Persuasion is Hard & Hard Things Are Valuable

Hard is valuable.

Here are four principles of persuasion from people like Aristotle Leonardo da Vinci, and William Strunk Jr.


1. Capture attention

“A good teacher, like a good entertainer first must hold his audience’s attention, then he can teach his lesson.” — John Henrik Clarke.

Readers curiosity is piqued by quotes (from authority figures), challenges to their current beliefs, asking ‘why’ or showing with ‘how’, using an insightful statement, sharing something personal, or telling a story. For example, I used the image above to help capture your attention.

Charles Dickens sparked curiosity with the first 12 words of his novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”


“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” — William Strunk Jr.

Short sentences make your writing effortless to read.

Yet it’s necessary to use varied sentence lengths to explain a complex point—and to avoid sounding like a monotonous simpleton.

For example:

“Consider this five word sentence. Now try two of them. Five word sentences work individually. But too many become lifeless. It’s getting boring isn’t it?

I better change. The ear demands variety. Always. Now, by varying the sentence length it becomes much more engaging and holds your attention. It becomes rhythmic. Musical.

How? Short sentences. But also medium length sentences. Variety is key. And once you’re engaged I can deliver a longer sentence, explaining that we prefer diverse sentence length because it is like the spoken language we’re used to.”


“Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.”― Leonardo da Vinci.

Stress the details. Worry you forgot a comma. Vocabulary, sentence length and structure are as important as your ideas, themes and the insights they express. Stress the details of function and form.

Details are crucial for good grammar. E.g:

  1. “Excluding a parenthesis can leave readers without a sense of closure.
  2. “If a question is missing correct punctuation, does it become a statement.”
  3. “A comedy event was attended by strippers, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.”


2. Empathise

“Decide the effect you want to produce in your reader.” — Robert Collier.

Consider your audience’s perspectives.

What do they fear? What excites them? Why will they care? Use those insights to shape your communication.


“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Robert Frost.

Readers can feel what you feel. If you aren’t investing emotion as you write, readers won’t be feeling emotion as they read.

Consider Hemingway’s six-word story:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”


3. Simplify

“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.”

Henry Green.

A decent point written in 50 words is more persuasive than 5,000 words of intricate rhetoric. Explicit writing is powerful.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” — Stephen King.

Adverbs are very wasteful. “Very” diminishes value. Removing it forces you to be precise. People aren’t ‘very happy’. They are ‘ecstatic’. Cut words mercilessly.


“Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style.” — Jonathan Swift.

“The boy chased the girl” is faster to process than “the girl was chased by the boy.” It is easier to picture the object (the boy) before the action (chasing).


4. Demonstrate

“Persuasion is clearly a sort of demonstration, since we are most fully persuaded when we consider a thing to have been demonstrated.” — Aristotle.

If this piece of writing was written by John McPhee, Malcolm Gladwell or John Keegan it would be exponentially more persuasive (not to mention, exponentially better written). The reputation of the writer has as much impact as the words they write.

But what if you aren’t famous or established? Steal. Or rather as John McPhee said, “Taking things from one source is plagiarism; taking things from several sources is research.” Using quotes from people with authority lends authority to your writing.


Persuasion is hard. But by applying these 4 principles of communication you will be more influential.