people’s lives? It isn’t always a native intelligence or talent or dedication. It isn’t that one person wants success and the other doesn’t.

 The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.

 And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: To give its readers knowledge – knowledge that they can use in business…

— Source for WSJ Letter: Copyblogger, The Greatest Sales Letter of All Time

For more, see the Amazon page for my latest book, Write Like a Pro: Ten Techniques for Getting Your Point Across at Work (and in Life)

Quick and Easy Trade Secrets for Writing Compelling Leads


The most important factor in writing a lead: You have to decide what your piece is about and clearly telegraph it to the reader, and then you have to confine yourself to writing about what you promised.

A memo, article, blog post, or any piece of writing that doesn’t have a perceptible main focus is not going to hold the reader’s attention or attract that attention in the first place.   Readers are fickle.  They’ll lose interest in a flash if confused or bored, and if the point of your work is unclear or meanders you’ll drive them away.   Even if it’s something they are compelled to read, such as a report, you’ll subtly antagonize them by injection friction into the writing/reading transaction and their interest, retention, and pliability will be eroded.

In addition to identifying the central thought, you have to tell the reader what it is. Summarize it, or at least refer to it, near the beginning of your piece.

The part of your writing that tells the reader what the piece is about is called the lead.  There are two basic types of leads, direct leads and indirect leads.  I’m not using the terms synonymously with journalistic leads, which sometimes follow a somewhat arcane format, but there are many similarities.

For our purposes, just think of a lead as a preview of what is coming.

For a direct lead, simply summarize what’s ahead and then use the following paragraph to amplify.   You’ll notice that’s exactly what I did in the first sentence of this entry and the next paragraph.  That was a direct lead to the central thought.

I summarized was what coming:

You have to decide what your piece is about and clearly telegraph it to the reader, and then you have to confine yourself to writing about what you promised.

And then amplified:

A memo, article, blog post, or any piece of writing that doesn’t have a perceptible main focus is not going to hold the reader’s attention or attract that attention in the first place.   Readers are fickle.  They’ll lose interest in a flash if confused or bored, and if the point of your work is unclear or meanders you’ll drive them away.   Even if it’s something they are compelled to read, such as a report, you’ll subtly antagonize them by injection friction into the writing/reading transaction and their interest, retention, and pliability will be eroded.

The indirect lead builds up a little suspense in the opening line or paragraph, sometimes utilizing a tease that captures the readers’ attention and leading them into the following part – the part that identifies the central thought.

Feature (newspaper and magazine soft-news) writers use the indirect lead to capture attention and pull the reader into the story. For example, I once was assigned to write an article about rugby, an unfamiliar, somewhat violent, and always raucous British sport that was beginning to make some headway in the U.S. and the Boston area in particular.  I focused in one team in Worcester, Mass., to tell the story.

The central thought is pretty clear:

Rugby is an up-and-coming sport, but it’s confusing, strange to the American eye, quite violent and very raucous.  There’s a team right here that is competing in a league that’s part of a national league structure, and they are doing pretty well.  Here is their story.

The central thought is fairly complex and boring, at least the way it’s stated above.

So I used the indirect lead to segue into the central thought, opening with an attention-grabbing tease followed by the paragraphs that summed up what’s coming.

Michael Minty learned his sport as a youth in his native Wembly, England.  He came home from one of his first games with two black eyes, seven stitches above one eyebrow, a swollen lip, and a torn nostril. His father looked up from the dinner table:  “Been playing rugby, have you?”

 

Then the second paragraph sets the road map for the central thought and how the central thought will progress through the article:

Minty, not one to be easily discouraged, is today player-coach of the Worcester Rugby Football club, established two years ago.  Competing it what’s called the B Division of the New England Rugby Union…{ I follow with more detail follows, including the team’s 13-11 winning record…then the next paragraph notes that the record is quite respectable because two-thirds of the team never played the game before the team was assembled…and then comes the requisite detail about broken bones and wild parties.]

Once you’ve established the central thought, keep everything that follows somehow related to it.  Journalists call this “supporting your lead.”  This is important.  Don’t wander off track.

The process of writing is truly enjoyable.  Many people find AHA! DID YOU NOTICE I JUST WENT OFF TRACK AND LOST YOU?  The central thought of this entry is:

A memo, article, blog post – anything – that doesn’t have a perceptible main focus is a loser.   Readers are fickle.  They’ll lose interest in a flash if confused or bored, and if the point of your work is unclear or meanders you’ll drive them away…

And the stuff about writing being enjoyable is not relevant to this entry and thus doesn’t follow the lead and thus must be euthanized.

We’ll focus on paragraphing and transitions in future posts, but at this point remember that if what you have in the piece doesn’t follow your lead, get rid of it.  If what you have to excise is absolutely essential, then your lead is written incorrectly and should be revised.

For more, see Write Like a Pro: Ten Techniques for Getting Your Point Across at Work (and in Life)on sale at Amazon.

A Powerful Word with a Fascinating Origin: Insidious

Here’s another muscular word from my Arsenal for the Articulate:

Insidious (in-SID-ee-us)

What it Means: Describing something that moves in a gradual way but is ultimately very damaging. Sometimes the meaning is broadened to something that is stealthily intended to entrap, such as a carefully planned and slow-moving plot.

How to Use It: “High blood pressure is the most insidious of disorders because it generally presents no symptoms until a devastating stroke.”

About the Word: It’s from the Latin word for “sit,” which is either “sid” or “sed” depending on the way it is used in a Latin sentence. Sid/sed unlocks many English meanings, including “sedentary” (sitting a lot), “sedative” (a drug that makes you sit or lie down), and “assiduous,” meaning, literally, being so thorough that you “sit down with your work.” “Insidious” came from the practice of Roman soldiers who would sit low to the ground and wait in hiding to ambush opposing troops. (Now that you know the story, try to forget the word. I challenge you.)

 

 

More Ammunition from My Arsenal for the Articulate: Implacable

 

Here’s a perfect word to characterize someone who is unreasonably stubborn, persistent, or impossible to please… 

Implacable (im-PLACK-uh-bull)

What it Means: Describing someone who cannot be appeased, whose views or actions cannot be changed.

How to Use It: “We have tried every reasonable option to make the owners of the property happy with our plans, but they remain implacable.”

About the Word: It comes from the Latin word placare, which means “to calm” — pretty much what the word “placate” means in English. Another form of placare spawned the word “placid,” meaning peaceful, as well as “placebo,” which means a pill that makes you happy even though it doesn’t have any real medicinal value.

How this Word Works for You: “Implacable” is a muscular word that expresses the notion that nothing will make the other party happy. It’s an uncannily perfect (and properly sophisticated) way of characterizing an opponent as a whiny toddler who just can’t be pleased. Even people who might not be able to summon a precise definition of “implacable” generally realize that it carries negative baggage, so use the word when you want to gain an upper hand over someone you truly believe unreasonable. “Relentless,” for example, can be construed to be admiration, so don’t use that word if you want to invoke the toddler image. “Implacable” adds that appropriate spoiled-child disdain to your assessment.

From My Arsenal for the Articulate: Eristic

Here’s another installment in my series of fiendishly powerful words you can use to make your case eloquently…

Eristic (err-ISS-tic)

What it Means: Intended to cause controversy, usually just for the sake of causing controversy. It can also be used as a noun to refer to someone who displays these tendencies.

How to Use It: “Our competitor for this contact addressed none of the real substance of the issue, preferring to launch eristic attacks on our lawyer’s perfectly reasonable objections to the terms.”

About the Word: Eris was the beautiful but disagreeable Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and contention; her parents owned a restaurant near me and I briefly dated her in my youth. Her namesake word often implies not only creating disputes, but also invoking illogical or irrelevant arguments in the process. (As a side-note, you may remember that Romans appropriated Greek gods into their belief system but changed their names. Eris became the Roman goddess Discordia, the root of our present-day word “discord.”)

How this Word Works for You: Using “eristic” subtly and efficiently impugns both the motives and substance of someone’s remarks. It allows you, in a sly and cultured way, to counter an argument by objecting, in what would seem to be a perfectly reasonable manner, to the tone of a remark – but in the process also implying flaws in its logic and factuality and insinuating that the motives of the messenger make the message untrustworthy.

Anecdote Master Class Part 2: Use Compelling Stories to Start in the Middle of the Action and Circle Back

Here is Part 2 of a Series of Tips on Using Anecdotes to Lend Power and Authenticity to Your Writing

Use Anecdotes to Start at the Middle So You Can End at the Beginning: A Simple Device to Make You Story Feel Complete and Compelling

“Starting in the middle” means begin your piece with action, something relevant and attention-grabbing. You won’t always be able to invoke this strategy, but it works more often than you might expect. An anecdote galvanizes interest, drives the reader to the next point, and reinforces the main idea.

Crime novelist Lawrence Block, who is also a renowned teacher of writing, is an advocate of this principle. He once recounted a problem he had with a book he was writing: It seemed tedious when the central character recounted the motivations for the murder, the plotting, and the eventual disposal of the body – not an easy task in New York City. The murderer was strong and the victim small, so he rolled the body up in a carpet and carried it on his shoulder on the subway. But all that planning and plotting was a snooze.

The solution: Start the book with a guy on the subway carrying a body wrapped in a carpet.

Really, how could you NOT turn the next page after that opening? Moral: Start in the middle if you reasonably can. Draw the reader in.

And when possible, end at the beginning. This simply means circle back to your opening statement or story. Some sort of reference back to the beginning serves as sort of “I told you so,” and also makes the piece seem spherical and complete.

For example, let’s say you’re writing an article about a business manager who decided to quit his corporate job pursue his dream and go to medical school.

Start the story in the middle, with some action that tells the story:

When Bob Hastings, the head of a seven-person accounting department, was told he’d have to lay some people off, he decided that he wanted to help people, not hurt them, so he fired himself.

Then summarize the main idea:

Hastings, 33 at the time, joined a growing trend of mid-career workers who enter medical school older but wiser than their fellow students….

Then tell the whole story however you’d like, using more anecdotes, examples, and quotes, following your outline. To give the story some punch, and make it seem complete, end at the beginning:

When Hastings graduated last year, he didn’t expect to see anyone at the ceremony. He had no spouse or nearby family. But he was astounded to see that waiting to shake his hand were all seven members of his old department – the people he’d refused to fire.

Not all written works will adapt themselves to this type of circular ending, of course, but you’d be surprised how many will if you pay attention and look for the right material.

Anecdote Master Class Part 1 – How to Let the Story Tell Itself

Here is Part 1 of a Series of Tips on Using Anecdotes to Lend Power and Authenticity to Your Writing

Let the Story Tell Itself without Telling the Reader the Story

I can usually identify professional-quality writing within a matter of a seconds, and the most immediate tell-tale is whether the writer is helping the story unfold or is clumsily relaying events second-hand.

This is amateurish:

This part of the city is really poor.  Children entering kindergarten don’t get enough to eat, and you know that you can’t concentrate when you’re hungry. Around that part of the city the homes are dysfunctional so of course there isn’t any regular schedule of meals, and that is something I heard from students, some of them not having any idea when people usually ear.

This is professional:

Emily’s teacher, who had noticed that the five-year-old had great difficulty concentrating and suspected that she had not eaten before coming in for the afternoon kindergarten session.

 The teacher asked what Emily usually had for lunch.

 Emily was bewildered: “What’s lunch?”

 

The second example tells a story, has dialogue, and a punch line at the end.  It shows, rather than tells – and it accomplishes the task by using an anecdote.

 Tomorrow: Why Certain Anecdotes Work, and How to Choose Them…

Structure a Presentation in Three “Acts” — and Support it with Aristotle’s “Rule of Three”

Here is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Present Like a Pro,” to be published in the fall by Praeger. 

Plays have traditionally been structured into three acts, and you can make a case that the most engaging presentations in all media follow this durable structure as well. In fact, the late Stephen J. Cannell, — one of the most prolific scriptwriters in history – argued that “every great movie, book, or play that has withstood the test of time has a solid three-act structure.”[i]

Cannell sketched out his interpretation the of the three-act structure this way:

Act One: The central character meets the other characters and we learn the central problem of the story. Act One sets up the viewers or readers, getting them to like or dislike various characters and caring about the relationships and about solving the main problem.

Act Two: Here we see the problem loom larger, and the hero sets out to solve the problem and defeat his or her adversaries. But at the end of Act Two, things go very wrong for our hero, and it looks hopeless…

Act Three: The problem is solved. Often, a lesson is learned.

Now, I want to take a side-trip here to a related but not identical subject: The “Rule of Three.” Aristotle, the father of persuasive speaking, wrote about this in his book “Rhetoric.” It’s a pretty simple rule: People tend to remember and react to things when they are presented in groups of three:

 

I came, I saw, I conquered

Liberty, equality, fraternity

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people…

 

The three-act structure and the rule of three are not exactly the same concept, but close. I believe that in a micro way, people are hard-wired to have their attention arrested by a three-part phrase, but in the macro overview, they are drawn to a 1)beginning, 2)middle, and 3)end.

“Beginning, middle, and end” is useful but a little too general for most presentations, so instead think back to Cannell and about the content of those three parts:

 

Beginning= Act One, meeting the characters and understanding the problem

Middle = Act Two, complications and struggle

End = Act Three, problem solved and lesson learned

 

Get it? On a macro level, you cannot go wrong with a three-part structure (at least in terms of elements related to the structure). And on a micro level, you cannot go wrong with presenting some of your main ideas within the presentation in sets of three.

That is so important that I feel compelled to repeat it, using both boldface and italics, the writer’s tell-tale indicators of fanaticism:

On a macro level, you cannot go wrong with a three-part structure. And on a micro level, you cannot go wrong with presenting some of your main ideas with the presentation in set of three.

 You can fit any presentation into the three-by-three structure, and we will provide many illustrations throughout. The above point is very important, and alone is worth the price of this book. However, as my contract calls for a full ten chapters, I will nevertheless continue.

 

 

[i] “Screenwriting: Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell, access July 12, 2016, http://www.writerswrite.com/screenwriting/cannell/lecture4/

 

A Great Pro Writing Technique: Utilize Examples of Behavior that Show the Subject’s Personality and Character

We often forget to use examples that illuminate the nature of the people who populate our writing.   Using such illustrations is a simple, powerful, and immediate way to cement the connection between you and your reader.

I once worked for a publication edited by Dr. Rushworth M. Kidder, the former features editor of the Christian Science Monitor who went on to found the influential Institute for Global Ethics.  Kidder had a rule that every profile piece he edited include a brief physical description of the room or environment in which the interview was conducted, a description of the person being interviewed, and some action on the part of the subject of the piece.  (Not all at once, of course, but sprinkled throughout the profile.)

That’s a good rule, and I’ve occasionally imposed it on students and journalists whose work I edit.

The physical description of the locale makes the piece seem more real in the theater of the mind, and sometimes it adds some insight into the person or situation who is the subject.  For example, it’s interesting to note the former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg worked in an open office at City Hall, a desk in the middle of a sea of other desks, a setup that resembled a stock trading floor more than a mayor’s office.   You can’t read too much into it, but the environment he created does speak to his background and management style, and perhaps to the image he wants to project to constituents.

Describing the subject of the piece is a no-brainer, but I’ve seen some pretty brainless writing where there is not a word of description and the reader is left in a vacuum.  One piece I edited actually featured a subject with an androgynous name – I think it was Jamie – with no hint as to whether the subject was male or female.  Such detachment makes the piece seem distant and second-hand.  A brief phrase – “a trim man in his fifties with short, grey hair, cut military-style” – provides the reader with a picture of who is talking and cuts away some of the fog and distance.

As to actions: Does the person you are writing about habitually stand when someone comes into a room?  Speak with low intensity? Interrupt others constantly? Make sweeping gestures?  Focus intently on one person while screening out hubbub in the immediate environment?  Drum fingers? All are gelling actions and gestures.

Here’s an example of how actions can provide insight.  It’s from a young writer named Kalyce Rogers, who publishes on the blogging platform Medium, which has evolved into a venue for some truly outstanding writing by emerging authors:

 I know he’s got at least some money, because he’s buying Grey Goose. People with money don’t buy cheap vodka, or cheap rum, or cheap whiskey. They invest in the good stuff, like Grey Goose. Three bottles of it.

His suit radiates “expensive”, the kind of expensive that involves several tailors and a high-end store in Manhattan. We aren’t in Manhattan, though. We’re in a fluorescent-lit Ralph’s in a suburban city that sleeps from 10 PM to 6 AM. Men who belong in Manhattan look out of place here.

“How are you doing tonight, sir?” The woman working the register asks pleasantly enough. My eyes are fixated on her hands, veins prominent through tired skin, as they scan bottle after bottle. His own fingers drum on the register wall impatiently. A gold band catches lights and gleams from his ring finger.

“Fine. Now, if you wouldn’t mind speeding up this damn process, I’ve got places to be.” He snaps, taking a black leather wallet out of his jacket pocket, a shiny credit card protruding from the top. It looks like it’s made of silver. He holds it gingerly between his index finger and middle finger, and now that his hands are busy, he begins tapping his foot on the linoleum. There is a faint, distinct rhythm, but I can’t place where I’ve heard it before.

Example, example, example!  The behavior, more than the description, gives the piece reality and vibrancy.

 

From the Arsenal for the Articulate: Anomie

Here’s a powerful word that gets across a sophisticated point in short order.  I came across it recently in a Charles Krauthammer piece in which he warned:

We must now brace ourselves for disquisitions* on peer pressure, adolescent anomie and rage.

Here’s my short course on anomie:

Anomie (ANN-uh-mee)

What it Means: Unrest or instability brought on by a breakdown of ethics, standards, and values.

How to Use It: “The anomie and anger of the German people after World War I gave rise to the fascist power-grab.”

About the Word: “Anomie” comes from a Greek word meaning “lawlessness,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean insurrection.   It’s an expressive and precise word because it conveys the idea of festering alienation that could gradually lead to a social breakdown; you can also use it to apply to uncertainty, purposeless, or aimlessness stemming from a lack of ideals.

*I covered disquisition in a previous post