Former New York Times Editor On Writing To Get Someone's Attention — And Maybe Changing Their Mind

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"Writing To Persuade" by Trish Hall. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Writing To Persuade" by Trish Hall. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

As a former editor, Trish Hall has seen a lot of bad submissions to the New York Times Op-Ed page.

She's now written the how-to book, "Writing to Persuade: How to Bring People Over to Your Side." Hall joins Here & Now's Lisa Mullins to talk about the book.

Times' Op-Ed Pieces Mentioned On Air

Book Excerpt: 'Writing to Persuade: How to Bring People Over to Your Side'

by Trish Hall

For almost five years, as the person in charge of Op-Ed for The New York Times, I was immersed in argument, in passion, in ideas. I oversaw a dozen editors who read submissions from both the august and the unknown, all eager to be heard. Two assistants, looking for gems, pored over the hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts that arrived each week. I too read many pieces, a number so high that I never counted it. There was no time.

I was grateful for that perch, for the chance to know writers and editors who amazed me with their knowledge and creative minds. But I was also surprised by the flood of terrible writing from the famous and successful. Manicured products of Ivy League schools offered tangled sentences and mundane musings. People whose novel ideas deserved a hearing could not escape their jargon long enough to reach an audience.

At first this sea of opinion—from people eager, desperate even, to get their point across, to enter the flow of argument—was foreign to me. I had always been a journalist with no case to make, no argument to win. Whether I was reporting or writing or editing, and over the years I did all three, I was happy to absorb the thoughts and feelings of others. I had no interest in presenting my own point of view. I often thought I had no point of view, because early on I recognized a disconcerting tendency to be a chameleon, to use whatever was convenient from my past to make a connection with my subject.

Was I trying to bond with a working-class mother from the South? Then I would talk about growing up in rural Pennsylvania and how my stepfather had a dog kennel, and wasn’t it funny how the dogs would bark every day at five, as if they were announcing cocktail hour? Was I interviewing a professor at Harvard? I would mention that my father had gotten his master’s degree at Harvard, ten years before he moved to Los Angeles. I could be rural, urban—whatever suited my purposes.

I hadn’t arrived in Op-Ed with an academic bent or experience on a journal of opinion and argument, as some others had. Opinion was a new world to me, and a frightening one at first. Over time I realized how lucky I was. The job gave me a chance to listen to America’s feelings and thoughts, and do my best to help people reach an audience. If an idea spoke to me, whether from the right or the left, or even from no political persuasion, I was sure it would speak to others.

In Writing to Persuade, I hope to pass on to you what I have learned about writing and editing. I want to help you get your point across in a persuasive way, whether you are crafting an op-ed, a paper for a professor in college, an email seeking a job, or even a note to your husband. Although the book is mostly about writing, I occasionally wander into some of the psychology underlying these approaches. Knowing about human behavior is also useful when communicating face to face.

So, you might ask, are there rules for argument, for persuasion, for convincing people that they should listen to you? Yes, there are. Although it’s challenging to change minds, there are fundamentals of persuasion, techniques for bringing people over to your side not only in written arguments, but in life. Like so many rules, they aren’t easy to follow. And like all rules, they can be successfully broken. You could violate all of these concepts and still persuade someone to see your point of view. But be assured that using these methods, which require artistry, technique, and an understanding of human psychology, will increase your odds of success.

Here then are fifteen principles that I’ve come to rely on over my career.

Fifteen Principles of Persuasive Writing

1. Listen to people. The importance of thinking about your audience might be the most salient point I can make. Despite our culture of selfies, persuasion is not about you; it’s about them. Whether you are engaging in a one-on-one conversation or attempting to convince the readers of a publication with millions of subscribers that they should listen to you, the first and most crucial step is to listen to them. You need to know who they are and how they feel.

2. We believe what we believe. Understand that we all cling to our opinions, for all kinds of good reasons. If you tell people something negative about their favorite candidate, they might become even more supportive of that candidate. They’ve already invested in that opinion, and it’s not easy to get them to back away. These people aren’t stupid. You’re like that, too—you just don’t know it. Is there a point where it’s just not worth trying to reach those who don’t agree with you? Of course. Sometimes you can’t change people, and you have to accept that.

3. Respect your audience. Learn to be empathetic. Try to understand what it feels like to be them, to live their life. That’s not easy, but it is essential.

4. Don’t get into fights. Mostly, arguing doesn’t work. People become defensive or they just tune out. The only people who might respond positively to battering and bullying are the much maligned workers in customer service who have no choice but to accept aggression. Don’t say things like “You’re wrong,” or “I’m right and you know it.”

5. Play on feelings. Feelings are crucial, much more important than facts. As Richard Friedman, a psychiatrist and professor in New York, puts it, “You have to use facts almost medically; you need to understand the mental and emotional state of your target audience to determine the right dose.” We all respond to information that is emotionally engaging.

6. Understand moral values. Our moral values shape our interpretation of the world. You can get attention for your point of view only if you approach audiences with their values in mind, not yours.

7. Emphasize your similarities. People are more likely to agree with people who are similar to them. Likeable people are better than unpleasant people at persuading others to do what they want them to do. Be positive; be personable. Admit when you’re wrong. I’ve always found an apology or an admission of error, deftly applied, to be potent.

8. What do you know? Write about what you know, in an area where your expertise is uncontested. If you’re a computer technician, write about hardware or software. If your father is dying, and you’re outraged by how the medical system deals with end-of-life treatment, write about that. There will always be something that you know or feel, and that’s what you should focus on.

9. Surprise your reader. Endless words and images compete for our attention. Whether you’re writing an essay for a professor in college or asking a bank officer for an extension on your mortgage application, you need to stand out. Someone might have to read your writing, but no one has to like it. You have to make them like it. If you’re trying to get published, you must add a new idea to the conversation. Otherwise your work will just get lost, and there’s no point in making the effort. Make it relevant, and something urgent, whether in fifty words or five thousand.

10. Be specific. If you make your point vivid—a twist in language, a startling idea—people will pay attention and be less likely to zone out. If you write in generalities and fail to use concrete, tangible details and images, your work will fall flat.

11. Tell stories. We all respond to stories. They’re not a replacement for facts; without them, though, the facts will seem dull and dry.

12. Facts aren’t magic. Facts won’t convince people. People hear what they want to hear, and even the best, most perfect facts in the world will not change that. Indeed, we are capable of labeling anything we don’t want to hear as “fake news.” We take in facts selectively, sometimes unconsciously. I promise you, we all do it, regardless of our education or political beliefs. On their own, facts might not be as persuasive as you would like them to be. A startling one, though, can be the basis for a great essay or paper.

13. Facts do matter. If you make mistakes, you will be called out, and your writing will be mocked, discarded, or worse. Check your facts carefully. Mishandled, they will sink you.

14. Abandon jargon. Some of the smartest ideas have been smothered by jargon. Don’t use it. Root out clichés. They feel canned and readers skip over them.

15. Prune ruthlessly. Most people use too many words. Trim, trim, trim. Many excellent books have been written on writing techniques, including four of my favorites, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. No one has ever learned all there is to learn about writing, so it’s worth reading all of these books, and more. To write well, read omnivorously. Those who read constantly tend to write coherently.

Reprinted from "Writing to Persuade: How to Bring People Over to Your Side" by Trish Hall. Copyright (c) 201.

This segment aired on July 2, 2019.



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