A few years ago, while pursuing a master's certificate in professional and technical writing, I dabbled in a grant-writing class. Something I read in that class stuck with me because it's as relevant to content marketing and content writing as it is to grant writing.
From Miner and Miner, 2005, p.5., emphasis mine:
During the review process, [sponsors] discern among proposals by looking for weaknesses--faults in logic, facts, approaches, or conclusions. But even when the logic is sound, proposals may be rejected because they fail to establish a 'connection' with the sponsor. On the other hand, persuasive proposals present a seamless argument that stands the test of reason, addresses psychological concerns, and connects project ideas to the values of the sponsor.
In other words, persuasion happens when you present a seamless argument. If readers encounter too many seams, or too many flaws, your content won't work as you hoped.
I wrote about the same matter in this piece on "great editing," which describes what happens to readers when they find flaws in your writing.
When that happens, when readers stumble on shaky transitions, incorrect word usage, lapses in logic, style inconsistencies, organizational blunders, grammar errors, and typos, they switch rhetorical roles, transitioning from "reader" to "error detector." This switch puts readers on the defensive. It causes them to lose trust and confidence--in the content, in the content's conclusions, in the author, and, if the piece is for business, in the business and its ability to do what it promises.
Miner and Miner, in describing how readers lose confidence, say that content problems prevent you from forming "connections" with readers. This is true, especially if readers lack previous connections to the you or your company. Oddly though, Miner and Miner also say that readers go into a document looking for weaknesses, lapses, errors, and holes; that readers are looking for just one reason to push your content (and proposal or offer) away with a "NO."
Sorry to say, but I disagree.
Although it's true that just one stumble can move a reader on the verge of "YES" to "NO," I'm not so sure I agree with Miner and Miner about reader intent. I know that I, as a reader, rarely go into a reading looking for reasons to say "NO"; instead, I go into a piece wanting, hoping, to be able to say "YES!"
When I visit your website, read your brochure, view your online presentation, or read your proposal, I'm doing so with a problem or an opportunity in mind. I'm reading your piece because I'm looking to exchange my hard-earned dollars with the company that best convinces me it holds the solution.
Could that be your company?
If I've never heard of your company before, if you've not yet had an opportunity to establish rapport with me, then, when I begin reading, my mind is a blank slate.The scales are balanced, so to speak.
But the reason I'm there reading is is because I want to say "YES":
Caveat: Although this blog post is about how your content works to lead readers to "YES," I would be negligent if I failed to point out that the architecture, design, and look of your piece or website play equally important roles in building trust and credibility.
One survey commissioned by the UK website builder/designer/hosting firm BaseKit revealed that 70 percent of people do not trust poorly designed websites. That's not surprising, as one of the three main components of rhetoric--or the art of persuasion--is ethos, or the character of the author/speaker.
Would you want to work with a firm whose website communicated an ethos of poor taste, lack of style, or lack of professionalism?
Would you want to work with a firm whose site looked as though it was cobbled together haphazardly, perhaps even as an afterthought?
If a firm can't invest in its public face, what, then, must its private persona be like? What must its products and services be like?
The same reasoning stands for a brochure, or a PowerPoint presentation, or a sales video on a website. If the architecture, presentation, or design fall short, then the content must pull twice (or more) of its weight--if the reader can get past the poor ethos being communicated and even bothers to read the content in the first place.
Let's assume for the rest of this article that your piece, website, or other communication medium is attractively designed and smartly architected. The scale, then, is already tipping toward "YES," whether I, as reader, recognize it or not.
I then move into the content, scanning headlines, looking for clues about where to begin. If I can read your piece in its entirety, without running into stumbling blocks, without being puzzled by unanswered questions, without being left with unaddressed objections, then the scale tips dramatically to "YES."
If, while reading, the content satisfactorily answers my questions, and helps to overcome my objections, then it successfully builds in me a sense of trust, giving me an increasing sense of confidence in your company, product, or service.
Your content, then, builds that connection Miner and Miner talked about. It keeps me from moving towards "NO," and pushes me closer and closer to "YES."
I WANT to say yes. That's why I'm reading.
Similarly, that's why people are reading your site, your brochure, your blog, your presentation, your proposal; it's why they're watching your video. They're looking for reasons to say "YES."
On the other hand, if you give me and other readers reasons to say "NO" (like those stumbling blocks I mentioned earlier, or shoddy design, or unanswered questions), and if we, as readers, have many other options just a click or a phone call away, then we'll easily, and without qualms, say "NO." We may forgive a stumble or two--but only if we like what we're hearing so far or already have a relationship with or knowledge of your firm.
Actually, in a few, rare, instances, I've even said "YES" despite wanting to say "NO" because I felt I had no other option. That's never a good way to do business though, because then I'm resentful and disloyal, sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the next better thing to come along. (My Internet provider comes to mind here; they're the only game in town--so far. I have no choice but to say "YES," but that doesn't mean I'm happy about it.)
The takeaway? No matter your piece, presentation, or audience, be wary of stumbling blocks within content that may turn your readers into error detectors. Communicate professionalism. Design content that builds trust and confidence, establishes a connection, and guides your readers to YES!
Images Courtesy of and copyright Digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net, www.Pixabay,com, www.Canstock.com.