How to Use Words to Influence People

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This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

The above paragraph was composed by Gary Provost, “the writer’s writer” and a rather remarkable wordsmith. His sentence structure and syntax mimic his advice in such a way that you can’t help but hear his song in your head, and there can be no question of its intent. No subtext to decipher and no lines to read between—just carefully written words that refuse to be misunderstood.

Provost’s execution is excellent, and I often refer back to this paragraph when I feel that my voice is getting lost in a tangle of SEO keywords and word counts. It’s a reminder that there’s more to writing than transcribing thoughts and that how you say something is just as—if not more—important than what you’re saying.

One of the biggest challenges that I face in so-called SEO writing lies in finding a way to make the experience of reading keyword-rich text feel somewhat more subtle and a quite a bit more painless than, say, getting hit in the face with a brick. Bear with me as I follow this nonsensical comparison to its (hopefully) sensical conclusion. (See what I did there?)

What is SEO content, and why should I care?

SEO content refers to the words and images on a webpage, and it is used to inform search engines about your website. So if your company sells green dry erase markers, you’ll want to fill your site with all of the words and phrases that consumers would type into a search bar when they are looking for a place to buy green dry erase markers. Maybe throw in a few pictures of happy people writing on white boards with green markers. Simple.

But you can’t paste the phrase “buy green dry erase markers” 8,000 times on every page and call it a day any more than you can write those same words on 8,000 bricks, stand outside your store, and chuck them at every person who walks by. It would get the message across, sure, but no one takes kindly to information that was hurled at their face. You would be better off using those bricks to pave a walkway to your door.

That’s what good content does: it purposefully guides search engines and search engine users alike to your website, where they happily find exactly what your keywords suggested they would find, and where they will willingly return to find such relevant content in the future.

The bottom line is that while you want your content to send a clear message, that message has to be presented in a way that real, human people can understand and appreciate.

But you said you would help me influence people!

Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

Another part of SEO looks a lot like traditional PR, and it involves sending unsolicited emails to bloggers or journalists. That’s where using words to influence people becomes important. You have one short subject line to catch a busy editor’s eye and then no more than a handful of sentences to make your pitch.

I often call upon any and all higher powers to bestow upon me the magic formula for getting my emails opened, but since my prayers have thus far gone unanswered, I can only share what trial and error have taught me.

In the spirit of Gary Provost, here is a sample pitch email:

Hi Editor-

First I will thank you for your time.

Next, I will introduce my client. They recently created something exciting and new, so I will request that you consider featuring it in your publication. Here are a few more details about Client and Client Product. I’m keeping this brief because I know you are busy and the chances of you reading a wall of text are slim.

If you are interested in pursuing this, here is where I leave my contact information and thank you once again for your time.


By opening with well-wishes or a statement of gratitude, you frame the rest of your message in a positive, friendly light.

Then you want to get straight to the point. Editors receive requests like this all the time, so there is no reason to try disguising your pitch as something that it’s not. Just be cordial, be direct, and be helpful (so don’t throw any figurative bricks). Depending on the subject matter this section can vary in length from 2 quick sentences to a complete paragraph, but you want to keep it as concise as possible.

Here’s one tip: avoid starting every sentence with “I.” You don’t want them to feel like they’re doing you a favor; you want them to feel like you’re helping them out. So don’t say “I think you would be interested in X…” or “I would like to tell you about Y…”. Instead, demonstrate the value of what you have to offer in terms of their interests: “Your recent post about colored chalk was well-received, so our green dry erase markers may be of interest.” You get the idea.

Close with another cordial sentiment and an invitation to contact you for more information. You want to end the message on a positive note, and you want to make yourself readily available. Then all that’s left is to hit send, sit back, and hope for a response.

Choose your words carefully and you’ll find that people will be much more receptive to your pitches. Perhaps rather than being completely ignored, you’ll get a personalized rejection (which at least indicates that they read your email). Or maybe you’ll get a positive response—you never know until you try.

Alex Francis is the content manager at Highly Relevant. She’s a grammar enthusiast who will adamantly defend the serial comma, and when she’s not at work writing and editing copy, there’s a good chance you’ll find her throwing heavy things and practicing handstands.

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