Writing to Influence People

OK. You want to convince teens who don’t use sunscreen that they really should. How do you go about it?

Do you marshal facts about skin cancer? Explain how ultraviolet rays work? Add arguments about increases to health care costs? Then offer examples that support your case?

When we want to persuade someone, our tendency is to begin with a direct approach. Such a technique, however, is often ineffective. As I noted in Write Better, “When we put forward an argument, we can trigger the rational, judging, and evaluative faculties in our audience. As a result, they may respond (at least in their own minds) with arguments of their own” (p. 60).

Our brains aren’t just rational machines that pump out logic. We have another and probably larger dimension to our thinking that we often don’t consider. Some call this intuition or gut reactions. Jonathan Haidt calls them automatic processes.

Based on years of research into how people make moral judgments, Haidt believes we should instead start by being friendly, taking time to understand the other person’s point of view.

Why? Because our emotions have a profound effect on how we think about things. Emotions aren’t opposed to reason, he says. They are instead a way–a very important, very useful way–to reason. (Think about sociopaths who are very rational but lack many emotions and therefore make terrible decisions.) Emotions are not infallible in decision-making, but neither is a rational approach.

Contrary to what we might think, studies have shown that usually we initially have a hunch about what is right or wrong when faced with an issue. Then our rational faculties may or may not come into play, using our hunch as a starting point. If, then, you want to persuade someone (in person or in writing), start with that intuitive, emotional side because our hunches tend to guide our reasoning.

Haidt offers a model for how we might put together a persuasive case. Indeed he structured his book, The Righteous Mind, using this very approach. He tells us,

I have tried to use intuitionism [the theory that decisions begin with emotions] while writing this book. My goal is to change the way a diverse group of readers—liberal and conservative, secular and religious—think about morality, politics, religion, and each other. I knew that I had to take things slowly and address myself more to elephants [our intuition] rather than to riders [our reasoning]. I couldn’t just lay out the theory in chapter 1 and then ask readers to reserve judgment until I had presented all of the supporting evidence. Rather, I decided to weave together the history of moral psychology and my own personal story to create a sense of movement from rationalism to intuitionism. I threw in historical anecdotes, quotations from the ancients, and praise of a few visionaries. I set up metaphors (such as the rider and the elephant) that will recur throughout the book. I did these things in order to “tune up” your intuitions about moral psychology. If I have failed and you have a visceral dislike of intuitionism or of me, then no amount of evidence I could present will convince you that intuitionism is correct. But if you now feel an intuitive sense that intuitionism might be true, then let’s keep going (pp. 59-60).

That’s a pattern we can use too. If, then, we want to encourage people, especially teens, to form a habit of using sunscreen, is there a better way?

Could we connect with them at the emotional/intuitive level before going to a rational approach? We could begin by identifying with our audience about how much we love the tanned look. But instead of then moving to the topic of cancer, what if we stick with the beauty angle? Chip and Dan Heath suggest noting that too much tanning gives you wrinkles.* That distasteful image can get an immediate negative reaction from teens that can guide their thinking.

Will everyone be persuaded? No. But by approaching people as whole people, we are likely to persuade more.


*See Made to Stick, pp. 38-41.

Image by Pierre-Laurent Durantin from Pixabay

The Success Conundrum

Like many book lovers, you have probably enjoyed certain authors so much that you keep reading their books. At some point, though, you may get tired of them. It may begin to feel like they are writing the same book over and over, especially if they have hit on a successful formula. We can see this with money management books, self-help books, or thrillers like The DaVinci Code.

It’s a conundrum for authors. On the one hand we are told to write what we know, yet we are unlikely to have deep knowledge or experience in several divergent areas. Likewise we may have gained expertise in a certain style of writing that may not transfer to a different genre. Imagine trying to shift from technical writing to popular fiction. It can and has been done, but it takes practice and discipline.

Then there is that old issue of audience. If we have developed a following (which can take a lot work and luck), why walk away from readers who still seem to want more?

One strategy is to take a chapter or subtheme in your first book and expand that, going in depth in a way you couldn’t before. Another option is to take the topic you are known for and apply it to a different audience or context. Instead of getting organized in the home, consider getting organized at work.

Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, Blink, and David and Goliath) is someone who has found a happy balance of combining the similar and the different. He uses the same excellent journalistic and story-telling style to approach many different topics (success, intuition, underdogs). He models a curious mind, and I, for one, am happy to go wherever his interests take him.

I have also followed authors who have written similar kinds of books. The books in Louise Penny’s mystery series centered on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache are quite alike, usually containing the same (or reoccurring) characters, mostly in the same locale (Quebec), using the same style. Yet she manages freshness in plot and superb characterization that makes us care about the people in her stories, book after book.

Yet sometimes after reading a couple books from the same author, I move on. Part of that may be due to taste. Or perhaps I’ve just gone deeply enough into a topic to suit my needs. But sometimes I just feel like I’ve read it before.

Publishers often see this reality in the declining sales of each new book by a previously successful author. It can be a conundrum for them as well. After working hard to establish a new author, they want to build on that—if they can without prompting tedium.

What if, as a writer, you have only one area of expertise and you’ve pretty much said everything you have to say in one book? To me, that’s ok. And if you desire to write more, there are plenty of other channels for shorter pieces like blogging, articles, contributing a chapter to an edited collection, short stories, poems and more.

And one of these may spark an idea for a book on something brand new.

The Problem of the Anonymous Author

Everyone who has tried to get a book published recently knows the question every publisher will eventually ask: “What’s your platform?” That is, how well known are you? Will you be able to let lots of people know about your book once it’s published? Do you speak to groups regularly, and if so, how many? Do you have a prominent professional position or a large following in social media? If you don’t, publishers aren’t usually interested.

Once upon a time, publishers could successfully sell books of not-so-famous authors through the thousands of bookstores spread around the country. But with the rise of e-sales and the resulting demise of two-thirds of all brick-and-mortar book shops, publishers have had to rely more and more on authors to make a book known.

But what if the content of your book means you need to remain anonymous. Maybe you have a memoir in the works, but you don’t want to directly expose sensitive information about those close to you, information like past addictions or trauma.

Maybe (more intriguingly) you are a whistleblower. If your identity in a particular organization were to become public, then you might expose yourself to retaliation. Nonetheless, publishers want the author out there in person, using your real name to promote the book. Otherwise they won’t touch the project.

What’s the solution?

One option is to find a coauthor with a platform who could be the public face for the book. Ideally your coauthor would have some credentials in the main topic of your book. If addictions or trauma is involved, then teaming with a psychologist might make sense. If corporate misdoings are the focus, then a business writer could work. Having a coauthor with an established platform can even help you get published even if you don’t need or want to be anonymous.

Pairing with someone who will do all the promotion and who will already be well-known could mean your coauthor gets more than half of the royalty—even if you write half or more of the book. But hopefully the book will do at least twice as well as an anonymous solo effort. So you should break even or better.

In fact, having a coauthor could make the difference between being published and not being published at all.

Image by Irina L from Pixabay

The Best in the Business

As an executive at a publishing house for decades I read dozens of business books. Some I read for my own interest. Others were assigned to me by my boss for our team to read.

Too many of these were filled with abstract ideas, gave few examples of how to put the theory into practice, had longs lists of to-do’s, were based too much on one person’s experience, or simply had too few ideas.

The best of them kept their audience firmly in mind. The authors knew their readers were busy people who needed fresh, practical ideas on specific topics. They had to keep the attention of people who were distracted by dozens of problems needing immediate attention, people who wanted help—right now. How did they do that?

1. Stories. Some business books (which shall be nameless to protect the guilty) give theory or outlines without engaging the human element. Stories engage our passions. But they also use stories to make principles concrete. Often we don’t know how to put an idea into practice in our own context until we see an example even if it is in a completely different setting.

One of the most memorable pieces of leadership advice I ever read was in First, Break All the Rules. Counterintuitively the authors said not to spend a lot of time trying to fix weaknesses in employees. Rather concentrate on their strengths and on your best employees. That seemed odd to me until they told a concrete story of Jean P. whose average for data entry was 50% higher than the national average. Her manager helped her set goals to improve and track her progress. In three months she doubled her performance. So she set new goals and in six months she doubled that! (p. 177)

Suddenly the point became clear. Rather than spending a lot of time trying to get five average people on the team to improve by 10%, far more could be achieved by giving focused attention to star performers (in data entry or sales or case loads). When I read that, I got it! And it transformed how I managed.

2. Practical. The best books don’t open with several chapters of theory and then offer concrete advice at the end. Rather they mix theory and practice in every chapter. Unless readers feel they will get something they can use right away, they will give up on the book.

3. Substance. I am often annoyed by business books which “are magazine articles with a very high view of themselves.”* Books that stretch out a single, thin idea are exasperating. They waste my time. While most readers won’t tolerate a thick, academic approach, they do want something that is based on solid research which has been distilled in a way that doesn’t talk down to them. Which brings us to the next point.

4. Simplicity. It’s hard to put something into practice that you can’t remember. It’s also hard to put something into practice that is overly complicated. Don’t get me wrong. I love subtly and nuance and balance and sophistication in everything I read. Sometimes I’m able to gather the main points myself. But it is so much better if authors could do that for us.

One of the best business books I’ve read is, under the surface, a manual on how to write a business book. Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is for those who have an important message to convey—teachers, sales managers, team leaders, coaches, writers, parents, entrepreneurs talking to investors, yes, . . . and those writing business books.

They highlight six points which they summarize in a memorable acronym SUCCES—Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Clarity, Emotion, Stories. And they practice what they preach, using all six of these features in their book to explain each of the six points.

No one formula is right for every book. But if you are able to incorporate even some of the elements the Heath brothers encourage, regardless of the kind of book you are writing, then you’ll definitely be in business.

*As my friend Steve Board once put it.

The Future of Writing

“The art of prophecy is very difficult, especially with respect to the future.”*

That is no less true in the world of writing and publishing than in politics or business. What will be the hot topics of the next year or decade? Few predicted two years ago that we’d see a huge resurgence of such backlist books as  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, Albert Camus’s The Plague, and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722!) by Daniel Defoe.

Should we try to be current or should we aim to be evergreen? When trying to figure out what to write next, it can be a difficult question. In general, I think we should avoid the current or trendy unless that new fad happens to hit our sweet spot—something we already have some experience with, interest in, or knowledge of.

A corollary is that we probably shouldn’t worry whether our interests are in favor or not with the reading public. We should write about what interests us. You can’t fake enthusiasm. Your passion will capture readers.

Roger Burlingame wrote in 1946: “A few years ago there were resurrections of the Brontës, Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen, whose novels of manners presumably belong to an area on which the door had definitely shut… So it is never safe to say that a book or a genre is dead or fatally dated.”** And the Jane Austen revival seems to have had remarkable staying power even to this day.

If something out of date or passé interests you, don’t worry about it. Write what you care about. Write with excellence. And see what happens.


*This phrase or variations of it have been identified as a Chinese or Danish proverb, and also attributed to Mark Twain, Samuel Goldwyn, Nostradamus, and others. But it likely originated with physicist Niels Bohr. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/10/20/no-predict/

**Roger Burlingame, Of Making Many Books, (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University PRess, 1946, 1996), p. 328.

Dante and Darth Vader

With the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante this month, I read his Inferno for the first time. Much was as expected, yet I was surprised as well.

I knew that in the book Dante is taken on a tour of hell with the ancient Roman poet Virgil as his guide. The best-known line, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” greeted me as it greeted Dante on entering the underworld. There he found descending circles of the damned for such sins as lust, greed, violence, fraud, and betrayal.

Dante was not only a poet but a political figure in Florence around the year 1300. So he achieves a certain measure of revenge while in exile by writing his epic and describing the gruesome punishments of his enemies. He and Virgil also meet other political, financial, and religious notables from that era of Italian history.

What surprised me was that they also encounter not only those from ancient Greek history but also from Greek mythology. At first this seemed to be an odd syncretism, a strange mixture of two religions. On reflection, however, I think this was Dante’s attempt to integrate everything into his Christian world view. For him, even pagan myths must submit to the Christian story.

It would be like integrating the Star Wars universe or the world of Harry Potter into a biblical cosmology, where Darth Vader and Dumbledore both find themselves under the sway of a powerful Creator God who nonetheless uses sacrifice to resolve all storylines, reconcile all things, renew hope, and make everything right.

Christian theology, as it should, often sees history in God’s hands, how he oversees and guides events for his purposes. We also need to read, see, and hear artists tell stories that show how all the tales of human imagination reflect and bow to the Great Story.

That is a journey for which Dante acts as our guide.

Dante image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay; Darth Vader image by Voltordu from Pixabay

Mr. Ryan’s Class

Propped up on a desk in the front row of the room, thirty-something Mr. James Ryan sat silently surveying my high school English class. I was a junior on the first day of school. The first minute of class. We quieted down waiting to see what he would say. Would he introduce himself? Tell us about class requirements? Have us open a book?

“Are there any questions?” he began.

We were even more silent now. Questions about what? What was he talking about? We were confused. At least I was.

After waiting a moment and hearing nothing, he said, “Ok, then,” and with a wry smile that impishly suggested we had had our chance and wasted it, he began.

Many people have had a teacher or coach who had a major impact. Someone who believed in us when we didn’t believe in or even know ourselves, someone who made a subject captivating that we previously thought was dull as a spoon. Mr. Ryan would become that teacher for me.

Over fifty years later I still remember things he taught us, ideas and practices that have continued to affect my life as a writer and editor.

Consider vocabulary. He exposed us to a wide range of words each with a nuance of meaning that made literature and writing richer and deeper. Memorizing word lists sometimes seemed tedious. But he showed how word selection matters. It can make a huge difference in the power of a paragraph.

Overwhelm is such a great word, he told us. It is a combination of “over” (as in turn over) and “helm” (as in the tiller of a boat). To be over-helmed, then is to be capsized, to be in danger of drowning. Think about how you might use that word, he urged. Not to talk about a delicious new ice cream flavor or when we missed the latest episode of Batman. Instead, we should use it when our world or our perspective on something important has been turned upside down, when we are at least momentarily out of control.

Tone was another key topic he introduced us to—how a piece of writing works on you at a deep level. More than just the ideas or information, the tone can make a piece powerful, memorable, significant. For fifty years I have tried (not always succeeding) to develop tone in my writing and help authors do the same.

That’s where the chapter on tone came from in Write Better. That’s where I learned of the magic and weight of words. That’s where my lifelong journey into creativity, ideas, and story took hold of me. From Mr. James Ryan.

Who was an influential teacher, coach, or relative in your life?

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Comparisonitis

All of us have our insecurities. Perhaps those of us who are writers are above average in this regard.

We hesitate to write. We then hesitate to show anyone what we have written. Then we are reluctant to submit it for publication. Then we doubt anyone will like it if published. Finally, we are distressed that our publisher seems to have promoted another author’s book more—and more successfully—than ours!

That way madness lies.

Over a hundred and twenty years ago, Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, also suffered from this common malady. In 1899 she wrote to her publisher,

I do not think I have been fairly treated as regards the advertising of “The Great Inclination.” The book has now been out six weeks, & I do not think I exaggerate in saying that it has met with an unusually favourable reception for a first volume by a writer virtually unknown. . . . I have naturally watched with interest the advertising of the book, & have compared it with the notices given by other prominent publishers of books appearing under the same conditions. [Others] advertise almost continuously. . . . If a book is unnoticed, or unfavourably received, it is natural that the publisher should not take much trouble about advertising it; but to pursue the same course towards a volume that has been generally commended, seems to me essentially unjust. (117-18)

This letter, excerpted in Roger Burlingame’s Of Making Many Books, is but one of many such examples the author found in Scribner’s correspondence files. He discovered several cases in which Author A would write complaining that he got less advertising that author B. Yet Author B made the same complaint regarding Author A!

Comparisonitis has plagued humanity not just for a century but for millennia. None of us is immune. Sadly we have no magic cure.

One discipline may ameliorate the condition, however. I mention it in Write Better. Gratitude. Remembering to give thanks for all we have been given can redirect our focus from what others have that we do not. We can tamp down our lesser angels by regularly, daily, asking what good things are in my life or what was a highlight of the day.

Certainly we are better off giving energy to our writing than to our insecurities.

Image by MorningbirdPhoto from Pixabay

Volleyblog

When my granddaughter decided to try out for the school volleyball team, she asked her uncle (who has been a volleyball coach) for some tips. He not only gave her some pointers on skills but also on how to approach tryouts.

“You can’t always control where the ball goes,” he said, “but there are two things you can control—your attitude and your effort.

“You can cheer on the other girls. You can listen to what Coach says and do it immediately. You can decide not to get down on yourself if you make a mistake but instead try to do better next time. That’s attitude.

“Also don’t be afraid of the ball. Don’t stand there and let it drop in front of you. Go for it and hit the ball hard—even if it goes out of bounds. If Coach tells you to go someplace, don’t stroll. Run there. That’s effort.

“That’s what Coach will be looking for.”

As I listened, it seemed that was much like writing. We can’t control which publishers will say yes, which readers will write positive reviews, how many copies we’ll sell or how many readers we’ll get. And sometimes we can’t even control how skillfully and effectively we will write.

But we can control our attitude and our effort. We can cheer on fellow writers when they get something published, get a good review, or win an award. We can decide to listen to editors and writers who offer good advice about the craft generally or about our writing in particular. We can decide to not get down on ourselves if we don’t write as well as we’d like. We don’t have to be better than the next person. We just need to try to do better than we did the last time. That’s attitude.

In addition, we can practice hard. We can write thirty minutes every day, even if it is just journaling or only for our own enjoyment. We can stick to blogging regularly even if we don’t have thousands of readers but do it instead for the sake of practicing our craft. We can get good advice on the skills and habits needed to write better. We can keep submitting our work to others for input or for publication. That’s effort.

Spending energy on what we can’t control is like trying to put the wind in a bottle. Focusing on what we can control makes the difference.

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay

Footnote Your Talks

Once I received a letter from a reader who said that a book published by the firm I worked for had plagiarized his own writing. This was a serious charge and a rather shocking accusation because our book was written by a senior scholar with a stellar reputation. Could this be possible?

What made the case more interesting was that the writer of the letter said he had been a student of this scholar some fifteen years before. The scholar, claimed the student, had incorporated some of the student’s paper into the book we published. And he provided evidence. Several paragraphs from his paper matched exactly or very closely portions of the book.

We sent the material on to the author for his comment. After reviewing it, he admitted it was true. How had it happened?

The author thought the student’s paper was excellent and began referring to it, even reading from it, in his lectures over the next several years. Slowly, in his class notes, the student’s name became detached from the quotations. Then the quotation marks disappeared. When it came time to write a book based on these lectures, the author had forgotten where this material in his notes had come from and assumed it was all his own.

How did we resolve this? We and the author agreed to revise the book in the next printing. We put the student’s material in quotation marks and gave due credit in the footnotes.

The Lesson to Be Learned: Whenever you prepare a talk, a sermon, or a lecture—always footnote your speaking notes as if it were to be published. You never know when you might take some old material (even decades later) and work it into a published piece. Include not only the name of the person responsible for the quote (or for the point of fact) but also, the name of the book, the publisher, date of publication, and page number. Then you won’t have to spend hours trying to track it down—which can sometimes be impossible, even in the internet era. I know—I’ve tried.

Corollary: When speaking, give credit to your sources, whether quoted or summarized. You can’t give full bibliographic information since that would make your talk impossible to listen to. But you can say, “As David Brooks says in his new book . . .” That is intellectually honest (you didn’t come up with the idea), and it doesn’t unduly interrupt the flow of your talk.

photo credit: Adrian Schweiz (Pixabay)