Evaluating Persuasive Writing: Am I Making a Difference?

This post is a response to another friend’s suggestion (reminder to my readers: I do take requests). My buddy Chuck suggested I take on “social engineering on a budget.” He was joking, as it turned out, but what he meant was talking about how effective technical communicators are at changing hearts and minds. I covered some of this in my master’s thesis, so I’ll give it a go, keeping in mind that things have changed a bit in the–egad–17 years since it was published.

The View From 2002

First, a wee bit of background: my master’s thesis for University of Central Florida had the riveting title “Communicating with Multiple Audiences in Space Advocacy.” The abstract was as follows:

      Many technical communicators, at some point in their careers, will be required to write marketing or public relations documents. Using space advocacy as a case study, I demonstrate how technical communicators can use targeted marketing to improve the appeal of their cause within particular subgroups.  This study legitimizes science advocacy and marketing communication in the technical communication field.  The function of advocacy is not deception, but principled persuasion.  This study is also of direct benefit to groups such as the National Space Society and the Mars Society, which advocate human missions to other worlds, and that also require broad public support to advance their cause.  These groups should be able to use this combination of rhetoric and targeted marketing to convince the American public to support more ambitious space missions.

A shorter, slightly updated version of the thesis can be on The Space Review.

So You Want to Evaluate Your Rhetorical Effectiveness…

Getting back to Chuck’s comments:

[A]ll social engineering is on a budget. Free actually, unless one invests in theater makeup or props for the big con. What is interesting (and unknown) to me however, would be an investigation of how much “influencing” is done or attempted within technical writing as a goal either stated or implied.

Here’s what I had to say in 2002 about the potential of measuring the influence of technical writing;

      To determine the effectiveness of targeted rhetoric, technical communicators should develop surveys or questionnaires for their targeted markets.  Technical communicators working for nonprofit organizations could measure the effectiveness of their targeted marketing/rhetoric by tracking the new income or memberships they receive based on specific campaigns.

The ultimate measures of success, of course, are political victories.  Those, too, could be measured, though they would require a much longer time span to measure.  However, advocates would need to find a valid method of confirming that their messages contributed directly to those victories.

A cursory search of the internet brought up the following points regarding measurerment effectiveness in an advocacy context (nonprofit or otherwise):

  • It’s difficult, sometimes impossible because political decisions depend on a variety of factors.
  • It helps to have a specific audience, situation/context, and goals (definition of progress) in mind.
  • You can measure enthusiasm/attention to an issue based on how many times people click on, quote, or download your content. You can also keep track of the number of times your organization is contacted by members of the media or decision makers on a particular issue. Also: measure changes in these metrics before/during/after a campaign starts.
  • Acquire/use tools to track your progress (e.g., Google Analytics, LEXIS-NEXIS
  • It helps to work with experienced measurement professionals who can develop clear, bias-free survey instruments.
  • Public engagement is a process that starts with someone being uninformed to (ideally) becoming a champion of your cause.

Bottom line: there are ways to measure your ability to “win hearts and minds.” Of course if you do the measurements and find out you are not having the positive impact you want, then you need to answer the next question, which is why. But that, as they say, is another story.







About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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