4 – Persuasion
When technical writing first emerged as a subject in university engineering schools, it was defined as rigorously objective in writing style, even to the extent of using the passive voice instead of the first person singular “I.” The standard model was the primary research report. Since then, however, it has become clear that technical writers must often engage in persuasive communication efforts in their primary work.
Persuasion is the communicative effort to convince people to think or act in a certain way—to vote for a city-wide recycling program, to oppose the building of more coal-fired electricity plants, or to purchase a new piece of technology for a classroom.
In the view of some, technical writing is supposed to be “scientific,” “objective,” and “neutral.” However, like any human pursuit of knowledge, science is never truly objective and neutral. All data must be interpreted by someone in order for the data to have any use or meaning. Moreover, certain types of technical and professional communication, such as proposals, progress reports, résumés, application letters, and even complaint letters, are more overtly persuasive while still conveying technical information.
Persuasive strategies for technical writing are often embedded in the structure of the document rather than in overt appeals to emotions or justice. Persuasion is an essential factor in the infrastructure of proposals and progress reports. To convince people to hire you to do a project, and to reassure them that the project is going well, you need persuasive strategies. This chapter reviews the common persuasive strategies to prepare you to write those kinds of documents, as well as persuasive technical documents.
The classical approach to persuasion, established by Aristotle (384–322 BCE) in the Art of Rhetoric, involves three appeals to readers and listeners: logos, pathos, and ethos. These appeals are both interconnected and directly tied to key parts of the rhetorical situation (genre/form, audience, and deliverer, respectively).
When you use reasons and arguments, backed up by facts and logic, to make your case, you are using logical appeals. Most writers easily understand the importance of reliable evidence in a persuasive document, but logical appeals extend to the structure of one’s argument as well. How you explain your evidence and its relationships to other claims and evidence is just as important a logical appeal as the information itself. In academic and technical communication, logos is the preferred method of persuasion.
When you attempt to rouse people’s anger or sympathies in a persuasive effort, you are using emotional appeals. Such direct emotional appeals, however, are less effective in technical or business writing, since these styles attempt to be more measured or objective. Effective pathos in this situation would instead appeal to common motivations, goals, and values. Arguing that a certain course of action would save the company money, for instance, would appeal to what the audience wants. For another example, picture a company that really values long-term sustainability. Arguing that a certain course of action would reduce a company’s carbon footprint would appeal to the company’s values, and therefore, probably to the values of their clients.
When you present qualifications, experience, expertise, and wisdom (whether yours or others’) in an attempt to build readers’ confidence in you and your document, you are using ethical appeals. Part of what will convince readers to “listen” to you is if they know who you are and what makes you an authority on a subject. Another aspect of ethos is the credibility and “trustworthiness” of your sources of information. Just as pathos can be used legitimately to get readers to pay attention and care about your message, the appropriate development of ethos will build readers’ confidence in you.
You may also have encountered the “stylistic” appeal: the use of language and visual effects to increase the persuasive impact. For example, a glossy, fancy design for a résumé can have a positive impact just as much as the content. This is yet another facet of ethos as it is an appeal that lends to how you are perceived by your audience.
In addition to the three classical appeals, other helpful strategies for argument, such as the Toulmin Model, include rebuttals and concessions. These approaches are focused more specifically on addressing potential concerns or counter-arguments that your readers may have when reading your document or hearing your presentation.
In a rebuttal, you directly address arguments that your persuasive opponents might bring up. You show how these claims are wrong or how they don’t affect your overall argument. Picture yourself face to face with your persuasive opponents. What arguments are they going to use against you? How are you going to answer those arguments? In a written persuasive effort, you must simulate this back-and-forth, debate-style argumentative process. Imagine your opponents’ counter-arguments (arguments they might put forth against your position), and then imagine your own rebuttals (your answers to those counter-arguments).
In a concession, you acknowledge (or concede) that certain opposing arguments have some validity, but you explain how they do not damage your overall argument. Concessions build credibility and make you seem more open minded.
Not all arguments need to end with one side completely winning. One strategy is to aim for synthesis, or a combination of major arguments and points. Modern rhetoricians urge us not to view the persuasive process as a win-lose situation or zero-sum game. Such rigidity prevents us from resolving issues and moving forward. Instead, the process of counter-argument, rebuttal, and concession should be sincere and continuous until all parties reach synthesis—a middle ground where they agree.
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.
- Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Classics, n.d.) http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.html. ↵
- Laurel Nesbitt, The Toulmin Method, Writing@CSU, (Colorado State University, 1994 - 2012) https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=58; Toulmin Model of Argument (Carson-Newman University, 2018) https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Toulmin.pdf. ↵
Rhetorical appeal that uses reason, logic, and factual evidence to support claims; preferred method of persuasion in technical and professional communication.
Rhetorical appeal where the deliverer rouses emotions such as fear, anger, sympathy, or pride to persuade the audience of a claim. In technical and professional writing, pathos may more commonly appear as an appeal to shared motivations, goals, or values.
The persona that a deliverer emphasizes in any communication. This emphasized persona typically consists of qualifications, experience, expertise, and wisdom (whether yours or others’) in an attempt to build readers’ confidence in you and your document.
Response to a counterargument.
Persuasive strategy where a speaker or writer acknowledges (or concedes) that certain opposing arguments have some validity, but this acknowledgment does not negate the writer’s argument.