Podcast 147: The art of persuasion

This month’s podcast looks at the language of persuasion and how Technical Authors can use it.

What do we mean by persuasive language? What is nudging and are we as technical authors able to use this type of language?

As part of the research for this podcast I watched some public information films and read articles which are mentioned in the podcast. Many thanks to those organisations, authors and their expertise.


Hello and welcome to the Cherryleaf podcast presented to you this month by me Ginny Critcher.

A nostalgic conversation about public information films prompted this month’s podcast around the language of persuasion and how it has changed and what we can learn from the way the language is used.

Public information films

Let’s start with the world of public information films.

What are they? For decades public information films have been educating, persuading and above all warning us of hidden dangers.

According to the BFI website –

‘the ‘official’ information film came of age in WWII, when it was used by government to guide the public through austerity and a life under fire. The 1960s and 70s saw a public information ‘golden age’, with hundreds of short films launched on to the small screen to cajole the British public into binning their litter, giving up smoking or driving carefully. Sometimes witty, sometimes alarming, always memorable, these films are a priceless and entertaining record of 20th century British life.’

They often featured well-known celebrities for added entertainment value.

In the 1970/80s we were often subjected to public information films that gave all kinds of information and warnings. The ones aimed at children were often about keeping us safe and out of danger – a particularly terrifying one is called Lonely Water featuring narration by a chilling Donald Pleasance. Released in 1973 it told of the potentially deadly consequences of playing in or near rivers, ponds, construction sites and other unsafe areas where water hazards are numerous and dangerous. I don’t specifically remember that film but had I watched as young child I think it would have given me nightmares and definitely deterred me from playing in water.

A different approach was used in the next film I looked at. A green cross code film from that era featured David Prowse (who was the frame of Darth Vader (but not the voice) in the original Star Wars film) it’s a public information film that will be recognisable to people who had a 1970s childhood the catch phrase was – always use the green cross code – because I won’t be there when you cross the road. The language in this film is very different from the preceding film. It’s energetic and upbeat, lots and lots of positive reinforcement is used throughout the film to get the safety message across. The little boy in the film is praised for his road crossing skills and the message of how to cross the road is clearly explained.

In the late 1980s the first AIDS awareness campaign films were released by the UK government. John Hurt was the narrator in one of these films and his doom-laden tones urged the British public not to die of ignorance and read the government leaflets on the subject. No ambiguity in the language used in this film, the threat posed by AIDS is described (in the 1980s AIDS was a new disease with no viable treatment at that time). The public are clearly told to read the government message and the closing stark message is Don’t Die of Ignorance. So a lot of scaremongering going on in this particular instance.

Moving into the 21st century I watched a film from 2003 about the dangers of Internet shopping. The language here had changed slightly and was informative with a few dos – things like make sure, print a record and ends with a warning .

Again here the language used is clear and unambiguous. It’s more neutral than the other examples being neither too upbeat or too downbeat. A warning is given however, not in the dire tones of earlier films.

Following on from this recent article in TC World by Marco Janicke entitled “Who listens to safety instructions anyway” takes an in depth look at how we humans act much less rationally than we like to think and that as technical writers we need to “speak to the instinctive emotional side of our readers”. Basically we should tap into behavioural economics . So what are they exactly? Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

“Behavioural economics is the study of the psychological, cognitive, emotional, cultural and social factors involved in the decisions of individuals or institutions, and how these decisions deviate from those implied by classical economic theory.”

Marco’s article talks about being nudged into acting in a certain way. He explains that “a nudge is a gentle impulse that influences the decisions we make”.

So I wanted to understand a little bit more about how nudging works so I had a look at some examples:

The ‘traffic light’ system used in the food industry is a clear obvious way for people to understand which foods are healthier to eat, where a red mark is shown on energy rich foods and a green mark is shown on healthier products, and it is known to be an effective way to change food purchasing patterns (House of Lords report that came out in 2011).

In a cafeteria another example of nudging could be the placement of certain foods and drinks – water being placed nearer the till coupled with putting the fizzy (i.e. not healthy) drinks in a less accessible position and this can nudge people into making healthier drink choices.

Another example in an academic setting it could be a reminder (via email) from a teacher that an assignment is due by a certain date with extra information advising that in the past students have taken a week (or whatever timeframe) to complete the assignment.

A third example I looked at is the Nest heating thermostat which is found in many of our homes in the UK. This thermostat is programmed to your heating preferences and learns what your temperature preferences are. A Nest thermostat also shows you how to save energy. Ot works by each time you adjust your thermostat to an energy-efficient temperature (usually lower than your preferred temp) , a Nest Leaf icon displays on the thermostat screen and in the Nest app. The idea behind the leaf is that it encourages you (or nudges you) to save energy . Over time, it becomes harder to earn a Leaf, the idea being that it encourages you to save even more energy.

Tech authors and nudges

So that is all really interesting but how can we as tech writers implement nudges into our writing ?

Well, as ever it depends on what we are writing and for whom.

If we are writing instructions we need to be clear about what our audience needs to do, however there is often scope for putting in a best practice section and it’s here where we can potentially nudge the audience into different behaviours.

Janicke, in his article, gives an example of an instruction on how to use a particular machine which advises users to “only fill the machine with the fluids outlined in the technical data”. This is followed by a piece of highlighted text advising “every year millions of euros in equipment damage are caused by incorrect combinations of lubricants”. And that’s the nudge or best practice to encourage users to pay attention when adding lubricants and the reason why they should do so.

My experience with writing documents policy and procedure especially is that explaining the reason behind a particular policy/instruction/procedure gets a much better engagement from end users.

Part of my work involves improving/re-writing legacy documents. A user assistance guide I worked on recently had so many warnings within the documentation that they became meaningless, their message became lost within the mess of warnings, important, NB etc. A much clearer approach would be to give examples and explain why procedures must be done in a certain way. The language of persuasion is a softer approach which can produce better engagement amongst users. Of course, this won’t work in every scenario – sometimes we do need to use a lot of must and must not obviously in life-or-death scenarios of course it’s imperative that we make it clear what to do or not do – no room for nudging.

It’s been an interesting exploration into the language of persuasion, initially sparked by nostalgic reflections on public information films and then guided by contemporary insights into behavioural economics, it’s ultimately revealed something of an evolution in communication strategies. From the stark warnings of last century, embodied in films like “Lonely Water” and AIDS awareness campaigns, to the more nuanced approaches seen in modern-day Internet safety advisories, the language of persuasion is adapting to tap into the instinctive emotional side of our audiences. This evolution encompasses many aspects of our daily lives, such as food labelling systems, cafeteria layouts, and even thermostat designs, all leveraging the principles of nudging to influence behaviour.

As technical writers, we can find ourselves at the intersection of information dissemination and behavioural influence. By embracing the principles of nudging, we can enhance the effectiveness of our instructions and policies, fostering better engagement and compliance among our audiences. Of course, we must also recognize the context within which we operate, understanding that while persuasion can be powerful, there are situations where clarity and directness remain paramount, particularly in matters of safety.

Ultimately, my journey through the landscape of persuasion has underscored the importance of adaptability and empathy in communication. By understanding the psychological, cognitive, and emotional factors at play, we can craft messages that resonate with our audience, driving meaningful action and facilitating positive outcomes.

You can find links to items mentioned in the show as well as the podcast transcript in the show notes. Thank you for listening to me Ginny Critcher on the Cherryleaf podcast.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.