Persuasive Writing Ken O'Quinn

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Reducing the size of your initial request can be an effective persuasive tactic because it makes the request less burdensome to your audience.

Let’s say you want management to approve a costly new training curriculum. Rather than ask for the full program, try asking management to approve it as a pilot program. Asking for it on a trial basis means less of a financial commitment for management and, therefore, less daunting a request. The approach not only will increase the likelihood that you will win approval; it also will make it more likely that you will get another positive response in the future if you ask for the full version of the pilot program.

That is because of the human behavior principle of consistency. We feel a need to be consistent in our behavior, because in our culture, consistency is a highly regarded quality. So we want our actions to match our commitments, and we want to act in a manner that is consistent with how we acted in a similar situation previously. So if someone said yes to your request once before, it is more likely he or she will say yes again — even if your request is more expensive.

Asking for less is an influence tactic that also can work when asking someone for a donation. Psychologists Robert Cialdini and David Schroeder, writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, told of an experiment in which they sent two groups of solicitors door to door asking for donations for the American Cancer Society. One group simply asked people, “Would you be willing to give a donation?” but the second group followed up that question immediately with, “Even a penny would help.”

By inserting that second sentence, the fundraiser reduced the size of the request, which not only made it easier for the person to say yes but also made it more difficult to say no out of fear of feeling guilty about being cheap. “When confronted with a minor request, a target person is hard put to argue for an inability to comply,” the psychologists said.

Asking for less in your persuasive writing can help get your foot in the door and could yield greater benefit later.

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at Amazon.com.

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