Tell me if this is familiar: You read an opinion piece in the local paper in which someone lays out an impassioned case on an issue. If you already agree with the writer, you think, “Amen!” And if you don’t, you think, “Geeze, that person is really ranting about that topic.” That is, if you read it at all.
When you write for people who already share your general outlook or opinion, you have a great deal of latitude. You may be “preaching to the choir.”
There’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir. Every time I send one of these blog posts to my email list, I’m preaching to a choir of people who value writing.
When you understand and agree with your target audience, you can reach them more easily.
But here’s the problem: you have to adjust your writing techniques when addressing people who don’t share your views. The task is particularly challenging when readers have already made up their minds about your topic.
Too many writers preach to the choir when they’re trying to persuade the congregation—or even reach people outside the building.
Writing to persuade requires a careful approach. Here are a few things to remember when you’re writing to change minds.
Don’t Rely on Data for Persuasion
We often assume that people don’t share our beliefs because they lack the right data. If we share the data, they’ll change their minds, right?
When writing to a like-minded audience, you can lead with data that supports your views, because most readers will interpret it the same way you do. If nothing else, they’ll be open to understanding your interpretation.
Data alone rarely changes entrenched beliefs. When people have made up their minds about something, they may not even draw the same conclusions as you do. (We’ve all seen examples of the same study being used to support opposing viewpoints.)
If you want to change minds, don’t lead with data. Start out with something more emotionally compelling, like a story, that will shift the reader’s perspective. Data may be necessary, but it’s not enough.
Forgo the Need to be “Right”
When persuading others, don’t insist on being right, because it automatically makes the person who disagrees with you wrong. How often have you changed your mind because someone yelled “You’re wrong!” at you? Readers might just dig in further.
Your goal is to shift perspectives, not to show up as being right. You have to take yourself out of the picture. Something may seem obvious to you, but it’s not obvious to those who disagree with you.
Respect the reader who disagrees with you if you hope to persuade them.
Uncover the Hidden Values
If you’re writing about deeply held values, you’d better understand those values in yourself and your readers.
Jonathan Haidt has written a wonderful book called The Righteous Mind, in which he compares ethical values to taste buds. We all have different assortments of them. Maybe I liked spicy food and you don’t; it’s easy enough to accept the differences.
The same is true with ethical values. We have different ones.
If your topic touches on one of those ethical taste buds, then choose your words with care.
We often cannot see beyond our own moral values and assume everyone else shares our outlook. You may have to reframe your argument to appeal to the things your readers value, like loyalty, respect, or sanctity.
The next time you read something from someone you disagree with, pay attention to how they navigate these factors of data, “rightness” and beliefs. How do you feel about what they write? What can you learn from them, even if they don’t change your mind?
I admire those writers who seek to change minds, because it’s hard work and success rates vary. It’s much easier, and safer, to preach to the choir. But those wonderful writers who can shift our perspectives and beliefs play an important role in the world. We should all try it.
Resources for Persuaders
If this is the course you have chosen in your writing, here are a few resources that you may find useful:
Read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.