4 – Persuasion

How to Write a Persuasive Document

David McMurrey; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt

Below, you will find guidelines on writing persuasively in technical communication.

Define and Support Each of your Arguments

In order to provide clarity to an audience, you will need to explicitly state your major arguments, claims, or conclusions. These statements should not contain ambiguity or be buried among other content. Think about the professional documents you have read. If you were asked to summarize a journal article from your field, what would you say were the main points? Writing that offers clear, quotable sentences that express the purpose, arguments, and conclusions of the author is much easier for the reader to summarize and retain as opposed to writing that embeds its ideas without saying them outright.

Of course, it is not sufficient to merely state that something costs less, works better, provides benefits, and is acceptable to the public. You must prove each argument by using supporting data, reasoning, and examples.

For instance, imagine that you are attempting to persuade your city council to consider a municipal recycling program. As part of your persuasive strategies, you use a logical appeal to argue that such a program would reduce landfill requirements. How can you prove that? You prove that claim by conducting primary and secondary research that answers key questions that the audience might have. What, for example, is the city’s daily input to the landfill? What are the costs? Can you determine how much of the landfill is made up of recyclables? If you can get believable numbers, you may then calculate landfill savings in terms of volume and dollars.

Consider Pathos

Used appropriately, emotional appeals capture readers’ attention, get them to care about the issue, and establish common ground (of common motivations and values) between the author and audience. On the other hand, used inappropriately, they rouse strong emotions such as fear and anger, preventing readers from thinking clearly about the issue, or they invite ridicule or laughter by being “cheesy.”

What pathos could you use for a recycling promotion? Images of overflowing landfills or of dwindling natural habitats and saddened cute animals are options. Some audiences might be touched, but others would find such arguments to be too sentimental. A more effective use of pathos would be to find what motivations the audience might have: an apartment complex might be persuaded that providing a recycling method for residents would draw more clients and increase the company’s profit.

Consider Ethos

Like emotional appeals, personal appeals do not establish logical reasons for an argument. However, personal appeals are nevertheless effective in professional documents and often necessary to make the audience trust your logical arguments and data in the first place. If you use the personal appeal, you attempt to build readers’ confidence in you as someone who is knowledgeable and reliable. Citing years of experience and education is a common example of building a personal appeal. Other appeals that affect your credibility include how your document or presentation looks, the types of sources you cite, and your affiliation with organizations, such as work, school, religion, social groups, or political parties.

What personal appeals could your hypothetical recycling project use? To get people to accept the data, you could cite believable sources, such as government reports or leading experts. To give yourself credibility, you could describe your past experience and training in this area. Perhaps you could also describe yourself as a long-time resident of the city. You might also clearly communicate any methods of research used in order to persuade your audience that your methodology was sound.

Address Any Counter-Arguments

Counter-arguments are objections people might raise in relation to your argument. Actively engage with reasonable counter-arguments and show how they are wrong, how they can be addressed, or how they are irrelevant to your main point. Notice that a persuasive document advocating recycling could be structured on counter-arguments as reflected in this possible title: “Recycling: Not a Waste of Money or Time!”

As for recycling programs, you must address the standard objections. For instance, someone might say that recycling is time consuming. You might counter-argue that recycling is no more of a hassle than taking out the garbage. Perhaps someone argues that it’s a hassle sorting everything and keeping it in separate bins. That one is easy: most recycling programs don’t require sorting. Maybe someone objects that it’s messy and attracts pests. How would you address that counter argument?

Plan an Introduction

In an introduction you usually do not state your main argumentative point within the first few sentences. Instead, indicate the subject matter and any necessary background information. If you establish a topic’s context and significance (why it matters to your audience) as soon as possible, your readers are more likely to hear you out.

Imagine that you have written the main sections of a report recommending that your city invest in and create a municipal recycling program. You have logical appeals, counter-arguments, and possibly some personal and emotional appeals as well. Instead of demanding that the city adopt a recycling program, begin with a purpose statement establishing that this document “explores” or “investigates” the possibilities for recycling. Indicate that this document is for both city officials and ordinary citizens. Provide an overview, indicating that you’ll be discussing current and projected landfill use and associated costs, amount of recyclables in municipal waste, their recyclable value, potential revenue from a recycling program, costs of a recycling program, and necessary administrative and citizen participation in such a program. For more information about Introductions, see Chapter 9: The Writing Process, Chapter 19: Informational Reports, and Chapter 20: Recommendation Reports.

Consider the Conclusion

In persuasive communication, the final section is often a logical conclusion (for more information, see “true” conclusions in Chapter 20: Recommendation Reports). If you have not yet overtly stated your main argumentative point, now is the time. When you do, summarize the main arguments that support it.

The last section, whether it is called the conclusion or goes by another name to follow the conventions of a document’s particular genre, is the place to emphasize the information you want your audience to remember. In fact, depending on a document’s audience, some audiences may flip straight to the conclusion section to see what the takeaway of the document is, as they are more interested in the final practical consequences and outcomes. Be sure that the conclusion section communicates this information as clearly as possible to your audience.

How to Format Persuasive Documents?

Here are a few suggestions on format as they relate specifically to persuasive documents.[1]

Headings. If you structure your document by individual arguments, then the subheadings can be related to those arguments. For reports, these headings and subheadings will be somewhere in the body of the report rather than in introductory or concluding material. Notice how a heading in the previous example contains a counter-argument: Recycling: Not a Waste of Money or Time!

Graphics. Factual information supplies a great deal of the legitimate support for your persuasive effort. Make your data more dramatic and vivid by creating tables, charts, and graphs. Graphics, including illustrations, graphs, tables, and photographs, can also supply both logical support and emotional support. Particularly well-crafted and well-integrated graphics will also add to your credibility and ethos. See Chapter 8: Graphics for additional information.

This text was derived from

McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


  1. “Monroe's Motivated Sequence.” Changing Minds, accessed August 14, 2020, http://changingminds.org/techniques/general/overall/monroe_sequence.htm.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication by David McMurrey; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book