Persuasion requires that you first get people to read or listen carefully to your proposal.

Just because you write someone a persuasive message doesn’t mean they will read it carefully. Several variables affect the amount of thinking people do when they read a persuasive message. Most important is whether the person is motivated to invest the effort and whether he or she has the ability to analyze the information.

Make it self-relevant

Psychologists have found that the single most important factor in determining someone’s interest in a message is whether it has personal meaning. Maybe she is emotionally connected to the issue, perhaps the topic has implications or potential consequences for her, or it might touch a political nerve.

Psychologists have found that messages that are both relevant to the audience and that also contain a strong argument generally achieve a deeper, more enduring level of persuasion. The audience is more likely to stand by the position they adopt.

Examples of relevant issues

You’re probably more likely to analyze, not scan, messages about these topics, because they affect you directly:

  • If you’re an employee, the impact of an economic crisis on your 401K
  • If you’re a conservationist, a proposal to sell 200 acres in your town to a condo developer
  • If you’re a parent, an effort to extend the school year, shortening summer vacation

When people examine messages that have personal meaning, they analyze the information, put it into the context of their existing knowledge and previous experience. They are likely to form an opinion based on your argument, not on peripheral issues such as whether you are likeable.

The audience needs the ability to process.

When the issue is relevant to the reader or listener, the person probably has thought about it numerous times previously. That large framework of existing information gives him the ability to process the message more carefully, according to social psychologist Richard Petty.

Additionally, if people are reading or hearing the message in a noisy room of distractions, that hinders their ability to process the message.


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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

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