Persuasive Writing: The Carrot-and-Stick Strategy

The five-step process of written persuasion.

Certain types of writing involve doing your utmost to persuade the reader to accept your recommendations. Business examples of persuasion include:

* arguing for more staff;

* assuring the boss of the merits of a new project;

* convincing management to continue with a worthwhile program;

* encouraging your manager to investigate a safety hazard;

* justifying a budget increase;

* promoting your innovative business strategy;

* selling a product or service; and

* supporting your position over that of others.

There's a five-step process that I call the carrot-and-stick strategy. It can be very effective in such situations. The strategy is this: the following five elements should be in *every* attempt to persuade:

1. A clear statement of the reader's problem.

2. A clear statement of the consequences for the reader of not solving the problem.

3. A clear statement of your proposed solution to the problem.

4. A clear statement of the benefits to the reader of solving the problem.

5. A clear request for a specific action; e.g. "Please sign and return this application".

Let's look at these five elements in further detail.


If you want to get a sleeping teenager out of bed, simply telling him or her to get up may be only marginally effective. Pointing out that the house is on fire is likely to be far more so. Why? The first approach may be perceived as just another annoying request for compliance. The second, though, presents a problem: their problem.

So, if I want to persuade someone to do something then the first step in the carrot-and-stick strategy is to convince him or her that they have a problem that needs to be solved.

Little other than self-interest motivates some people; others can be paralysed by indecision and only act when compelled. No matter the situation, no matter the person, one of the best ways to put people in the mood to act is to convince them that they have a problem.

In an unsolicited case or proposal this is especially important as the reader may be completely unaware of the existence of the problem, and it will be your job to walk them through it.

Of course, some cases and proposals will be solicited, in which case the reader presumably already knows that there's a problem that needs solving. In such cases, you may need to spend less time explaining it to them.

Never skip this step, though, as the reader may have forgotten the problem since you last discussed it. Alternately, she or he may be underestimating how severe it is.


Having demonstrated to the reader (in whatever depth is necessary) that they have a problem, the second step in the carrot-and-stick strategy is to outline the dire consequences to them of not acting.

List and discuss all the problems and threats that are faced if the problem is not addressed: financial, environmental, P.R., social, I.T., everything. This is the stick element of the carrot-and-stick strategy. You're (figuratively) beating him or her with all of the dreadful things that might happen if nothing is done to address the problem.

Not surprisingly, this is a very persuasive technique for putting someone in a frame of mind where they're ready -- and probably quite desperate -- to find and apply a solution.


Now that the client is in a receptive frame of mind, you reel them in by describing your solution to their problem.


Having described your proposed solution, you now dangle the carrot by waxing lyrical about all of the benefits and features that it provides. Describe all of its good points: financial, environmental, P.R., social, I.T., everything.

See what we've done in these first four steps? We've established a need, described the solution to that need, and then lauded the benefits of that solution. This carrot-and-stick strategy is a highly effective way of persuading people to say yes.


Commercials often use phrases such as "Act now!" and "For a limited time only". Used-car salesmen are notorious for phrases such as "I can only do this deal today". These are all examples of closes: lines that try to get you to act immediately on the proposal that's in front of you.

The final element of the carrot-and-stick strategy is to close with a specific request for action. You've presented your case, and the reader is motivated to act. It would be a shame to have gone to all this trouble only to waste it now.

Make a specific request, now, while you've got their interest.

For example:

* Please sign and return the attached application.

* Please alter the budget accordingly.

* Please call Jane at Human Resources and authorise her to place the ad.

* Please phone Bill and express your support for this idea.

* etc.

End with a firm and clear request for some immediate action, or you run the risk that the reader will put your case or proposal to one side. You want them to act now, while it's fresh in their minds, so tell them what you want them to do.

You'll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's much applauded range of e-books. FREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS are available, and all books come with a money-back guarantee.

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