I think, therefore I stink — at persuasive writing

thinkerNo one cares what you think.

I tell my students this all the time. If you want your bosses and clients to take you seriously, make your case logically and make it with conviction. Don’t start off with: “In my humble opinion…”  People don’t follow your counsel because you “think” you’re right. They follow you because you’ve made a persuasive case based on solid evidence.

A persuasive communicator isn’t tentative. I learned this 35 years ago in a college course called “Argumentation and Debate.” I also learned the value of research — hours and hours of research — from which my team assembled the facts and stories to support our position.

Think about it. Ever heard an accomplished debater begin a case with, “In my opinion…”? Confident debaters, like confident PR counselors, state their positions without qualification and they back those positions with evidence.

Ask me about “I think”

This past semester, I tried an experiment in my Ethics and Issues class. Each time a student wrote the words “I think,”  or “in my opinion,” I placed a note in the paper’s margin that read: “Ask me about ‘I think.'”

I graded 80-90 papers in this class over the past 15 weeks, and I tagged about 20% with the “I think” note. Not a single student asked me about it. Not one.

Dan Santow

Dan Santow

Perhaps the students don’t want constructive comments. Or maybe they just don’t care. To be fair, most are graduating seniors and focused on the job search. (Only 3 of 20 were PR majors, and none used the “I think” phrase. I must have beaten them into submission in past classes!)

Some 33 years after that debate class, “Word Wise” blogger Dan Santow presented the “I think” lesson better than I ever could. I’ve been referring students to his “Think Tank” post ever since. Here’s the essence:

One way to make your writing more forceful and dynamic, whether you’re writing op-eds on behalf of a client or internal memos or even new business proposals, is to avoid using the phrase “I think.” Implicitly, when you write something you believe it to be so. There’s no need to precede it with “I think,” which can actually imply that you aren’t so sure that what you are writing is true or reasonable or sage or valuable.

Say you’re a client. Which would you rather hear your hundreds-of-dollars-an-hour communications partner advise?

  • I think a word-of-mouth campaign would create buzz. I think that’s what we should implement.
  • A word-of-mouth campaign would create buzz. That’s what we should implement.

The first example sounds a little namby-pamby, as if though you’re suggesting it you don’t want to take responsibility for it. The second example sounds confident, implying you know your stuff (which, presumably you do).

I think Dan got it right. His blog is a “must read” for anyone who cares about good writing and effective persuasion.

10 Responses to I think, therefore I stink — at persuasive writing

  1. Hi Bill, my students don’t have an “I think…” problem, but they are challenged by using active voice and persuasive writing. I would slightly amend Dan’s example above to “Word-of-mouth campaigns create buzz. Implementing such a campaign achieves X, Y, and Z.”

    This way, one not only sounds more professional, but also provides quick objectives, basically talking to execs the way they talk. My students have problems thinking and writing in this manner, which is essential to thinking like a business exec.

    I often see it most glaringly in their resumes. Their bullets under each job read like a list of tasks or a job ad, rather than a list of accomplishments. Getting them to think like the people that will hire, promote, and provide raises is important. Your example of using this kind of voice in writing is wise.

  2. @bethbellor says:

    30 years ago, my band director expressed great frustration because he got into trouble when he expressed strong opinions (of which he had many) without prefacing them with “In my opinion …” His point? “Who the hell else’s opinion is it gonna be?”

  3. Tracy says:

    Hear, hear! A wise mentor told me to stop using the phrase “I believe”. I’ve carried that throughout my life.

  4. There’s nothing that whiff’s of low confidence like the “I think” or “I believe” phrase. Even in conversation, I tend to find it less credible than if someone were to actively state their claim.

    Still, it’s the mark of a great debater to state their claim with confidence and facts AND refute their opposition with facts also. An argument is far stronger when you stake your claim versus your opponents rather than ignoring it altogether.

  5. Chuck Hemann says:

    I think…oh wait…this is a really good post Bill. One small modification that I hear everyday…”I feel like.”

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    I use that phrase a lot myself. Usually in this context: I feel like sh#*.

  7. mikeboehmer57 says:

    You make some great points. I agree with the approach you suggest. I always like to be assertive and back up my suggestions with solid research. However, I’ve got to be on guard against coming across as a “know it all.” Some clients have big egos and need to be handled with care. It helps to offer counsel, listen patiently, and calmly address any concerns with my suggested strategy, keep supporting my case with research, and take into consideration where my client is coming from. Thanks for your blog. I appreciate it, even if I’m an Ohio U grad. I do like The Dead, though.😀

  8. metricsman says:

    Hi Bill,
    Nice post and I fully agree with the lack of need for “I think” in writing. Not so sure this absolutely applies to spoken conversations. Prefacing a comment with “In my opinion” or “I think” can often soften the comment so one does not appear arrogant, and can encourage a conversation or differing opinion. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way by being perceived as too definitive with my opinions in the past.
    @donbart

  9. Rob says:

    What would Woody Allen do?

  10. Katrina says:

    I would be one of the students who never asked about “I think”. I get the point now. No more “I thinks” for me.

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