Benjamin Franklin on Persuasive Prose
“Men should be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.”
— Alexander Pope.
The above quote was repeated by Benjamin Franklin when describing his method of persuasive writing in his autobiography. Franklin continued his description in his own words:
“… expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced anything that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.”
When Franklin was making a point, if I am not mistaken, he would be careful not to overstate his claim. He ensured his beliefs were presented as opinions and not facts. Franklin did this for good reason:
“This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat everyone of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.”
It appears Franklin hopes that others, like us, can copy his approach to persuasion. He proposes that instead of creating opposition by assuming in our prose our points are correct, we can persuade and inform our audience more by acknowledging we’re presenting a belief and not a universal truth. If I am not mistaken, this gives more persuasive power. Franklin believed that stating opinions as facts was a barrier to persuasion:
“For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those who concurrence your desires.”
When we appear too dogmatic in our beliefs, our readers oppose us. This is natural human behaviour. When we push an idea on someone, their reaction is to pull away. When people have the clear choice between holding onto their own opinion or accepting the opinion of someone else, they almost always hold onto their own.
Franklin proposes that we change the way we present our information and ideas. Instead of stating our ideas as correct, we state them as one of many possible ideas that may be correct. Then, since we are not forcing our idea on our readers, they don’t immediately flee. Instead, as their current held beliefs are not being directly threatened, they may try our ideas on for size.
Then the choice is theirs. If they recognise the idea as beneficial, they will adopt it as their own. We are not giving them an idea, they are accepting an idea for themselves. They own it.
Stating our beliefs clearly as opinions and not facts is an effective tactic. But we can gain further power by recognising the underlying principle: humility. By treating our readers as equals, by talking to them and not down to them, our prose becomes more persuasive. The more we converse with our reader and the less we lecture to them, the more they will accept our ideas.
I imagine it so, that Benjamin Franklin’s persuasive printed prose is one of the reasons that his face is printed, to this day, on the most valuable note of the world’s most valuable currency.
This article draws directly from Ben Franklin’s autobiography.