Hone your persuasive word skills

We need to communicate our strong logical arguments in a way that reaches people emotionally. Tony Spencer-Smith
Tony Spencer-Smith


If anyone needed convincing that influencing others has little to do with building a logical case, then look no further than Donald Trump.

The man has been caught out in endless fabrications and inaccuracies, and paints a picture of America and the world that few, outside his besotted supporters, believe. Yet he gained power against the predictions of the pundits – and in general his followers seem unshaken in their peculiar belief that a rogue billionaire is their saviour.

The lesson we should take from this is not that we should lie and distort and use some of the more disreputable aspects of rhetoric; it is that we need to communicate our strong logical arguments in a way that reaches people emotionally.

The thing is, as we learn from the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, there are two ways of thinking. Kahneman called them System 1 and System 2. System 1 is quick, intuitive, unconscious and emotional. System 2 is slow, conscious and logical. It is our rational self.

Most of the time, we use System 1, because we live in a complex and fast-moving world and would not survive if we sat down and analysed everything consciously. System 1 thinking is easily swayed and takes lots of short cuts. Which is not to say System 1 gets it wrong all the time. It is often spot-on and a creative way of thinking.

The message here for communicators is that we need to engage System 1-type thinking, or our facts and figures could simply wash over our audience without impact.

And there are lots of ways to activate System 1 thinking. We can use rhetoric, which is nothing less than the study of how to use words persuasively. There are lots of rhetorical devices that can be used quite legitimately to get a message across effectively.

Then we can use the lyrical power of words. This means being aware of their subtle connotations and their sounds and rhythms, and using metaphor, simile, imagery and other literary devices. In sometimes mysterious ways, this enhances the impact of what we are saying.

Also, we can learn as much as possible about our audience, so we can shape our communications to their tastes, experience and the way they use language themselves.

And we can tell stories. Storytelling (I’m talking about true stories here!) speaks straight to System 1, which itself spends a lot of time trying to make sense of reality by building stories.

Here is what I am saying: if you want to influence people with your words, you need to do a lot more than presenting them with PowerPoint slides full of graphs and statistics, however accurately they might describe a situation.

The good news is that writers can learn to do this. You can learn how to make your words leap off the page and straight into the hearts of your audience.

First published . Last updated 5 Feb 2019. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Tony Spencer-Smith

Tony Spencer-Smith loves words. He has worked with them all his life – ever since he published his own magazine while still in primary school. He moved on to become a prominent journalist, an award-winning novelist and a corporate writer and editor. In his training, he inspires others to share his enthusiasm for the power of language. Tony is one of Australia’s top corporate writing and editing trainers. In over a decade he has helped thousands of people from blue chip companies, government and not-for-profit organisations to upgrade their communication skills.

The broad experience he brings to his training includes being Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest magazine in both Australia and South Africa; a senior newspaper journalist; and a corporate editorial expert who has written speeches, brochures, reports, websites and internal communications for top clients.

His children’s novel The Man Who Snarled at Flowers won the biggest literary prize in South Africa, while his latest book The Essentials of Great Writing was published in Australia in 2009.

Trainees leave Tony’s classes with a comprehensive set of writing and editing skills to raise their writing to the next level.

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