How to Convince in Business Writing

by Craig Shrives

Moderation, Modesty, and Evidence

To convince people of your worth, use moderation, modesty, and evidence. Telling them you're great will have no effect or the opposite effect.
"Modesty is the only sure bait when you angle for praise."
(Philip Dormer Stanhope 4th Earl of Chesterfield, 16941773)

Self-praise Is No Praise

People use words like very, extremely, and excellent far too often in their writing. Removing them is a good start. Your message is usually far more powerful without them.
"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very.' Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be."
(Writer Mark Twain, 1835-1910)
Unless they're backed by evidence, words like very, extremely, and excellent look like exaggeration or desperation. They don't even look like confidence. They do nothing for you. Your readers have become immune to them. Using them is lazy writing. Let's examine this idea a bit more.

How have you described your communication skills on your CV? "Excellent communication skills"? If the answer is yes, go and stand with the other 95% of job applicants who wrote the same.

Will the employer reading your CV believe you've got excellent communication skills because that's what you wrote? No chance. The word "excellent" will have no impact at all. The employer will look at how you've written and laid out your CV to determine whether you've got "excellent" communication skills. However, they will also be aware that your CV might not be your own work. Here's how it works:

Obviously, a badly written CV tells an employer your communications skills are poor. However, a well-written CV does not provide him with conclusive evidence that your communication skills are good or excellent. They still need to make a judgement on that. For me, this brings to mind a great saying we had in the Intelligence Corps: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

In other words, when faced with a well-written CV, the employer has no evidence that your communication skills are bad, but they will instinctively know that it doesn't mean they're not bad. So, to score the most points you can for "communications skills," you need to do two things. You need to present a well-written CV (obviously) and offer some evidence that they're excellent. You could try a line like this:

"Sound communication skills developed over two years as a [insert previous job where communications skills were key] and honed with [insert something else you did more recently where communication skills were essential]"

First, you've used the word "sound." That shows modesty, and it's believable. Second, you've provided some evidence, so now it's very believable. You've written "sound communications skills," but the employer will be thinking "excellent communication skills."

The practice of using moderation and presenting evidence works on everything (emails, letters, adverts, etc.). Look at these two examples from my local paper:
  • "I am an extremely experienced plumber who'll do an excellent job."
  • "After a job well done, you can post a review on my website."
The second one is a cracker! He's so confident in his plumbing abilities, he's letting the customer "hold him by the throat" to ensure he does a good job. That's about as much customer confidence as you can cram into one sentence. Also, the words "a job well done" show moderation. They're believable.

Unfortunately, Mr "a job well done" was booked up for two months, so I went with Mr "excellent job." He was a very good plumber, to be fair. He just wasn't good at selling himself, and that's why he was available.

To make people think you're great, use words that show moderation and modesty and provide evidence.
Help Us To Improve

  • Do you disagree with something on this page?
  • Did you spot a typo?
  • Do you know a bias or fallacy that we've missed?
Please tell us using this form

See Also