Writing Persuasive Messages

The essence of persuasion is OVERCOMING INITIAL RESISTANCE. Persuasion is the attempt to change someone’s attitudes, beliefs, or actions. In its positive sense, persuasion influences the audience by informing them and by aiding their understanding, which allows them the freedom to choose.

Most likely, the person receiving your message did not ask for it, and will probably have questions and/or concerns about the message. The reader might ask:

Why did I get this letter?

This looks like junk mail – why should I read it?

I don’t understand this.

Why should I do this?


Some important questions to ask before sending out a persuasive message:

Are there legal and ethical issues that need to be addressed?

Who is my audience (both primary and secondary)?

How will my credibility affect my message?

What can I use to help persuade my audience?

Should a use emotional appeals or logical appeals?

1. Analyze audience needs

The best persuasive messages are closely connected to your audience’s existing desires and interests. One of the most effective ways to motivate your audience is offering to satisfy your audience’s needs.

One of the most useful theories of need was developed by Abraham Maslow, who used a hierarchy to explain how needs are structured. Only after lower-level needs have been met will a person seek to fulfill higher level needs. It is important to remember that only UNMET needs motivate.

In attempting to persuade someone to a certain behavior, you must first look at what is motivating that person to behave the way he/she does currently, and what unmet need might be used as a persuasive "hook" for change.

Because everyone’s needs differ, people respond differently to any given message. It is important to look at factors such as demographics (age, gender, occupation, income, education, other quantifiable characteristics), psychographics (psychological characteristics such as personality, attitudes, lifestyle), and sociographics (culture and group dynamics).

  1. Look at your credibility
  2. In order to persuade a skeptical or hostile audience, you must show them that you know what you’re talking about and they you are not trying to mislead them. Your credibility is defined by how reliable, believable, and trustworthy you are. If you don’t have credibility, your audience will not listen, or will be skeptical.

    Your credibility can be enhanced by:

    Supporting your message with facts

    Describing your knowledge and expertise in this area

    Being objective, willing to acknowledge all sides of the issue, showing fairness

    Being sincere, showing your honesty, genuineness, good faith

    Establishing common ground, discussing the areas on which all can agree and

    beliefs, attitudes, and experiences that you have in common with your audience

    Most importantly, being enthusiastic; your excitement about the subject (or LACK of excitement!) can infect your audience.

  3. Use semantics (word meanings) to enhance your message.

The words you use say much more than their dictionary definition; connotations (underlying personal meanings) of words can also influence an audience. For example, consider the words useful, beneficial, and advantageous, which are synonyms but which portray different meanings.

Some useful tools to use in persuasive messages:

bulletFocus on your goal – what one specific thing do you want to gain from this


bulletUse simple language – watch out for fantastic claims, insupportable descriptions, emotional manipulation; speak plainly and simply
bulletAnticipate opposition – think of possible objections in advance; raise and answer counterarguments
bulletBe specific – back up your claims with evidence, cite actual facts/figures
bulletBe moderate – ask for "one small step" rather than a big life change
bulletProvide sufficient support; it’s up to you to prove that the change you want the reader to make is necessary
bulletCreate a win/win situation; make it possible for both you and the audience to gain something; what’s the benefit to the audience?


  1. Use both emotional and logical appeals

When people’s needs are not being met, they are likely to respond emotionally. For example, in a collection letter, be sensitive to the tone of respect you use to avoid any hint that the person might be dishonorable.

Is it better to appeal to logic or to emotion? You can probably use both effectively in your message.

You can call on human emotion by basing your argument on the needs or sympathies of your audience as long as your emotional appeal is subtle. Use emotional appeal of words like freedom, credit record, success, free, savings, value, comfort. This puts your audience in a frame of mind and helps tem to accept your message. Also, emotion works with logic in a unique way: People need to find rational support for an attitude they’ve already embraced emotionally.

A logical appeal calls on reason; you make a claim and support it with reasons or evidence. You can use several types of reasoning:

bulletanalogy (comparison) of something new with something familiar
bulletinduction: reasoning from specific evidence to general conclusion (report results of study)
bulletdeduction: reasoning from generalizations to conclusion (showing that business in this area is projected to increase in the next two years, to support …)

Avoid faulty logic:

hasty generalizations (be sure you have plenty of evidence before concluding

avoid begging the question (don’t just simply restate it in different words)

avoid attaching your opponent (s)

avoid oversimplification of a complex issue

avoid assuming a false cause

avoid faulty analogies (be sure the two situations are really related)

avoid illogical support – make sure the connection between the claim and the

support is truly logical and not just a "leap of faith" or irrelevant

Use the Toulmin Method:

1st state your claim clearly

2nd support your claim with a clear reason

3rd if the audience already accepts your reason, you may proceed to your conclusion

But, if your audience does not already accept your reason, you must support this reason with another clearly stated claim, and support that claim with another clear reason, and so forth until you achieve common ground or agreement. Only then may you return to step 3.


  1. Organize your message

Your organizational format depends on the type of persuasive message. One of the most common is the AIDA plan:



Attention: You must convince your reader at the start that you have something useful or interesting to say, because the reader will be reluctant to read.

Get your reader’s attention with a statement that is





In the interest section, continue the opening theme in greater detail and relate benefits specifically to the attention-getter. Explain how your messages relates to the audience. Paint a more detailed picture with words, to get your audience thinking, "This is an interesting idea; could is possibly solve my problems?" The benefits you are presenting should relate specifically to the attention phase.

In the desire section, provide relevant evidence to prove your claim, and draw attention to any enclosures. Back up your claims (here’s where the logical and emotional appeals come in) to increase your audience’s willingness to take the action that you will suggest in the next section. Make sure your evidence is directly relevant to your point.

Close with an action ending that suggests a specific step the audience may take. Your ending must be more than just "Institute this program as soon as possible" or "send me a refund." This section offers you one more opportunity for one last reminder of the main benefit the audience will realize from taking the action you want. The secret is to make the action easy: call a toll-free number, use a preaddressed, postpaid envelope, etc.

  1. Consider approach (indirect vs. direct)

The AIDA plan is tailor-made for the indirect approach, allowing you to save your main idea for the action phase. You will want to use the indirect approach when:

bulletyour audience has strong resistance to your message
bulletyour message is relatively short and clear (so the reader doesn’t have to wait too long for the main idea

You can adapt the AIDA plan for the direct approach, using the main idea as the attention-getter. Build interest with your argument, build desire with the evidence, and emphasize your main idea in the action phase with the specific action you want your audience to take. The direct approach is often shorter. Use the direct approach when:

bulletyour audience has no great resistance to your message
bulletyour message is long and complex, so that you satisfy the reader’s curiosity.

Even though you’re presenting the main idea first, make sure you include a brief justification or explanation so that your reader doesn’t have to accept your idea on blind faith.

Poor: I recommend building our new retail outlet on the Main Street site.

Improved: After comparing the four possible sites, I recommend Main Street because it is the only one that fulfills our criteria for visibility, proximity to mass transportation, and square footage.


Requests for Action – to solicit funds, favors, information, cooperation. Remember that (1) people are busy, so they’re reluctant to do something new; it takes time and offers no guarantee of any reward in return, and (2) competing requests are plentiful.

Why do people respond to requests for action on an issue that is more important to you than to them?

they believe in the project
they believe in you
they see benefit to them from this project

Highlight both direct and indirect benefits, intrinsic and extrinsic benefits ( Intrinsic benefits are internal, extrinsic are external, added on).

The attention-getter usually serves to show readers that you know something about their concerns and that you have some reason for making such requests. It might be a flattering (but, of course! sincere) comment. The body of the letter covers what you know about the problem: facts and figures, benefits, your experience. Your goal is to establish credibility. Once you’ve demonstrated that your message is relevant, and you’ve established your credibility, you can request the specific action.

Be careful not to doom your request to failure by asking your reader to do all your work for you.

Claims and Requests for adjustment ("complaint" letters)

Your goal is to persuade someone to make an adjustment in your favor; you’re not merely getting a complain off your chest. In this situation, the persuasive format is used because the person is not required to comply with your request (for example, in the situation where a warranty period has already expired). You reach your goal by demonstrating the difference between what you expected and what you actually got.

Persuasion is a necessity in pressing claims when you’ve already paid for the product, since you can’t threaten to withhold payment. You must convey the essentially negative information in a way that will get positive results. Fortunately, most business people are open to fair settlement of your claim, if you can convince them it is to their advantage to maintain your goodwill and resolve the problem quickly so they may continue with other business.

The key ingredients are:

a complete and specific review of the facts

a confident and positive tone.

Assume that the other person is not out to cheat you, but that you have the right to be satisfied with the transaction. Focus on the benefits of solving the problem rather than on the horrors of neglecting your complaint.


VERSION 1: I bought an Audio-Tech sound system a few months ago to provide background music at my gift shop. Now one of the components, the CD player, does not work right. When we play a CD, it repeats and repeats. This is very irritating to me and my customers, and Audio-Tech needs to fix this problem.

My clerks and I noticed this major mess about a month or so after I bought this fancy unit at the McNally Sound and Light Store in St. Louis, where I buy most of my video and CD stuff—although sometimes I buy through catalogs. When one of the clerks first heard the CD repeat, she tried another CD, and sure enough, it did the same thing, so it is a player problem, not a CD problem. Then we set the CD player on digital so that we could see visually what was going on, and sure enough, the sound was repeating and even skipping.

When I finally brought the unit back to the store, Henry McNally said that the 60-day warranty had expired, and it was my gift shop’s problem, but definitely not his problem. He said I probably had a "lemon."

This CD unit probably never did work right. I would think that after paying hundreds of dollars for this component, it would work for many years. Other stores here on Main Street cannot believe what a bummer it is to hear irritating background music on this Audio-Tech player. They say they will not buy the Audio-Tech brand if you don’t replace my unit.


As the owner of a small gift shop, I try to provide a pleasant ambiance for customers. For background music, I play "easy listening" and clasical music on my Audio-Tech Pro III sound system. I play both CDs and tapes, but the CD player is not working properly. Please replace this CD unit at no charge.

I purchased the Audio-Tech Pro III system on November 1, 1996, from McNally Sound and Liht at 16325 Lincoln Drive, St. Louis, Missouri 63158—about 150 miles from my store. All parts of the unit worked well for a month or so. I first noticed the problem on December 12: the CD would repeat a phrase two or three times in succession before moving on to the rest of the selection. At first I assumed it was a defective CD. On December 13, two customers asked me to turn off the CD player because it was repeating one musical phrase sporadically throughout a classical selection. The next day I checked the unit by setting it on "digital," and sure enough, every CD I played repeated phrases intermittently.

I called Mr. McNally at McNally Sound and Light, but I couldn’t take the unit to St. Louis, because my shop is open extra evening and weekend hours for the Christmas holidays. There was no chance for me to take a half day away from my shop between mid-December and the end of our inventory period in early January. However, on January 10, I took the CD unit back to McNally. When I returned on January 17 to pick it up, Mr. McNally told me that he could hear the problem but was unable to fix it. He said it was a manufacturing problem, but since my warranty had expired, he could not replace the unit free of charge.

Enclosed with this letter and the CD component are copies of my original sales form and McNally’s January repair order. Please replace, at no charge to me, the defective CD unit. Although the 60-day warranty theoretically expired on January 1, I discovered the problem well within the warranty period. My original decision to purchase Audio-Tech products was motivated by your reputation for both quality products and exceptional service. So I know you will stand behind your product and replace the faulty machine.


Sales Letters

Remember that the focus of your message is your audience. Know the law:

bulletSales letters are considered binding contracts in many states. Avoid even implying offers or promises that you can’t deliver.
bulletMaking a false statement in a sales letter is fraud if the re cipient can prove that (a) you intended to deceive, (b) you made a statement regarding a fact rather than an opinion or a speculation, (c) the recipient was justified in relying on the statement, and (d) the recipient was damaged by it (in a legal sense). Misrepresenting price, quality, performance is fraud. So is a testimonial by a person misrepresented to be an expert.
bulletUsing a person’s name, photograph, or other identity in a sales letter (or other for-profit publication by your company) without permission constitutes invasion of privacy, in most circumstances.
bulletPublicizing a person’s private life in a sales letter can also result in legal problems. Don’t include information about any patient in a sales letter or brochure without permission.

Determine selling points and benefits. What are the most attractive features of your service? ** Be aware that your audience may know NOTHING about chiropractic and its benefits! How will they benefit by chiropractic care? Don’t assume even a basic knowledge of chiropractic. Look back at Maslow’s hierarchy and think of these needs and how chiropractic can fill them.

Focus on only a few benefits, singling out one as the hallmark of your campaign.

Getting attention. If you use the AIDA plan, you will need an attention-getting device. Some suggestions:

bulletA piece of genuine news "According to a study just released by …, chiropractic has been shown to benefit
bulletA personal appeal to the reader’s emotions, values:
bulletThe most attractive feature plus associated benefit:
bulletAn intriguing number "Three secrets of chiropractic…"
bulletA concrete illustration with story appeal. "In 1995, Sally Jones couldn’t walk. She had been to doctor after doctor, surgery after surgery…."
bulletA specific trait shared by the audience. "Most busy people…
bulletA provocative question: "
bulletA challenge "Don’t waste another day in pain!"
bulletA solution to a problem: "Tired of….?

The best attention-getter is one that makes the reader look at the rest of the letter. Which of the following three examples seems most interesting?

How would you like straight A’s this semester?

Get straight A’s this semester!

Now you can get straight A’s this semester, with…

(Most people find the first option the most enticing, because it invites response, a positive response designed to encourage you to read on. The commanding tone of the second option may make the reader wary. The third, although acceptable, conveys no sense of excitement.

**Emphasize the CENTRAL SELLING POINT** Choose only one central point of emphasis for your letter. Highlight the point in the heading or first paragraph, make it stand out through typography, design elements. Refer to it repeatedly throughout the letter.

To give force to your message use action terms:

Instead of "the NuForm desk chair is designed to support your lower back and relieve pressure on your legs" Write "The NuForm desk chair supports your lower back and relieves pressure on your legs" (The second version uses fewer words and emphasizes reader benefit more directly ("supports").

Use colorful verbs and adjectives that convey a dynamic image.

What about price? What about other terms of sale? (Do you take insurance?)

Supporting your claims

You can’t assume that people will believe what you say just because it’s in writing. You have to prove claims, using facts, statistics, testimonials from satisfied customers. Incorporate both factual and emotional appeals here.

Motivate action

Your overriding purpose is to get your reader to do something. ASK FOR THE SALE!!!

In some instances, you may want to ask for just the first step toward the final buying decision, such as sending for more information or setting an introductory appointment.

Try to persuade your reader to take action right away, without sounding like a used-car sales person!