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The crux of persuasion is empathy, not facts¹

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
(attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a late US Senator, from his speech in 1994).

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s advisor, on whether Press Secretary Sean Spicer was lying when he said Trump’s inaugural was the most-watched ever.

If you can only remember one thing from this post, it should be this: abandon the complacent faith in the ability of facts to speak for themselves.

If facts can speak for themselves, no literate adults still smoke, lead sedentary lives, or text while reading. Nobody is still debating the shape of the earth or the importance of vaccinations, and populist xenophobic politicians will never rule. But we don’t live in this world. We live in the world with human beings prone to confirmation bias (the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs) and motivated reasoning (the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal).

Facts can’t speak for themselves if people don’t want to listen. So if you want to persuade others, if your professional life depends on it, you must make your audience want to listen to facts you are presenting. Facts need an accomplice. It is called rhetoric.

Knowing how to use rhetoric in business writing is an essential skill. In business, you write to persuade. Most of what you write will aim to make others to do what you want them to do: agree with you or follow your recommendations.

You want to do this as efficiently as possible. Business people are busy, or their minds are preoccupied with their own problems or agendas. Their time and attention are scarce resource. They are also suspicious or at least skeptical, because matters related to money tend to make people so. They are impatient with vagueness, verbiage, and bluffing.

If this sounds obvious, let me remind you that you have a different writing goal at school. At schools, you write to those who are paid to scrutinise what you write so they can grade your paper. Your goal is therefore to impress them. You achieve it by showing the level of your understanding of concepts, the quality of your reasoning, and the seriousness you’re taking the assignments. In this environment, you are incentivised to elaborate your points and pile up facts to support your arguments.

I see a lot of fresh graduates still write as if they are still in college. They write to show how they have worked hard to research a plethora of facts and stuff they think matters. But in business writing, it is never about what you know; it is about what your audience (readers) need to know so they can make decisions. At schools, it pays off to be the smartest kids in the classroom. In business, it pays off to be the most useful person in the room.

So here’s the main lesson in rhetoric for business communication: the foundation of good rhetoric is empathy, not facts. In business communication, it’s all and always about your audience, not you. You make your audience want to pay attention to you by allowing them to immediately sense you are solving their problems, not yours. You make them concur with you when they see doing so will advance their agenda ―both at organisation and personal levels.

Business writing should start with listening. You need to understand your audience (readers). What do they know now, and what are they interested in knowing more? What do they do now, and what stops them from doing what you want to do? How far are they aware of the problem?

Do not forget about their feelings and moods. Many times, we get what we want by changing the mood of the situation or feelings of other people — like during negotiations, with a child, or an angry partner, or even terrorists. Remember indifferent is a default feeling in many business situations (for example, you may be excited about certain features of your product but your clients are indifferent about them). Indifference is the black hole that dampens the energy needed for actions. You can move people by love, hate, anger, or fear. Indifference simply makes people look the other way.

Once you understand where your audience stands now, you must determine where you want them to be. I am going to show you an invaluable yet underrated tool in business communication: the from-to table. Here it is.

From To
Think/believe
Feel
Do

When filling in the Think/believe row, write in verbatim, as if you can eavesdrop your audience’s inner monologues. Use precise words when naming emotions. Use strong verbs in describing actions or behaviour (for example, instead of “go”, you can use to “walk”, “hike”, “trudge”, “stride”, or “plod”).

The next step is to specify what you are trying to do. For example, do you want to make your audience realise there is a problem by revising their beliefs? Or do you want to dissuade them from making a certain decision by introducing new data? Do you want to show them their fear is unfounded by showing overlooked facts? The key here is to be as specific and vivid as you can.

Once you’ve specified your writing strategy, you can begin to compose (or in the classic rhetoric, to attempt on invention and arrangement). I recommend following the structure that was originally meant for writing a one-page memo, from the multinational giant Procter & Gamble:

  1. Start with a sentence expressing your idea or thesis. What are you proposing? Be concise.
  2. Describe the background or the problem. What conditions have arisen that led you to this recommendation? What is the problem the audience needs solving? Only include information that everyone agrees upon. This is the basis for discussion, so it needs to be non-debatable.
  3. Explain how it works. Include details your audience needs to know about what happens, where, when, by who, or to whom. Consider using a diagram to help them understand quicker.
  4. Reinforce the key benefits. Why does the audience need to consider this recommendation? Be judicious on what to include. I recommend not exceeding three.
  5. Finish with next steps. Who has to do what and by when for this to happen?

By now you can see that facts are still useful, but you need to clear the path for them beforehand, to make sure your audience is ready to chew on them. You also need to be prudent in selecting the facts you want to share. Select only on a few of highly load-bearing proofs. Again, it’s not about what you know. It’s about what your audience needs to know.

What about confirmation bias and motivated reasoning? Yes, just like the flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, GMO naysayers, and every human being including you and me, business people suffer from them too. How can we overcome them?

Motivated reasoning happens because we want to show loyalty to tribes that matter to us. Scientists recently recommend identifying people’s underlying motivations, and to use this insight to craft messages that go together with them. They call this “the jiu jitsu persuasion model”².

In business communication, all along it has been known as good rhetoric.


Endnotes:

  1. This paper was presented in the seminar held by Australian Consortium for In-country Indonesian Studies, during the Jakarta Professional Practicum Programs, January 2019.
  2. Hornsey, Matthew J., and Kelly S. Fielding. “Attitude Roots and Jiu Jitsu Persuasion: Understanding and Overcoming the Motivated Rejection of Science.” American Psychologist, vol. 72, no. 5, 2017, pp. 459–473., doi:10.1037/a0040437.

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Written by
Paramita Mohamad

CEO and Principal Consultant of Communication for Change. We work with those who want to make Indonesia suck less, by helping them get buy-in and make changes.

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