Writing to persuade: Who is you?
by Ron Scheer
Persuasive writing depends on a clear image of the reader. Marketers know this, so do politicians. Whenever the writer says “you” and “your,” the reader identifies and thinks, “Yeah, that’s me!”
A close look at Seth Godin’s “Permission Marketing” reveals several strategies for evoking that response from a broad audience of middle class Americans, ages 25-45, college-educated, middle and upper middle income — all with something to sell.
- He uses references to popular culture that are well known by his target audience: the Macy’s Parade, the Super Bowl, Seinfeld, professional sports. And he uses many brand names: Campbell’s, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Nike, McDonald’s, Lexus, MCI. Also names of people in the business and financial news: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet.
- He draws on common experiences for examples and analogies: shopping at supermarkets and mass market bookstores, “must see” TV, big budget Hollywood movies, People magazine, buying coffee makers, entering instant-win sweepstakes, dating and getting married.
- He illustrates points with nostalgic memories he’s likely to have in common with his audience. He talks of growing up in the suburbs when T-shirts didn’t have logos and there were only 4-5 channels on TV, and he fondly recalls “The Munsters,” Charlie the Tuna, and Tony the Tiger. He remembers ad slogans: I’d walk a mile for a Camel; Mikey likes it. And he talks of the moment when he stopped buying every new Bob Dylan album.
- He makes assumptions about the readers’ lifestyles and attitudes: they think of time as their most valuable possession; they think of information on the Web as “free”; they have a favorite brand for almost everything; they expose themselves to 4 hours of commercial media a day; they subscribe to cable TV; they travel often by air and use frequent flyer miles; they have some disposable income; they consider New Yorkers rude.
- He makes very few references to history or historical figures. He draws broad generalizations about the past, and there are brief allusions to giants of American industry, such as Ford and Carnegie. He seems to feel that this is not an area that holds much interest for his audience. He can say, for instance, that people fled the city to the suburbs to “avoid the crowds,” without concern that he’s oversimplifying a complex social and economic process.
- He occasionally uses “we,” “us,” and “our” to invite readers to identify with him and his audience. Take the sentence “Because our needs as consumers are satisfied, we’ve stopped looking really hard for new solutions.” The use of “our” and “we” lets the reader feel included in a privileged and affluent group of people.
- In general, he writes in very short sentences and paragraphs, using short words. The Flesch reading ease scale ranks “Permission Marketing” at 66.1, which is well within the 60-70 comfort range on a scale of 1-100, higher scores indicating easier reading. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level test puts his writing at 5.7, more than a full grade below the standard, which is grades 7-8.
- Finally, Godin uses an informal prose style full of familiar words and expressions: “sooner or later,” “peace and quiet,” “tried and true.” He will say he’s “pretty sure” about something or that something is “nice enough.” Frequently he finds “a lot of” or “lots of” things. He also uses nearly every possible contraction in the language (isn’t, they’re, there’s, you’d). Overall, his style is meant to inspire confidence. It is familiar, friendly, inviting, reassuring, inclusive, and undemanding.And over and over, the reader in his target audience feels, “Yeah, that’s me; he’s talking about me.” And if you’re a marketer, that is just what you want.Ron Scheer is a Web consultant, writer, and teacher based in Los Angeles. His keep-it-simple approach is a blend of content analysis, plain English writing, and principles of information design and ease-of-use. He publishes a regular free newsletter “Say What You Mean on the Web,” and his web site www.ronscheer.com features helpful guidelines for making e-business sites customer-friendly.