The Patrick Score: A Sane, Logical Writing Assessment

I developed a writing assessment. It’s my attempt to take 20+ years of judgment about what makes tight, logical writing and put it into a form that is easy for others to learn from. Also, for those who like numbers, it boils the quality of a piece of writing down into a metric without being trivial about it.

While it started off as just some screwing around in Python, it’s become a very useful tool for coaching, feedback and evaluation.


The PScore is a measure of how much attention a reader must expend to extract meaning from a piece of writing. It combines a qualitative and a quantitative method to produce a score. The lower this score the ‘better’ the writing is. It is built around a key tenet – The skillful writer makes complicated subjects easy to understand. That is, if you take two writers, writing on the same subject, the one with the lower PScore will be more effective because it will be easier for the reader to get information out of her writing.


There are many measures of readability. All of them are basically the same. They evaluate sentence construction by measuring some mixture of the number of words, sentences, syllables and word frequency. I use something very much like the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score to assess the complexity of a piece of writing.


Of each piece of writing, I ask three questions.

  1. Does it start in the right place?
  2. Does it have a purpose that is immediately apparent to the reader?
  3. Does reading it make the reader more likely to take the desired action? (see also A 2500 Year Old Tool for Better Messaging

These questions are answered on a scale and combined with the measure of complexity to result in a PScore. For example which one do you think is better?


For the last 150 years, the Galactic Empire has pushed the frontiers of weapon technology. Malicious will, plus a limitless Research and Development budget, has resulted in the construction a fully-functional weapon of planet destruction. Grimly named ‘The Death Star,’ this is the most significant strategic issue facing the Rebel Alliance. This paper will explore our options for dealing with his horrible new weapon of oppression.



The Death Star is very big and very powerful, but it has a fatal flaw. It won’t be easy to destroy, but it is possible. This document will show you how.*

Many Bothans died to bring you this memo.

I say the second one is better, because it uses less of your attention and mental energy to get the point across. To formalize this idea a bit more: /A piece of writing is a kind of conceptual machine. You put attention into the machine and meaning pops out the other end. But attention is only becoming more expensive. So, if this machine is well-built, it will use as little attention as possible./


To measure the magnitude of improvement possible, I score a sample of writing. Then I rewrite it to be as efficient as possible and score that version as well. Almost all of the time, this is a matter of killing words. hence my free e-book and course called How to Kill a Word)

The difference between the two versions is the room for improvement. I repeat this as the end of the coaching engagement to measure the improvement.

Marketing Copy A (Pscore=11)

Much of a museum’s collection storage is out of the public eye – but that doesn’t make it any less valuable or attractive. Those out-of-sight pieces can benefit from high-density museum shelving, whether operated electronically or by a mechanical assist. Expandable and lockable, they offer protection, easy access and an eminently flexible storage solution. Modular static shelving or museum cabinets are also great solutions to secure your collection.

Pscore = 11
Word Count = 79
Complexity = 115
Composition = 10
Right Place:4

Marketing Copy B (Pscore=4)

What you don’t show is as valuable as what you display to the public. High-density museum shelving can help you protect your collection and make the most of your space.

Pscore = 4
Word count = 32
Complexity = 40
Composition = 11
Right Place:4
Likely: 3

What can you take away from all of this?

The Pscore is my attempt to automate what a great writer does when evaluating writing. Here a few ways to think about making writing better that are baked into the score and almost always correct.

  1. The fewer words you can get away with, the better.
  2. Ask the three compositional questions of everything you write:
    1. Does this start in the right place?
    2. Does it have a purpose which is immediately apparent to the reader?
    3. Is it likely to persuade the reader to take action?
  3. If you really get stuck, you should message me. I’ve spent a lot of time helping people get clear about their writing and messaging.

And, if you want a good exercise, how would you answer the three composition questions for this post?

The Pscore for this post is 17. Here’s some other stats.

Words: 894
Sentences; 75
Paragraphs: 29
Avg words/sentence: 11.96
Avg syllables/word: 1.50
Reading Ease: 67.84
Grade Level: 6.77


Eleven Things they Should Have Told You About Writing

Writing is how we define ourselves for someone we don’t get to meet.

Richard Saul Wurman, Founder of the Ted Talks

1. In the job market, the better writer wins.

In Rework, Jason Fried of Basecamp advises entrepreneurs to “hire the better writer.” His justification for this is simple – the better writer is the better thinker. But the issue is much bigger than writing. How does an employer choose the best employee? A credential like a college degree used to be a good filter, but not anymore. Standards have dropped and too many people have too many degrees. How many MBA’s does the world really need, anyway? 

Smart employers, at the kind of companies everyone wants to work for, pay more attention to what a person has done than the padding on their resume. Writing about a subject, industry or issue not only qualifies as doing something, it immediately shows an employer how you think. And if you think this only applies to hip software development companies like, consider that when the National Commission on Writing surveyed 120 major American corporations they concluded that writing is a “threshold skill for hiring and promotion among salaried employees.”

2. The business of writing is business.

For the majority of human history literature has not been the point of writing. And, until recently, it wasn’t the point of writing education. This change in focus has led to the crisis in writing that faces us today.

The earliest samples of writing known to man are business documents — a recipe for beer (manufacturing process) and a record of oil deliveries (ledger). These first writing samples date from 2700 B.C. Six hundred or so years later, someone pressed the Epic of Gilgamesh into clay tablets. But after that, you have another 2,000 years before we get to anything that even remotely resembles a modern novel. 

Now on tap, this lovely Sumerian IPA

3. What you say is more important than how you say it.

As most of us have come through school the attempts to train us to write have created a counterproductive feedback mechanism. Papers have minimum page lengths where they should have maximum word counts. In preparation for standardized tests we have been rewarded for using words that no one should ever use. 

Arbitrary concerns of style (MLA vs. Chicago vs AP) are often emphasized more than the clarity and power of writing. Generations of students have been bludgeoned with false and counterproductive rules such as “Thou shalt not split the infinitive.” Who wants to live in a world where Captain Kirk isn’t allowed “To boldly go”? As Winston Churchill so observed of another variety of literary insanity, “Not ending sentences in prepositions is something up with which we shall not put.” 

Having a point, making it clearly and well, these are the only sure and durable rules of writing. The skill of writing is far too personal and complicated to be a trainable skill. Training is for rats, feeder bars and high-school kids who work in frozen yogurt franchises for the summer.

4. No amount of work can help a bad idea.

You cannot polish a turd. Writing and rewriting are the process of discovering where your thinking is sloppy or wrong. That the process is sometimes uncomfortable is not your failure as a writer, it is your success as a thinker.

5. Only 20% of us do productive work. The other 80% are trying to kill us with crappy email.

Crisp subject lines, clear requests for action and as few words as possible will win friends, influence people and help get things done. Not getting to the point (or not having one in the first place) costs time and money. 

Email puts your writing front and center every working day. Send a bad email and it can be forwarded to everyone in the world (in an instant) for free. It’s not fair. It’s not sane. It’s just the way it is.

6. The kindest thing you can do for your audience is not waste their time.

As Arthur Miller said, “Attention must be paid.” No matter how wealthy some of us may be, none of us are rich in time or attention. The fewer words you can use to get your point across, the less of a person’s attention you will use. And the more they will like you. Get to the point, and the 20% of the people who keep the world turning will recognize you as one who is worthy of time, attention and assistance.

7. Use words as if you were paying for them.

It should hurt to use more words than you have to. You should feel like you are saving money when you find a way to cut a word out. Big, exotic, fancy words are more expensive than small, simple and ordinary words. Split is a good 10 cent word. Bifurcate costs $5.00. 

It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t ever use expensive words. It’s that, when you do, you should make sure you get good value for them. You don’t wear a $1000 suit to dig postholes. You don’t wear a pair of overalls to the Opera. 

The 100 most used words in the English language make up 50% of all written material. Twenty-five nouns, twenty-five verbs, twenty-six adjectives and fourteen prepositions grant you an astounding command of the language.

To be able to convey weighty and momentous ideas with simple words is the height of the writer’s skill. Spring may be refulgent, but describe it that way and no one will know what you are talking about.

8. The rules are not the game.

A knowledge of the rules of soccer doesn’t make you any better at handling the ball. Knowing music theory doesn’t mean you can play the guitar. Between the rules and the skill there is something else. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be concerned with grammar. At its best, grammar, style and usage advice is nothing more than the work of thoughtful people trying to explain how the language can best be used. As with any kind of problem solving, seeing how someone else has handled a similar problem is always good thing to do. 

But recognize that you can follow all the rules and still lose the game.

9. “Writer’s block was invented in California by people who couldn’t write.” – Terry Pratchett

If the output of a process is bad, don’t check your horoscope, check the process. Do you have enough information? Is there a clearer way to organize your material? Have you generated enough ideas? Have you given yourself enough time? Is it better to write nothing at all?

If your car won’t start, you don’t say that you have Driver’s Block. You check to see if you have the right key. You check the gas tank. You make sure the battery has a charge. Although writing is more complicated than an automobile, it is still just a set of interlinking systems. 

10. The study of grammar isn’t an efficient way to improve your writing.

Per the Oxford handbook of Expert Peformance the skill of writing involves at least five parts: 

  1. General Knowledge
  2. Subject matter knowledge
  3. Problem-solving skills
  4. Language use (syntax, grammar, usage, diction)
  5. Dealing with the emotional challenges of writing. 

All five of these links must be strong for you to write with ease and power. Grammar is a part of a part. Just as it is impossible to make a chain stronger by strengthening a single link, the study of grammar is not sufficient if you want to become a better writer.

11. The static page isn’t a very good way to teach writing.

Writing is misnamed. The real skill of it is rewriting. And it’s almost impossible to learn to rewrite by staring at a page of text soaked in red pen corrections. Rewriting is the highly fluid process of seeing all your possible choices and making the one that fits best with all of the other choices you’ve made or could make. (See how hard that is to explain with static text?) 

Luckily, we’re living in the 21st century. So we can do a little better than the static page. I call it Co-Writing.

The knack of cutting, tightening and polishing can only be learned through practice. Being able to watch someone do it well (the essence of apprenticeship) makes learning to write significantly easier.

The Barely Literate Species:

Why you should read your writing out loud. 

It’s solid gold rewriting advice: read it out loud. When you do you activate strong magic. You immediately hear where what you wrote needs improvement. (Or, if you’re anything like me, where it dips into utter gibberish.) But why is this the case? Consider a simple timeline. 

Language has been around far, far longer than writing. Which is just crazy if you think about it. Because it means that our species existed without a reliable memory for roughly 2 million years. Nothing written down. No directions, no recipes, no tell all memoirs. Everything was transmitted via an oral tradition. 

As an aside, this is where rhyme and meter come from. A rhyme scheme in a poem gives you a kind of a checksum. So if you forget a line or two, you can recreate them based on the fragments you remember. Start with “There once was a man from Nantucket” and the form of limerick and you can get to NSFW territory with no trouble at all. But this is only part of the story. Let’s zoom in on the very end of the timeline. The little bit that is a rounding error in geologic time, but pretty much everything for us.

Notice, that for most of human history, reading and writing were the domain of an exclusive few. Priests and scribes mostly. And almost nothing was written in a language that ordinary people could understand even if they could have read. 

Your Eye is Smarter than Your Ear Because It’s Had More Practice. 

We aren’t evolved to read and write. In a very real sense, it’s against our nature and is — no matter how good you are at it — an uphill battle. That’s why in my coaching and classes, I always encourage people not to make it any harder than it needs to be. (A fear of grammar and a disregard for the audience are two ways that even the smartest people can do this when they sit down to write.)

But when you read it out loud then millions of years of evolution are on your side. We need that kind of help. Now more than ever. Because in less the space of a generation writing clearly and well has gone from a skill that was nice to have for most jobs, to a threshold skill that can stop your career dead in it’s tracks, or prevent it from even getting started. As Exhibit A, may I present LinkedIn. 

So go ahead, read it out loud. And if people look at you funny because you are talking to yourself. Remember, no matter what they might be like at work, in geologic time, they’re monkeys. 

Story: An Overlooked Area for Business Improvement

In theory, a business is a simple thing. There are only two ways to make one better. Increase revenues or decrease costs. But that’s exactly like saying that the secret to successful investing is to ‘buy low’ and ’sell high’ While both statements are perfectly true, neither of them are particularly helpful.

Most of the time when we think about increasing revenue/ decreasing costs, we think about changes to process and changes to people. Questions like: Can we be faster and more efficient with fewer people? Can we hire better people, or train our people to be better? If we change the process by which we handle our cash flow, can we obtain a better rate on our bonds and expand faster?

There is a third source of real business improvement that people often overlook. I will argue that, in a reasonably well-functioning business, story becomes at least as important as process and people, if not more so.

Imagine two companies in the same industry. Assume everybody involved in both companies, more or less, knows how to do their job. Assume that the product or service being offered is, more or less, the same. Congratulations, you’ve envisioned most of our economy. What will make the difference between company A and company B are the human connections each firm and every individual can bring to bear. The most powerful way to make and strengthen human connections is through story.

The most important stories are the biggest

The most important stories are the biggest. They answer questions like: What does our work mean to us and why? Where are we going and why? Why should be expect tomorrow to be better than today? Why should I buy your thing, rather than the other company’s thing? 

If your answer to any of these questions are merely facts and statistics, you may be right, but you won’t be convincing. Frustratingly, this is true even when the facts of the matter are overwhelmingly, undeniably and convincingly in your favor. Unless you encode the facts in a good story, it’s going to take a lot of attention and brainpower for the people you are trying to reach to get your message. And nobody who buys anything has much attention to spare.

Even in highly technical sales, the story is the thing that gives people — even the most seemingly emotionless, numbers-oriented of people — permission to buy. Even the shrewdest people buy the story, then check the data to make sure that the story hasn’t tripped them up.

The more powerful the story of a company is, the more powerful each interaction with that company will be. So while we should always be thinking about improving people and process, it is also wise to think about the stories we tell. Are they simple, relatable, shareable, emotional as well as logical and — most of all — do they work fast enough?

“Self-Closing” Proposals

A self-closing proposal is written so that it is easy to say yes to. This means that after reading the first paragraph, or even just the first sentence, your case has been made. 

Saying ‘no’ is always easy. It is rare for someone to get blamed for a choice they didn’t make. Saying ‘yes’, on the other hand, can be difficult. Your client may have to seek the approval of others or get you through an intentionally difficult vendor approval process. And, if something doesn’t go well, they are on the hook for it.

While every proposal is different, here are a few of the principles I use to give my proposals the best chance

1) Don’t make the reader search for the benefit. 

If a person can’t tell why your proposal is worth saying yes to in the first few sentences, something is wrong. Especially when you consider — as awful as this may be — that there is a good chance they are giving it a first look on a mobile device.

Sure, you have to fill in the details, key personnel, terms and conditions, timing and all of that, but what’s most important is that everybody who glances at the document can clearly see a substantial benefit.

For example, when I received a request to do a module on writing and messaging as part of a larger talent development program. I could have set up the proposal like this:

Because, REDACTED, INC. would like to include a module on message development and written communications… etc, etc.

It’s exactly what they asked for. But this is better: 

REDACTED, INC. wants to help it’s high-potential executives increase their performance. To do this, they are taking 12 executives through two days of business communications training. They would like to include a module on message development and written communications. 

The second way (with the detail that comes after) gives the entire why. It more effectively arms your client to argue for it, and it more effectively delivers the why when it is read by a third party.

2) Make sure to show how the benefits exceed the costs. 

Even if what you are selling is highly qualitative, you can always do a rough estimation. Like this:


Our ultimate goal is to help everyone have greater clarity in their thinking. The way we do this is through written communication. This can seem hard to put a discrete value on, but here’s a back-of-a-napkin calculation. 

We have 15 people. If everyone saves 15 minutes a week in writing time, then the yearly time savings per person is 12.5 hours (50wks x .25hrs/week) or 187.5 man-hours across the whole cohort. 

At a labor cost of $50/hr, the value of this training, from time savings, would be $9,375 in the first year. And more, if we take into account the time that readers will save due to increased document clarity.

If the cost of the engagement is anything less than the estimated value (in this proposal it most certainly was) then it makes sense. 

3) Remember that, in business-to-business, there are always two benefits. 

There is the benefit to the organization and then there is a benefit to the individual. In a perfect world, these two benefits line up. But in the real world, they hardly ever do.

Never forget that saying yes to your proposal has an impact on another person’s career. All business is personal. You might have missed it in my last example, but here was the most important thing to my client: 

“the time that readers will save due to increased document clarity.”

The personal benefit was that my client wouldn’t have to read confusing and long-winded reports from his people. And he wouldn’t be embarrassed by the emails and documents that they were sending out. He would have more time and fewer headaches.

My proposal had to be good for his organization, but making sure the personal benefit is obvious, made it easier for my client to say yes.

4) Use the discipline of writing proposals to improve your offering and your sales process. 

Writing a self-closing proposal forces you to think through the deal at all levels. Can you increase the benefit? Can you lower the cost? Can you find a better way to communicate the value? Can you find a better way to allay their fears?

Answering all these questions might not be the easiest, or the sexiest work, but, if done correctly, writing proposals can be a profound way to sharpen a sales process, an offering and an organization. And, having done it, you have a deep understanding of the deal and are well-armed for the negotiation process.

5) If you are not comfortable with the deal, fix the deal, not the writing

People seem to think that a skilled salesperson or copywriter can pour a honeyed potion of language into a potential customer’s ear and lead them to do anything they want –selling proverbial ice to the over-referenced eskimos. It ain’t so. Anything that you cover up or omit will come out in the end. But, when writing, you can get stuck trying thinking it’s your fault that the proposal doesn’t sound very persuasive when it’s really the offer that’s not very good. And trying to hem and haw around a bad deal will only make your writing wordy and ineffective. 

Tell the truth, as clearly as you can. And if that doesn’t work? Maybe it’s not time to write a proposal.

A 2,500-year-old tool for better messaging

It’s old. It’s Greek. And, unsurprisingly, it involves geometry. But let’s save the history lesson for the appendix and jump right in. 

Fundamentally, there are three ways to persuade someone. These are called modes of persuasion or rhetorical appeals. Any one of them can work, but when you can get more than one of these appeals working together, your effectiveness will multiply. 

ONE – Credibility (Ethos)

When a doctor tells you to do something for your health you are more likely to believe her than your brother-in-law. But, in our over-credentialized age, this appeal is not as simple as having the right initials behind your name. We are more likely to be persuaded by those who model what we value or want to be. For example, how much credibility would you give a personal trainer who is obviously out of shape? 

TWO – Logic (Logos)

People can be persuaded by logic. If I show you data that links smoking and lung cancer, then I don’t have to be a doctor to be persuasive. Theoretically, logic is the purest and best of all appeals. But if you’ve had any experience with non-theoretical people, you know that logic doesn’t always apply. Smoking is the perfect example. Smokers don’t disagree with the logic that smoking is bad for you. So, if you want to persuade someone to stop smoking, you need more than logic. 

THREE — Emotion (Pathos)

Emotion is messy, unpredictable, and oh so powerful. Some have described being overcome with emotion as something that happens to a person against their will, depriving them of agency — quite literally an assault. While there are hundreds of words to describe the many shades of emotions we can feel, when it comes to persuasion, I think that only five are elemental. 

  1. Love – We are all connected, the world is full of beauty and wonder. Kitten pictures.
  2. Pity – Isn’t it awful what happened to this poor person?
  3. Fear – Something like this could happen to me!
  4. Anger – This is wrong!
  5. Greed — the possibility of gain. 

For example, while you might deeply regret something you’ve done, only the fear of regretting something you’ve done or haven’t done is likely to be persuade you. 

For business, Fear and Greed are usually the most persuasive. Greed is not a dollar amount, but an emotion. It’s flip side, the fear of loss, is often a more persuasive emotion.

Anger is only really persuasive when directed at people. It is almost impossible for a person to be angry at an institution without transferring that anger onto an individual.

Anger, Fear and Love are the emotions that cause things to go crazy on the internet. When looked at which from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes a lot of sense that “This could get us all killed! I must tell the tribe!” should be deeply wired into our psyches. 

But however, you analyze them, emotions are powerful stuff when it comes to persuasion.


When you put all three appeals together you get what I call the persuasive triangle. 

Any persuasive message fits on some point in this triangle. And my contention is, the closer you get to the middle, the more powerful your appeal will be. Let’s use an example:

Let’s say I want to convince my 73-year-old father to quit smoking. I could simply say, “Dad, smoking causes lung cancer.” This is all logic. And it’s unlikely to work. Because, he knows it already. And if this message was going to work, it would have worked before now. 


So how can we move our appeal closer to the center of our triangle? Credibility is going to be hard to come by because this is my Dad. (I think, on some level, you’re always a little bit of a punk to your Dad.) But this is the same problem advertisers have faced since Don Draper had first his three-martini lunch: Why would I believe anything I read in an ad (or anything a salesman says) when I know that the speaker has skin in the game. They make money when they make a sale. 

One solution to is to borrow credibility. “Four out of Five Dentists recommend Trident to their patients who chew gum.”  And it’s crazy to me that line works at all. When you think about it, it’s not a ringing endorsement. It could easily be taken to mean, “Yeah, if you’re going to chew gum, which I don’t recommend, then chew trident. It’s the best of a bad bunch.”

But that’s not even close to the weirdest thing about credibility appeals. Sometimes an appeal to authority doesn’t have to be even remotely connected to the truth. Think four out of five dentists are right about chewing gum? 

One out of one illustrated dentists recommend Viceroys to their patients who smoke!

More doctors smoke Camels. They’re probably fine!?! But you know, maybe they’re not smoking in a professional capacity. Maybe somebody should study this. How about some science? 

Well, thank goodness we have “scientific” evidence. And my personal favorite: The health cigar. 

Borrowing credibility isn’t always so foolish or evil. But like any tool, it can be misused. 

To get my Dad to quit smoking, I could honestly borrow credibility from a lot of sources. The Surgeon General, for instance. But that’s probably not going to work either. For one thing, the Surgeon General’s warning is right on the side of the pack. Everybody knows it already. 


So, let’s try to get some emotion into the mix and see if that changes things. And to do that, we need a deeper understanding of our audience of one. If I just think of him as my 73-year-old Father, then there’s not much wiggle room. But if we recognize that he’s also a 73-year-old Grandfather, then some opportunity opens up. 

How about, “Quit smoking, so you’ll have more time with your grandkids?”

  • Logic: Smoking is killing you. If you quit you’ll live longer.
  • Emotion: Grandpa taking grandkids to get Ice Cream in a Norman Rockwell painting. 

Or, “Quit smoking, because if the grandkids see you smoking, they will be more likely to start.”

  • Logic: Smoking is bad for you. Your grandkids look up to you. 
  • Emotion: Suffering, grey-skinned, cancer-riddled grandchildren. 


Be it an ad, a management conversation or an appeal to a loved one, the more you can successfully consider and combine multiple modes of persuasion, the more successful you will be. 

Why should you get your car regularly serviced? 

  • Logic: To protect the value of your car.
  • Credibility: AAA and consumer reports recommends an oil change every three months or 5,000 miles. 
  • Emotion: Your car needs to be a safe way to transport your kids. 

Appendix – Aristotle and the Modes of Persuasion

Beyond a certain point in history it becomes impossible to track the provenance of an idea — people simply didn’t write things down — so, I think it’s safe to say that all of the ideas here were first codified by Aristotle in his Rhetoric. It is an immensely practical and useful work, even if it sometimes suffers in translation, or from the people who teach it.

If this is the first time you are encountering the idea of the modes of persuasion, I think somebody in your education owes you an apology and a refund. Persuasion and persuasive communications is such an important part of everyone’s life and work, you make people more capable and powerful by teaching them how to use these tools. 

An Easier Way to Develop Persuasive Communications

The world is filled with other people. And if you want to get anything done, you’re going to have to persuade at least some of them to see things your way. Influencing people is especially important if you want to make a sale, get the promotion or, even change the world. 

It can seem that being persuasive is a natural gift, like charisma or good looks, but I assure you, just like everything else, it can be learned. After 20+ years helping people with persuasive messaging, I have boiled it down into a few simple models that anyone can use to hone their message and deliver it more effectively. In this article, I’d like to show you one of them. But first, a caveat.

But, whatever else you do, get to your point as quickly as you can. 

No matter what your strategy for persuading someone may be, you are always, alwaysalways better off doing it with as few words as possible. We live in an attention-deficit disorder of an age and are, literally, the most messaged humans in the history of the world. We don’t have any attention left to spare. 

So when you create any communication, be it an e-mail, a video, a proposal, a presentation, always try to use as little of your audience’s attention as possible. If you think about communication as a production process, what you are making is a change in someone else’s mind. And to do that you use words and images, but the main input into that process, is someone else’s attention. And attention is a highly constrained resource.

Audience – Message – Action

Every message is aimed at an audience. Even if you are talking to yourself, you have an audience. And everybody talks to themselves. Even if you are all alone and bark your shin on a coffee table, when you curse, the audience is yourself and the desired action is to make you feel better. And if you think that’s crazy, here’s something even crazier: It f#$%!ing works!

Every message has a desired action. We communicate because we want to change something in the world. Even if the thing we want to change the other person’s mind, that’s real change. And it’s not ‘just’ or ‘even’ somebody else’s mind. Changing someone’s mind is a huge thing. Companies spend billions of dollars to influence and change people’s minds. Most of the time they fail. Provide me any example of communication you like in the comments and I will show you how there is an action hiding within it.

A message can be anything. But, in a persuasive sense, there’s only one way to evaluate it. Does it get the audience to take the action you desire? It doesn’t matter if it is grammatically correct or if it rhymes or if a third-party outside the audience doesn’t like it. Does it get a result? 

Using This Model

The Audience – Message – Action model frees your brain up to not have to remember everything all at once. Especially when it comes to remembering to make sure that your message actually stands a chance of working. Seriously, with all of the jargon, the politics and the strategerizing (that’s when you overthink your overthinking), it’s easy to lose sight of simple effectiveness.

But writing down audience, message and action is like showing your work in math class. You immediately begin to see how the parts are working (or failing to work). And you get to see how changing one component can make the entire system click. 

For example, let’s say we want somebody (anybody!) to buy our motor oil. At the very beginning, we probably don’t even care who, we just want to sell some oil. Let’s arbitrarily pick an over-targeted, consumer archetype, Soccer Moms.

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms


ACTION: Buy a case of Motor Oil 

What can we say to soccer moms (and when and where) to make them more likely to buy a case of motor oil?

It doesn’t seem like there’s much. In fact, at first blush, it seems like this is the wrong target for this product. Soccer Moms don’t seem like they really buy motor oil by the case. We could investigate this with research — figuring out what questions to ask is another valuable way to use this model — but for the sake of illustration, let’s move along. 

Keeping the same target, we could recognize that soccer moms don’t buy oil by the case, they buy it by the oil change. 

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms


ACTION: Specify our motor oil for their oil changes

Or we could develop new audiences for our action. 

AUDIENCE: Mechanics


ACTION: Buy our motor oil for their oil changes

AUDIENCE: Procurement director for Spiffy Lube


ACTION: Buy our motor oil for their oil changes

AUDIENCE: Fleet Maintenance Directors


ACTION: Buy our motor oil for their oil changes

Even if you are not the most creative, strategic or persuasive person, I’m willing to bet you’ve already got a couple ideas for what could go in the message slot. Or even a couple ideas for other targets. That’s the whole point. This AMA model is a more productive way to think about persuasive communications. 

Sadly, in my experience, what usually happens is this:

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms

MESSAGE: A Focus on Performance

ACTION: Specify our motor oil for their oil changes

Or, at worst, this.


MESSAGE: A Focus on Performance

ACTION: We need sales to go up

And it’s usually not even that specific. Maybe it’s “Our tagline is “Performance” or “Quality” or “Partnership”. And it’s inane to think that those abstracts are persuasive. They don’t even communicate any meaning. The takeaway here is that the more specific you can make each of these elements, the more successful your efforts will be. 

Tips You Can Use

1. Lower the cost of the desired action.  This is the magic of return postage. I want you to send me something, so I send you a letter asking for it. But to make it easier, I include an addressed and stamped envelope. Now, instead of having to find a stamp, find an envelope and address a letter, you can just seal the envelope and drop it in the mail. 

Maybe I want to get a raise. So our model looks like this:

AUDIENCE: My Tightfisted Boss

MESSAGE: I’d like a raise.

ACTION: Get approval from his boss to pay me more. 

It’s obvious that we could come up with more persuasive messages here, but let’s see how just lowering the cost of the desired action can make it more likely to get a raise. 

ACTION: Take two minutes to look at this comparative salary report. 

Assuming that the salary report shows that I’m being underpaid, this seems like a good way to get started. 

AUDIENCE: My Tightfisted Boss

MESSAGE: According to glassdoor, my salary is well below industry average.

ACTION: Take two minutes to look at this comparative salary report. 

One thing always leads to another, so figuring out a chain of actions that lead to what you ultimately want is often a better way to think about persuasion. Because maybe what we are really looking at is:

AUDIENCE: My Tightfisted Boss

MESSAGE: According to glassdoor, my salary is well below industry average.

ACTION: Read report => Believe that I am underpaid => go to bat for me for the raise.

Or maybe the action chain looks like this:

ACTION: Read report => believe that I am underpaid => worry that I might take another job => go to bat for me for the raise. 

One thing leads to another. Make the first thing as easy, fun and low cost as possible. It’s hard to get someone to buy a car. It’s easier to get them to take a test drive. So which one does the car salesman ask you to do first?

  1. Be as specific as possible with the desired action. 

What specific action do you want someone to take? I know this seems simple, but because we live in an attention-deficit disorder of a world there is a big difference between asking someone “Please help us put an end to cancer” and “Please donate $5 to fund pediatric leukemia research?” In the first one, you are leaving the audience with the burden of figuring out how they can help. It’s harder for someone to process and understand. Because the second one is more specific, the audience doesn’t have to burn brainpower filling in the blanks. 

Or, consider it from a management standpoint. If I say, “Jim, I need your performance to improve?” How likely is it that Jim is going to mend his errant ways and become the stand-out, the go-to-guy on my team? 

But if I say, “Jim, you need to be here and at your desk by 8:30 every morning.”

Or, “Jim, I need you to make twenty service calls a week.”

Or, even “Jim, every time you kill the Joe, you need to make some Mo’.”

These last three stand a better chance of succeeding simply because they are specific. But “Jim, in our handbook it says that we are all respectful and considerate of our fellow employees,” isn’t going to get Jim to stop leaving an empty coffee pot on a hot plate. 

  1. Be as specific as possible with the audience.

Far and away the best place to be specific is with your audience. Don’t try to persuade an industry when you can persuade a role. Don’t target your message to a role when you can target it to a specific person. 

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms


ACTION: Specify Old North State Oil at your next oil change.

Oof, this is tough. But watch what happens if we can make that audience more specific.

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms who drive over 25,000 miles a year.


AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms with 2+ kids on sports teams.


AUDIENCE: Audrey Johnson who lives at 332 Drury Lane

Making the audience more specific always opens up new and more powerful ways to think about persuasion. 

Enough Hypotheticals, Let’s Introduce the Rubber to the Road

Audience: You

Message: This Blog Post 

Desired Action: To become a more persuasive communicator

If this model works for you, use it and spread it. If you have questions, or want to see it applied to your situation, please leave a comment or email me and I’ll do my best. 

A Manifesto for Practical Communications

This is the durable wisdom I have accumulated from twenty years of working with words, business problems and communication strategy. It is the core of both what I do and what I believe. 

1. That which is boring is ignored.

We are the most messaged humans in history. An infinite number of choices face our all too finite amount of attention. And the reptillian parts of our brains are constantly looking for a reason to stop paying attention. Neuroscience refers to this tendency as cognitive miserliness but that’s just a fancy way of saying, if we can’t eat it, or mate with it and if it’s not going to eat us, we have a hard time paying attention to it. 

But there’s a tension. Large companies don’t like to take risks. Depending on the industry, say banking or energy, there may be significant regulatory limitations to the ways they can communicate. But doing something interesting or different is almost always a risk. Even worse, these risks can rarely be explained with data beforehand. The most important things about people’s tastes, perceptions, beliefs and buying behavior might not even be measurable. 

So, large amounts of time and money are poured into efforts that are invisible. Or, at worse, they are forced onto a customer who is actively annoyed by them. 

But there are no boring subjects, only boring ways to talk about them. There is no surer way to waste your time, budget and effort than by being boring. Be entertaining, be passionate, be useful, be unexpected, be responsive, be human, be controversial — but whatever you do, don’t be boring. 

2. People make sense of the world through stories. 

The best way to explain the consequences of lying is not to talk about how incorrectly representing the world to another person is morally wrong because it deprives another person of their agency. It is the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

Story is the shape that complex meaning takes when you make it easy for people to understand. The reason we think in story is because we are social animals. We live and work in contexts where knowing why someone does something is often more important than knowing what they did. Is that primate baring his teeth in anger, or is it a smile? 

This instinct is so deeply rooted, that we tell stories about things that cannot possibly have agency. If a book falls off a shelf near me, it is a perfectly natural thing for an observer to say, “It jumped out at you.”

People cannot develop a relationship with something they don’t have a story for. They certainly can’t love or trust it. That’s why the why of what a person or company does is so important. And in the absence of a story, we will make one up. 

If you don’t give people a story, they are probably going to make one up. And if the story you give them isn’t true, they will find out and they will never trust you again. 

3. Removing humanity and personality from your communications makes them less effective.

There’s an old adage in sales. People buy from people they like. To that I add, there’s nobody that people like more than people. With all our flaws, failings and foibles, it is still our common humanity that we connect to most powerful. Perfection isn’t human, it’s downright creepy. 

4. Once you have someone’s attention, don’t waste it.

Wasting someone’s time and attention is an unforgivable sin. Really think about this. Not in terms of a marketing target or demographic, but in terms of your own life. What else could you be doing rather than reading this manifesto? You could be working? You could put the smartphone down and play with your kids, get in one more call with your parents, apologize to a good friend, or go off and fall in love or any one of a thousand million other things that make life worth living. 

Even though we often become bored, the fact remains, attention is finite. When someone gives you theirs, it’s a precious gift. Whatever you make — whatever the interaction — it should reward the person who is giving up their valuable attention. 

5. You can’t fix a bad idea by throwing money at it.

The line in film and video production is “we’ll fix it in post.” But fixing things in post is not only very expensive, it never works. Fix it in pre. 

This is easy to say, but runs afoul of another problem. Nobody knows what’s going to work. Oh your skills get sharper and your instincts get better, but nobody knows what’s going to work. Not for sure. So rather than putting all my eggs in one conceptual basket, I like to go into any production process with more ideas than I can execute. Rather than spending 100% of the budget on making one idea perfect, it’s more effective to split the money across several ideas and see where the magic strikes. 

No amount of money can buy magic, but you increase your odds by having more ideas. Then, once the idea is working, you can pour budget to it. 

6. Don’t let your tools make decisions for you.

Technology has made it so much easier to create things. But there are grooves and ruts which should be avoided. It’s so easy to use autotune, or a filter in Photoshop, or add a drone shot to your video. Another email blast is always just a click away. Your website will take as many revisions and upgrades as you have money to spend on them. 

Just because something easy, possible or fashionable doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. 

7. If your thing isn’t easy for people to talk about and share, your sales and marketing are broken.

The only medium worth advertising in is people. How are you going to make or do something so awesome that one person is going to tell another? 

In the age of social media, you simply have to be worth talking about. In many ways, this has lowered the general level of our culture. Oscar Wilde thought he was making quip but it turned out to be a prophecy: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

8. Ultimately, what your thing does for your customer is your brand.

Apple is not cool commercials for product design. If you’ll notice, all their commercials are just product demonstration. And the best of Apple’s design choices are to make a better experience for the people who use the product. 

There is so much nonsense around branding that it’s easy to forget, the brand is what the thing does. You might be able to trick someone into buying and trying, but if it doesn’t deliver — especially with the speed that we can share our opinions these days — there’s no way to hide it. 

The Pomodoro Technique for Writers

So I’ve been using something called the Pomodoro Technique to help me in my writing. It’s been nothing short of amazing. On the surface, it’s very simple. You block out 25 minutes to work, crank up a kitchen timer and only focus on that task until the timer rings. But I have found it to be Double-Plus-Advanced-Level-Zen-Productivity-Ninja-Superbest for writing. And here’s why — It defeats something psychologists call the Anxiety of Becoming.

Here’s what the creator of the Pomodoro Technique, Francisco Cirillo has to say on the subject:

For many people, time is an enemy. The anxiety triggered by “the ticking clock”, in particular when a deadline is involved, leads to ineffective work and study behaviour which in turn elicits the tendency to procrastinate. The Pomodoro Technique was created with the aim of using time as a valuable ally to accomplish what we want to do the way we want to do it, and to empower us to continually improve our work or study processes.

That feeling of the ticking clock is the feeling that we should be further along in our writing. This anxiety has been very useful to me in my professional life. Writing ads or even brochures is like sprinting. Faster! Faster! Faster!

But a book is a marathon. A serious article has to be a 5k. And for both, there is certainly something to be said for pacing. And limiting anxiety. For me, the anxiety gets in the way. All those thoughts of, I should be faster, I’ve got to hit this word goal, I’ve got to make sure that these words are good enough to keep or I will fall behind and I really really suck at this are counter-productive.

As writers, I’m not sure any of those worries are within our control. Or any of a thousand other worries that beset us as we are trying to go about the business of getting words on a page. All we can really do is control our focus. And the Pomodoro technique helps me get better at that.

The Real Distractions

Sure, distraction is the enemy. Everybody knows that. Facebook, Twitter, googling random things — the productivity that a computer can grant us is easily counterbalanced by the interrupts that it offers. But the real interrupts aren’t digital. They are psychological. The thoughts that you have while trying to write that have nothing to do with writing. Here’s how the Pomodoro helped me with distraction:

Every time you have a thought about or desire to do something else, I write it down and continue with my work. At the end of the Pomodoro (25 minute interval) I would review the things that had attempted to derail me and see if any of them needed doing, or had merit.

For example, “take the dog for a walk” has merit. I should take both the dog (and my fat ass) for a walk at some point during the day. But “need to look up commas because you are using them wrong” has no merit. Maybe, I, am, using, commas, wrong. Who cares. Fix it in the rewrite. No reason to let one misplaced comma get in the way of 500 good words.

There are a billion worries and criticisms that can get in the way of getting the first draft down on paper. If we are unaware of them, then were are powerless over them.

Quality versus Quantity versus Progress

There’s probably not much we can do about the quality of our writing in the first draft. It is what it is. If we write enough first drafts and then rewrite them, we will become better writers. The more you work at something, the better you get. But what the Pomodoro Technique has done for me is give me an atomic unit of effort. A first draft is a rough number of words. But to get there I will have to spend X amount of quality, focused time. Not X amount of anxiety. Not X amount of times putting it off. Nope, X amount of time actually at the keyboard (or pad, completely focused on what I’m trying to write)

So the measure of a draft becomes X Pomodoros. Not words. Not quality. The psychological relief of this is immense. It gives me a way to just show up and do my part of the job. I put in the hours, I get the result. But if I worry about the result while I’m trying to put in the hours the process becomes much, much harder.

The Illusions of Quality

I’m not sure anybody can judge what they are making while they are making it. At least, not in the first draft. If you’ve been at this game for a while you’ve been over the moon excited about something you’ve written, only to go back and discover that it’s not that good. Likewise, you’ve cranked on something you thought was total shit and when you’ve gone back to re-read it, you realize that it’s not that bad. While you are giving birth is not the time to critically evaluate your children.


So give yourself over to your writing for 25 minutes. And then another 25 minutes. Do this for N trials. Say N > 30. And you’ve got a statistically valid sample of how fast you write. How fast YOU write. Not how fast you should. Not how fast someone else writes. But you. Average those suckers together. In the next 25 minutes you might write more or less. But now you are able to estimate your progress. Now you have a production process. The more I turn the lever, the more words come out. I have a measure of control over the creative act that I did not have before.

Sure, sure. Sometimes you get lost. Sometimes you get nowhere. But over time, that’s not the case. Otherwise writers would never finish anything.

Treating Yourself Like a Dog

Another interesting facet of the technique is the sound of a kitchen timer in the background. After a little while, it become a powerful reinforcing device. Just like Pavlov could ring a bell and get his dogs to drool, the sound of the kitchen timer now causes me to focus. It also reassures me that all is well. It’s an audible signal that I’m working and things are as they should be. This is not a feeling that many people encounter naturally while writing. Especially not while writing fiction at the limits of your ability.

And let me tell you, I’m not above treating myself like a dog (or marmot, or ibex or prairie dog) to get good work done. Really, whatever takes. And anything that can make the passage of time reassuring — sign me up.

Check It Out for Yourself

You can download Francisco’s excellent book and find out everything you want to know about the Pomodoro Technique (including why it’s called Pomodoro) here If you put the technique to use. Leave a comment to let me know about your results.