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.
The part that interests me here is that 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.
What happens when readers find flaws in your content?
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 from the grant-writing class, in describing how readers lose confidence, also say that content problems prevent you from forming "connections" with readers. This is especially true if readers lack previous connections to you or your company.
Oddly though, Miner and Miner also say that readers go into a document looking for weaknesses, lapses, errors, and holes; they say 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.
Reader intent: People read your content wanting, hoping, to say YES
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... quite the opposite: 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 you or 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:
- Yes, this is the right product for me.
- Yes, this is the right service provider for me.
- Yes, this is the right writer for me.
- Yes, this is the right editor for me.
- Yes, this is the right article for our audience.
- Yes, this will solve my problem.
- Yes, this will enable me to take advantage of my opportunity.
Content plays a critical role, but don't neglect other critical YES-building elements
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 how a piece looks, feels, and functions plays an equally important role 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 or lead magnet 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, PowerPoint presentation, or sales video on your website. If the look, feel, or functionality fall short, then the content must pull twice (or more) of its weight—assuming that the reader can get past the poor ethos being communicated and even bothers to read the content in the first place.
Getting to YES: Attractive design, smart architecture, content free of stumbling blocks
Let's assume that your piece, website, or other communication medium is attractively designed and smartly architected. The scale, then, is already tilting toward YES, whether I, as reader, recognize that tilt or not.
I, as reader, 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 leans dramatically toward YES.
If, while reading, the content satisfactorily answers my questions, and helps to overcome my objections, then it successfully gives me a sense of trust, 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 slides 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.
But if your materials give me and other readers reasons to say NO—stumbling blocks, shoddy design, unanswered questions—and if we, as readers, have many other options just a click or 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 other than to say YES, but that doesn't mean I'm happy about it.
Bottom line: Build connection, confidence, and YES by eliminating issues that cause readers to stumble
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. Develop and design content that builds trust and confidence, establishes a connection, and guides your readers to YES!