Mar 012013

The advice in the headline comes from the late, great Henry James. It is the secret of great fiction: Concrete versus abstract. In non-fiction, the same advice applies, but the reasons are different: The difference between argument and assertion is that the former provides support for a point of view. The latter doesn’t, and the reader is left to take the writer’s word for it. Or not.

One of the reasons we get so burned out by political advertising—beyond the sheer volume of it—is that it mostly consists of dueling assertions. That’s also the reason that the ads have so little persuasive value—we simply select the set of assertions that aligns with our existing beliefs. Assertions give us nothing to wrestle with or discuss. A good argument demands a thoughtful rebuttal, not a flippant rejection.

I was concerned, therefore, by a blog post I saw on LinkedIn that offered a “quick copywriting tip” designed to deliver “strategic subtlety.” The writer praised a brochure for a medical center that asserted, “More than a building, it will be a catalyst for our next wave of contributions to science and healing.”

According to the blogger, “This is more effective, not to mention easier to consume, than sharing a list of achievements that most readers will probably find boring.”
What he calls a boring list of achievements is what I call “facts.” And I still rely on facts to determine whether I can accept an assertion like “catalyst for contributions to science and healing.”

Certainly a list of achievements can fail to persuade if they don’t engage the target audience. But I, for one, have almost infinite patience when someone is talking about what’s in it for me.

It may be that argument is going the way of the dodo, but although I fancy myself progressive in most areas of life, this is a place where I will hold the line. “Show, don’t tell.”

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