The clarity of your first few sentences can affect persuasiveness. The reader needs to know why the message is relevant.
People don’t necessarily think of clarity as important to persuasion. Influencing people is thought of as the careful use of language to shape opinion and induce compliance, while clarity is associated more with messages that inform or explain.
But if people don’t understand your message, you can’t move them toward your point of view. When the first few sentences are vague and disjointed, leaving the reader puzzled about why you’re writing, that reduces the likelihood that persuasion will occur.
Rapport is important. You need to connect with the audience.
said Richard Perloff, a psychologist at the University of Cleveland and the author of Dynamics of Persuasion.
Richard Petty, a social psychologist at Ohio State University and a prominent expert in persuasion, says that when people encounter a lack of clarity (even from a difficult-to-read font), “it could lead people to dismiss what you are saying due to your presumed lack of expertise or care, or it could lead them to be negatively biased in their thinking about what comes next.”
Duane Wegener, also a social psychologist, said that if, for example, someone opens a message about nuclear power, the person might initially have a favorable thought about nuclear power. But if the person is immediately confused by the writing, she “may just shut down altogether,” Wegener said. “You need to keep people engaged.”
Political candidates sometimes make the mistake of unloading a large volume of facts and data about an issue to impress people. But instead of appearing as knowledgeable, such a candidate is more likely to create confusion.
David Levasseur, a professor at West Chester State University who studied presidential candidates, said those who introduced 10 pieces of factual evidence every 500 words during a debate “seemed to leave the media and the public baffled and dumbfounded.”
When you are writing or speaking to someone and trying to induce them to say yes, don’t leave the person scratching her head after two paragraphs.
Petty and John Cacioppo developed a now-famous theory about what motivates a person to read a message. One variable is whether the message is relevant to the reader. If the reader cannot determine quickly what the purpose of the message is or where the writer is heading, then it won’t be clear whether the message is relevant to him or her.
Depending on whether the audience will be favorable to your request, idea, or recommendation, you might not want to present your position immediately. But with clear, crisp writing, at least you will pull readers in and keep them interested enough to continue.
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 here at Amazon.com.