How to Write Persuasively in English Literature Class

Persuasive language is designed to convince another person of a particular point of view, so that they not only embrace the idea but find it, in some way, beneficial to do so. It’s a technique found commonly in political oratory, jury trials, and advertising, and when done properly, it can be an enormously powerful catalyst for change. Unfortunately, writing persuasively is something which a great many students – and adults – find quite difficult to do effectively.

The problem, more often than not, is that the writer becomes so convinced of their own argument that they forget the single most important ingredient: their audience. An argument will never be won as long as the reader or listener feels that the idea is not their own, or that they are being bludgeoned into submission. Truly effective persuasion means that the audience is able to decide, with apparent freedom, that the only sensible course is to agree with the point of view being presented.

In English Literature classes, students are sometimes asked to argue a case about a particular character’s motivation, or the inevitability of a fictional event, or the purpose of a particular stylistic device. They need to convince the teacher that they know what they’re talking about, and that their argument is worth considering. How can they do this?

Involve the audience

A trial lawyer knows that, ultimately, his own opinion doesn’t matter. His job is to make sure that the jury – his audience – comes to a particular conclusion. The lawyer may do this in a number of ways, all of which inspire the jury to feel they are active participants in the decision-making process.

One of these techniques is known as “inclusive language”. Using words like “we” and “our” involves an audience in the discussion. President George W. Bush did this effectively in his address to the nation following the 9/11 tragedy. He began his speech like this: “Today our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack.” From the outset, Bush made it clear that the concerns of his speech were the concerns of all Americans.

Politicians and lawyers also use “loaded” or emotive language. This is language which sparks an emotional reaction in the audience. Think about the difference in describing Edward Snowden as “a young man” (he’s only 30) and as “a traitor”. One of these seems to ask for forgiveness and understanding, whereas the other condemns Snowden without the need for any other evidence. In his 9/11 address, President Bush described the attacks as “evil, despicable acts of terror.” This is language which is pointed and visceral. Good persuaders know that emotional responses are personal, and therefore more effective than logical ones.

Humor and horror can often have the same effect. Sometimes a sly joke – like JFK thanking his interpreter for translating his German into German during the famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech – can involve the audience. It is often a short step from sharing a joke to sharing a point of view; something which advertisers understand implicitly.

Another way of involving an audience is to ask rhetorical questions. These are questions which don’t necessarily require an answer, but are instead used to reinforce a point. The best questions are those which ‘right-thinking’ people should already be asking of themselves, and which have already been answered, in part, by the persuasive argument. For example, there’s a road safety advert which ends by asking viewers “Should you be driving home tonight?” The trick is that the audience has already been presented with information which only allows one possible answer, but the question allows them to revisit that information and – seemingly – draw their own conclusion.

The audience will not be involved, however, if the language being used is not their own. Students should be made aware that simple expressions are often best. A stray word which is unfamiliar or unnecessarily big can alienate those whom the author is trying to persuade. Look at President Obama’s climate change speech at Georgetown University for a great example of how to mix colloquial and immediate language with ideas that are complex and important.

Be positive and consistent

The writer who says “I think” or “I believe” has probably already lost their argument. Unless he or she is a noted authority, their audience will simply not care, and besides, the ideas being presented make the statement totally redundant. It is much better not to “think” anything, but to “know”, with absolute certainty and clarity, that a particular point of view is correct. Using Barack Obama’s speech as an example, once again, note how often he says “I know”, or uses language which is equally direct.

Keep in mind also that if something is worth saying, it is worth saying twice (at least). Psychological studies have suggested that repetition is a crucial factor in understanding and appreciating a point of view, and effective persuaders use repetition to great effect. This can be either the repetition of a key word or short phrase, or the repetition of an idea. Martin Luther King, for instance, was noted for his use of this technique, and his frequent echoing of phrases added rhythm and familiarity to the points he was making. It may be best to vary the way in which an idea is presented, however, by using quotes and metaphors, or by telling brief anecdotes which endorse a point of view.

Know what you’re talking about. Research the subject and discuss both sides of the argument, even if it means dismissing or finding flaws in contradictory points of view. Students are advised to study examples such as those presented here, or to dissect familiar advertisements so that they can better understand the techniques of good persuasive writing. After that, the key is to think about what needs to be said, and to think about how best to say it.

Tell stories

Direct evidence is never enough. It may convince an audience that the author’s point of view is logical, but it will not be especially memorable or be likely to inspire change. Sometimes, it is better to tell a story, or present a compelling word picture. Think about Al Gore’s lengthy presentation on climate change from “An Inconvenient Truth”. Although there was an abundance of hard scientific evidence delivered in this presentation, what most people remember is the little story about the frog in the glass of water.

It is important that the story relates closely to the main points in the argument, as Gore’s frog does brilliantly. President Obama began his climate change address with a story about the Apollo 8 astronauts, and with this anecdote, he set the themes for his entire speech. This is a problem, Obama suggests, which requires a holistic, top-down approach, and it is American ingenuity and enterprise which will lead the way towards a solution. The entire remainder of the president’s speech develops this idea.

On a lesser note, this article talked about trial lawyers in order to suggest a couple of things which are as important to the student writer as they are to an attorney: that in any persuasive argument, individual bits of evidence should be seen as merely being part of a complete case; and that, ultimately, the writer’s opinion doesn’t matter as much as the verdict which is delivered by his audience.