At first glance mathematics and persuasive communication–writing and, particularly, public speaking–would seem to have little in common. After all, mathematics is an objective science, while speaking involves voice quality, inflection, eye contact, personality, body language, and other subjective components.
Under the surface, however, they are very similar.
Above all else, the success of persuasive communication depends on the precision of its structure. Mathematics is all about precision. It is therefore not so odd to think that applying some of the concepts of mathematics to persuasive communication could make it substantially more effective.
As they say in the film industry, three key factors go into making a successful movie: the script, the script, and the script. Likewise, three key factors go into making a successful speech or other type of communication: the structure, the structure, and the structure.
Know what you are doing
Many commercial companies do not live up to their potential–and sometimes even go bankrupt–because they fail to correctly define the business they are in.
Perfume companies, for example, do not sell fragrant liquids but rather love, romance, seductiveness, or self-esteem. Bio-food companies do not sell organic produce but rather honesty, purity, and nature. Automobile manufacturers do not sell transportation but rather freedom, adventure, spontaneity, or prestige.
Along the same lines, before you sit down to draft a communication, you need to define exactly what type of writing you’ll be doing. That’s not so difficult, given that there really are only two fundamental types of writing. It is important to recognise this, because not only are they quite different, but in some respects they are exactly opposite. So unless you clearly recognize which type of writing you are doing, you will almost certainly commit serious errors.
The two types of writing are creative and expository. Creative writing, which runs the gamut from poems to plays, has as its fundamental purpose the reader’s amusement and entertainment. Expository writing, conversely, is meant to instruct and inform. Memos, white papers, proposals, and training manuals fall into this category.
Because the objectives of creative and expository writing are so different, before striking a key you must adopt the appropriate attitude toward the type of writing you are doing. You should approach creative writing with the attitude that everyone wants to read what you’ll be writing. After all, who doesn’t want to be amused and entertained?
But with expository writing, you should assume that no one want to read what you are going to write. Most people don’t like to be instructed and informed. They probably would much prefer to be doing something else.
The importance of recognizing and adopting the expository-writing attitude cannot be overstated, because it can dramatically change the very nature of what you are writing. For instance, I was once commissioned to write a corporate image brochure. Two things are certain about these expensive, glossy booklets: 1) Almost all companies of any size feel compelled to produce them, and 2) virtually no one ever reads them.
Starting from the attitude that no one would want to read what I was about to write, I created a brochure that people did indeed read. In fact, they actually called the company to request additional copies to give to friends, clients, and colleagues.
On another occasion, I was commissioned to develop an advertising campaign to revitalize a product with stagnating sales. Applying the expository-writing attitude, I discovered that three of the product’s key benefits were not being properly exploited. Why? The manufacturer felt that everything about its product was important, so for years it had systematically been burying these three key benefits under an avalanche of other information of less interest to potential buyers. The new campaign sharply focused on the key benefits; virtually all other information was moved to the background or eliminated. As a result, sales shot up some 40% in the first year.
Because creative writing and expository writing have essentially different objectives and attitudes, they require essentially different approaches. With creative writing, you should play with language to generate pleasure. In other words, use your mastery of the language to amuse and entertain.
With expository writing, what’s most important is organizing information to generate interest. Clever use of language will never make dull information interesting; however, you can organize the information to make it interesting. Forget about literary pyrotechnics. Concentrate on content.
What do we mean by “good writing”?
We are now ready to return to the notion of how mathematics applies to good expository writing, and by extension to good persuasive communication.
When someone reads an expository text or listens to an expository speech, he is likely to judge it as good or not good. You probably do this yourself. But what do you actually mean when you say a text or a speech is “good”?
After some struggling, most people will usually settle on two criteria: clarity and conciseness.
Mathematics depends on unambiguous definitions; if you are not clear about the problem, you are unlikely to find the solution. So we are going to examine these criteria in some detail in order to establish objective definitions–and even quasi-mathematical formulas–for testing whether a text or a presentation truly is “good.”
Clarity: How do you know that a text is clear? If this sounds like a silly question, try to answer it. Your internal dialogue may sound something like this:
Question: What makes this text clear?
Answer: It is easy to understand.
Question: What makes it easy to understand?
Answer: It is simple.
Question: What do you mean by simple?
Answer: It is clear.
“Clear,” “easy to understand,” and “simple” are synonyms. While synonyms may have nuances, they do not have content, so you are still left to your own subjective appreciation. But what you think is clear may not be clear to someone else.
This is why we give “clear” an objective definition, almost like a mathematical formula. To achieve clarity you must do three things:
- Emphasize what is of key importance.
- Deemphasize what is of secondary importance.
- Eliminate what is of no importance.
In short: CL = EDE
Like all other mathematical formulas, this one works only if you know how to apply it, which requires judgment.
In this case, you must first decide what is of key importance—in other words, what are the key ideas you want your readers to take away from your text.
This is not always easy to do. It is far simpler to say that everything is of key importance, so you put in everything you have. But there is a dictum that warns “If everything is important, then nothing is.” If you don’t define what you really want your readers to know, they will get lost in your text and either give up or come out the other end not knowing what it is they have read.
What about the second element of the formula: Deemphasize what is of secondary importance? That sounds easy enough. You don’t want key information and ideas to get lost in details. If you clearly emphasize what is of key importance, via headlines, Italics, underlining, or simply how you organize the information, then whatever is left over is automatically deemphasized.
Now the only thing left to do is eliminate what is of no importance. But how do you distinguish between what is of secondary importance and what is of no importance? Once again, this requires judgment. But this tip might help: Secondary importance is anything that supports or elaborates on one or more of the key ideas. If you judge that a piece of information in fact does support or elaborate one or more key ideas, then keep it. If not, eliminate it.
Conciseness: How do you know that a text is concise? If this also sounds like a silly question, let’s try to answer it.
Question: What makes this text concise?
Answer: It is short.
Question: What do you mean by short?
Answer: It doesn’t have too many words.
Question: How do you know it doesn’t have too many words?
Answer: Because it is concise.
So once again we end up going around in a circle. And once again, we have almost a mathematical formula to solve the problem. To achieve conciseness, your text should meet two criteria:
- It should be as long as necessary.
- It should be as short as possible.
In symbols: CO = LS
If you have fulfilled the criteria of “clarity” correctly, you already understand “as long as necessary.” It means covering all the ideas of key importance you have identified and all the ideas of secondary importance needed to support or elaborate upon these key ideas.
Note that nothing is said here about the number of words, because that is irrelevant. If it takes 500 words to be as long as necessary, then 500 words must be used. If it takes 1,500 words, then this is all right too. The important point is that everything that should be in the text is fully there.
Then what is meant by “as short as possible”?
Once again, this has nothing do to with the number of words. It is useless to say at the beginning, “I must not write more than 300 words on this subject,” because 500 words may be the minimum necessary. “As short as possible” means staying as close as you can to the minimum. But not because people prefer short texts. The important point is that all words beyond the minimum tend to reduce clarity.
In sum, conciseness means saying what needs to be said in the minimum amount of words.
Another criterion: density
Density is a less familiar concept than clarity and conciseness but is equally important. In mathematical form, density consists of
- precise information
- logical linkanges
In other words: D = PL
Suppose you enter a room where there are two other people and say, “It’s very hot today.” One of those people comes from Helsinki; in his mind he interprets “hot” to mean about 60°. The other one comes from Khartoum; to him “hot” means 115°.
You are off to a rather bad start, because each one has a totally different idea of what you mean. But suppose you say, “It’s very hot today; the temperature is 80°.” Now there is no room for confusion. They both know quite clearly that it is 80° outside and that you consider this to be very hot.
Using as much precise information as possible in a text gives the writer two significant advantages:
- mind control. The good expository writer needs for the reader’s mind to go only where he directs it and nowhere else.
Because they can be interpreted in unknown ways, ambiguous terms (so-called weasel words) such as “hot,” “cold,” “big,” “small,” “good,” “bad,” etc., allow the reader’s mind to escape from the writer’s control. An occasional lapse is not critical; however, too many weasel words in a text will inevitably lead to reader confusion, boredom, and disinterest.
- reader confidence. Using precise information generates confidence, because it tells the reader that the writer really knows what he is talking about.
Reader confidence is important in any kind of text, but it is crucial in argumentation. If you are trying to win a point, the last thing you want is the reader to challenge your data, but this is the first reaction imprecise writing will provoke. Precise writing ensures that the discussion will be about the implications of the information—in other words, what conclusions should be drawn, not whether the whole thing needs to go back for further investigation.
Precise data by themselves are insufficient. To be meaningful, data must be organized to create information and to help the reader understand.
There are two important tests to apply when converting data into information:
- relevance. Is a particular piece of data really needed? As we have seen, unnecessary data damages understanding and ultimately undermines confidence. Therefore, any data that do not either aid understanding or promote confidence should be eliminated.
- misconceptions. The logical link between data must be made explicit to prevent the reader from coming to false conclusions. To ensure that a logical link is clear, place the two pieces of data as close to each other as possible, preferably right next to each other. When data are widely separated, their logical relationship is masked, and the reader is unlikely to make the connection.
What do you want? What do your readers want?
I frequently ask nonprofessional writers what they are thinking when they sit down at the keyboard to compose their text. The answer is usually something like, “How do I want to present my material?” “What tone and style should I use?” “In what order should I put my key ideas?” And so on.
If you start with the correct attitude, however—in the case of expository writing, that no one wants to read what you write–your first task is none of these. Ahead of anything else, you must find reasons people should take the time to read what you write.
In general, you cannot force people to read what they don’t want to, even if they are being paid to do so. For example, you produce a report defining opportunities for increased sales and profits. However, if it is not well written, even people who must read it as part of their job are unlikely to give it their full attention. On the other hand, if they immediately see their own self-interest in reading what you have written, they will do so gladly and with full attention. In fact, you probably couldn’t stop them from reading it!
There are various methods to generate such a strong desire to read, depending on the type of readers and the type of information. Whatever the most appropriate device, the crucial thing is to recognize the imperative need to use it. Until this need is met, nothing else is of any importance.
Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with “The Wall Street Journal” and a marketing communication consultant. He is the author of “In the ‘I’ of the Storm: The Simple Secrets of Writing and Speaking (Almost) Like a Professional.”