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The power of calm writing in a frantic world

I chose to spend five weeks writing about politics leading up the election, in a collection of posts I called “The Rationalist Papers.” The posts succeeded in their goals. Now that the stress and excitement of the election is (mostly) behind us, I’ll take you inside what happened and why it worked — and what this means for you if you are attempting to write to persuade.

Did I accomplish my goals?

I didn’t take on this task lightly. My readers expect commentary on books and writing, not on politics, and I’m sure I lost a few. But I felt there was a need to address the decisions people were making in this crucial election, so I hijacked my own blog for 31 daily posts.

My objective was to change minds — to get conservatives, third-party voters, undecideds, and non-voters to vote for Biden.

Based on the comments I got, the effort was a success. Many posted comments, or contacted me directly, to praise my efforts to maintain a rational look at the election, free from shouting and name-calling. Some people actually told me that they changed their minds and decided to vote for Biden because of what I had written.

In terms of traffic, the 31 Rationalist Papers posts received 21,888 views, an average of 706 views per post. This is significantly higher than my normal blog traffic. There were 146 comments, about five per post.

However, this data obscures the uneven distribution in the traffic. One post, “The Rationalist Papers (4): Is Joe Biden a socialist?“, accounted for 10,864 views, or about half the traffic. Because people wrote about and linked to it, it ranked on the search term “Joe Biden socialist” — even now it is the No. 12 search result on the search phrase “Is Joe Biden a socialist.” (To avoid polluting searches with my personal search history, I conducted these tests in Google’s incognito mode.) On the week of November 2, more than five weeks after I originally posted it, this post received over 6,500 views. This alone — the idea that I could be influencing over thousands of people as they made voting decisions about Biden — made the Rationalist Papers series worth the effort.

Setting aside the socialism post, the remaining posts received an average of 367 views each. The post “The Rationalist Papers (6): Why pro-life voters should dump Trump for Biden” received 942 views, including 139 on the week of the election. Even the least popular post received 211 views.

How to persuade in a heated environment

I decided early that there was no point in adding my own shrill shouting to the tsunami of rabble-rousing posts already out there. I was interested in changing minds, not in being part of an enthusiastic movement. This required some specific choices on topics and tone:

  • I chose and stuck to an audience. My audience was not liberals and progressives, since they were already voting for Biden. And I was also uninterested in confirmed Trump voters, since they weren’t going to change their minds. This meant I needed to focus on indifferent voters (“My vote doesn’t matter.”), persuadable conservatives (“I’m a conservative but I’m doubtful about Trump.”), and third-party voters (“Both parties suck, change the system.”).
  • I respected my audience. To speak to persuadable people who were different from me, I needed to show respect for ideas on all sides of the political spectrum. I am by nature a center-left voter, but it would not have served my purpose to pump up liberal ideas to this collection of voters. Insulting them, a common online tactic, would have been completely counterproductive. Instead, I had to find a way to inhabit the mindset of people unlike myself. This is a useful skill for any writer to develop; when you want to persuade, by definition, your reader doesn’t yet agree with you.
  • I deliberately took a measured and rational tone. Starting with the title “The Rationalist Papers,” I determined to stick as closely as possible to facts and logic, rather than attempting to charge up emotions. Readers responded positively, commenting that this no-bullshit, low-key approach was refreshing as compared to the heated rhetoric flooding the Internet. As my mentor Bill Bluestein used to say, the more controversial the position you are taking, the more rational and unexcited your tone must be. Shrieking, rending your garments, and using a plethora of exclamation points to alarm people about a crisis is unlikely to persuade anyone.
  • I chose topics of interest to my target audience, not just what I wanted to speak about. Undecided voters want to know if Joe Biden is as socialist as Trumpists describe him to be. Pro-choice voters want to know what will happen if they don’t vote Republican. Third-party voters want to know if a protest vote now is going to accomplish their goals. Everyone wants to know what’s going to happen with the coronavirus. So this is what I wrote about. I also hit topical subjects, like the debates, but as it turned out, my more general topics that didn’t have a news hook ended up getting more traffic.
  • I didn’t conceal my intent. Some people suggested that if I wanted to be balanced, I should not have revealed that I favored voting for Biden. But anyone reading these posts would see that they all favored that outcome. Pretending I was unbiased would have been transparently dishonest. Instead, I remained dispassionate in the presentation of the facts and logic, but demonstrated the conclusion I had promised — that Biden was a better choice than Trump, not voting, or voting third-party.
  • I started from shared values and ended with absurdity. In mathematics, there is a concept known as reductio ad absurdum, which refers to proofs where you start by assuming the opposite of what you want to prove, and demonstrate that it leads to an absurdity. This can be not only effective, but also entertaining. For example, we all have a shared value that people shouldn’t die from avoidable causes. In “The Rationalist Papers (14): The presidential COVID quiz,” I started from the assumption that Trump had done all he could about the virus — a common talking point for Trump backers — and demonstrated all the places that he could have made different decisions. In “The Rationalist Papers (16): L’état, c’est moi,” I started from the assumption that Trump’s conflation of his own interests and the government’s was acceptable, and showed that it led to an imperial presidency that most people would find terrifying. And in “The Rationalist Papers (22): Third-party protest,” I listed all the reasons that people might find both candidates disappointing, and then played out the Biden and Trump scenarios to show how only Biden’s election would preserve the Republic.
  • I addressed SEO (search engine optimization) with words in my titles. I knew the post about Joe Biden and socialism would potentially rank in search, which why I included Biden’s name and “socialist” in the title. That’s also why I used words like “pro-life,” “debate,” and “tax returns” in other posts. And I chose and stuck with a single searchable term — “The Rationalist Papers” — and hashtag — #RationalistPapers — so that people who became interested could find my other posts.

I believe this sort of approach is the best in any case where you are attempting to persuade in a noisy environment. Displays of emotion and crisis-mongering are unlikely to succeed, while logic and clarity (and a little wit) will allow you to stand out and gain respect, and possibly assent, from people in your audience. The next time you need to win over reluctant readers or listeners, consider this, and resist the urge to come across as urgent, partisan, or nasty.

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  1. Love, love, love this.

    Congrats on a clear objective and for sharing your behind-the-scenes process.

    And thanks for carrying forth a message essential to the survival of our democracy!

  2. This reader benefited greatly from your writing in that it helped me think and converse calmly. Smalls drops of calm gather into larger bodies. Appreciate a look under the hood.

    1. Love your remark about small drops of calm. Kudos to Josh for working successfully to convince undecided voters to vote for Biden, and thanks for today’s advice. A calm, rational approach will be essential in the months to come to help heal the country. Thank goodness Biden understands that too.