If you sit down to write a persuasive message, you probably focus on carefully selecting the right words and emphasizing the appropriate points. But the success of your message might depend on something else. People often decide how to respond to your persuasive message based not on the content but on your credibility.

The ability to influence an audience begins in what is called the pre-persuasion, or “landscaping” phase, before you ever sit down to write, according to psychologist Anthony Pratkanis. This is when you create the right atmosphere, or landscape, where persuasion can occur. An important tactic in this phase is to strengthen your credibility, because that is often how people will decide how they respond to your message. It’s often not the content of your message that influences their decision; it’s how they perceive you.

Aristotle was the first to establish the importance of credibility, or, as he called it “good character,” in being persuasive. People want to know that you are an honorable person whom they can believe. And social psychologists have found that people judge credibility according to certain qualities. Here are two:

Expertise – People are persuaded to do things for those they perceive as being experts, so be as knowledgeable as you possibly can about your field. Be a voracious reader, do research on issues, and grab the chance to be on project teams that provide an opportunity for you to broaden your experience.

Trustworthiness – Be fair, honest, considerate, and tolerant of others’ views. Be genuine. Authenticity and sincerity are directly related to judgments of credibility. Your tone, in oral speech or in writing, also can influence the audience’s judgment of your character. Always be respectful.

If your audience does not view you as credible, all is not lost. You can strengthen your image, but you also need to maintain it. Credibility isn’t a trait that we develop once and it is secure forever, as many disgraced politicians and business figures have discovered.


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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 here at Amazon.com.

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