Write a Picture to Persuade

It ain’t whatcha write;
it’s the way atcha write it.
— Jack Kerouac
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Every year, for every person in Australia the government spends $20,000.  Every year, for every person in Australia the government collects income tax of $10,000. Can you picture that?

Contrast that with the official version: the government spends $500 billion and collects $234 billion from individuals’ income tax. I don’t know about you but when I see billions my eyes glaze over. What’s a billion I ask myself, again? I reread Google and see there were two versions, a US and a UK version, and now everyone agrees it’s 1,000 Million.

Well, that’s still not helpful because it tells me the government spends $500,000 million and collects $234,000 million from individuals’ income tax.  I still can’t picture it.  Imagine if the budget summary was supposed to persuade voters. If a reader can’ t picture it, how is a reader supposed to be persuaded by it?

How can you make your business writing more persuasive?

How about we take some advice from the Wall Street Journal? Like most newspapers, they have a style guide, and a former news editor has written a book based on this guide. William Blundell discusses feature writing.  Given the Wall Street Journal is a financial newspaper like the Australian Financial Review, can there be any place for writing a picture?

Some words and phrases are blobs. Others are paintbrushes whose narrow meanings instantly create pictures in the reader’s mind. They are specific and concrete, not general and abstract.
— William Blundell

When talking about numbers, Blundell says they can be “cyanide to readers’ interest”. So, how can you write about numbers to persuade? Write a picture.  For the budget numbers, Australia has about 25 million people, so ask how much for each person. As soon as you do, readers can see the number. They know what 20,000 or 10,000 looks like.

Occasionally, some people ask: What about the accuracy of numbers.  For the budget, the exact numbers are $500.9 billion for expenses and $234.1 billion for income tax and the exact population is 25,010,840 at Thursday, April 4, 2019.  I suggest if your reader can’t picture a billion, then it’s no easier to picture 0.1 billion. And when you read the exact population, 25,010,840 you round the number and say it’s about 25 million.

When we want to persuade a reader, making things more complicated slows their thinking down. Or worse still, making things more complicated makes them lose interest, so you will never persuade them. To persuade the reader, you need to make it easy for a reader to see your argument. If you can’t write a picture, then your reader can’t picture it, and then your reader can’t be persuaded by it.

That’s a good enough reason to write a picture. But, here’s one more: if you write a picture, like the government spending $20,000 for each person and collecting $10,000 for each person, then your reader will remember it and can persuade someone else. So, write a picture and make it easy for your reader to remember and then persuade someone else.