By Liz Wainger
Jun 29, 2017, 2:53pm EDT Updated Jun 29, 2017, 3:01pm EDT
This article originally appeared on BizJournals.com.
If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, would he be penning thought pieces in The Washington Post and making appearances on “Morning Joe” or “Face the Nation”? I imagine he’d much prefer wielding his gel pen than churning the 24-hour news cycle. Even so, Jefferson was a brilliant communicator. And as we approach this July Fourth holiday, it’s an excellent time to celebrate (and circumnavigate) the masterfully crafted Declaration of Independence that helped launch our nation.
Aside from being a brilliant political statement of intent, the declaration offers a four-part formula for writing persuasively. Whether you are writing an email to your boss asking for more resources or preparing an article for an industry journal, the structure that Jefferson employed offers a frame for getting your point across.
1. State the problem/issue. In Jefferson’s case, the problem was clear – political separation from Britain. More often, people either define the problem incorrectly or don’t really know what it is. But he lays out the colonists’ challenge in the first sentence: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”
Most people are uncomfortable with being so direct and often load up their writing with unnecessary platitudes and filler. Getting to the heart of the matter, especially when the matter isn’t pleasant, is uncomfortable – whether it’s overthrowing the reign of Great Britain or dealing with less then stellar sales or poor morale. The Sage of Monticello states the problem clearly in the first sentence and moves on.
2. Explain why you (or your boss or your employees…) have a stake in fixing it. You have to be able to align your audience with the issue before you can move them to action. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
3. Explain the reasons for the problem. After defining the challenge, Jefferson explains why it exists and why it has reached this critical point. The King is bad for the colonists, having committed “a long train of abuses and usurpations.”
4. Present the facts. Jefferson then submits the facts “to a candid world.” He makes a very tight list of specific grievances against the king and the wrongs the monarchy has committed, which include taxation without representation, abolition of local laws, depriving colonists of trials by jury, etc. The list of facts comes after framing the problem, and defining the stakes and reasons. Too often, nonpersuasive writers bury their reader in the facts and details without providing the larger context.
5. Compel action. Once you have made your case and presented the facts, it is important to communicate what you want to happen. You must ask for action or change. In Jefferson’s case, the signers declared the colonies to be “free and independent states,” without allegiance to the crown and free to wage war and levy taxes as they see fit. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Enjoy the barbecues and fireworks this July Fourth. And take time to savor the Declaration of Independence. It’s not only a profound reminder of our history, but a framework for improving your persuasive writing.