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How To Provoke Readers

Sometimes, you want readers to learn everything they can want to know about a subject from a single article alone. Other times, you want to generate a response: you want them to ask questions, you want them to challenge your opinions, you want them to discuss it with their friends and so on.

To do that, you must provoke your readers.

No, we don’t mean provoking them with schoolyard taunts, playground barbs and ridiculous histrionics that literally beg for attention. While that’s fun, leave that to battle rappers trying to entertain a restless crowd. Instead, focus on structuring your content so that it makes the reader respond the way you want them to.

Provoking By Omission

Don’t write a single article that teaches everything and solves every issue about a subject. Instead, focus on one or two aspects, using the entire length of the material to expand on them.

When you do this, you give yourself the room to create multiple pieces of content addressing the same topic, answering many questions while leaving others on the table. Those questions you leave out and help create will fuel further discussion, extending both the scope and breadth of the conversation, as well as encouraging readers to wait for future installments.

Won’t leaving out things in your content make your material less helpful and informative? While that’s always a risk, it doesn’t have to be the case if you don’t go too far. In fact, if you take proper precautions, it may actually turn out for the better. How?

1. Shorter articles are more focused than longer ones. When you cover a smaller patch of the subject matter, you get to really zone in on an aspect of a subject, instead of merely glossing over numerous items.
2. Shorter articles allow the reader to process everything that’s relevant to the topic. This goes not just for what you write, but the stuff you leave out, giving them more things to mull over while they contemplate the ideas you’ve expressed.
3. Shorter articles let you ignore difficult areas. If certain aspects of a topic create trouble for you, then writing shorter allows you to ignore those more difficult issues until you’ve done more research and given it further thought, which should work out a heck of a lot better than just spouting some low-rent ideas that you can’t exactly support.
4. Shorter articles let you go out on a high note. It’s tougher to finish strongly with longer pieces simply because of the sheer amount of material you cover. Shorter articles make it easier to tie everything up and end on a high note, leaving you with a snappier and more memorable piece.

Provoking With Content

Probably the most common way to provoke readers, you draw a reaction by relying on content. Offbeat takes on race, class, sexuality, politics and religion always do a good job of provoking readers, especially if you choose topics that are highly controversial, shocking or sensational.

For example, a recent paper called “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?” by The National Bureau of Economic Research created a lot of chatter for exactly that reason. The powerful headline alone is enough to provoke, much more so when you dive into the content, where author Robert Gordon presents compelling data and evidence that seek to convince you of America’s economic growth genuinely coming to a halt.

Low-brow variations of this include the items you see in tabloids and gossip rags. Same with the kind of stuff websites like TMZ and Perez Hilton specialize in. In fact, it’s probably safe to say a good amount of websites rely exclusively on provoking with content to get on people’s radars.

The content of your writing itself can be sufficient to provoke, provided you choose your material wisely. When you choose provocative content, things will often simply fall into place, allowing you to provoke readers without requiring a whole lot of technique.

Provoking With Arguments

Strong arguments are the best way to provoke a reaction, especially ones that give readers a difficult time disproving. In the Robert Gordon paper we mentioned above, the topic is only half the story. If the actual essay was lacking in concrete data and research, it wouldn’t get half the reaction it’s received. But because the actual arguments presented were compelling, people continue to “talk” about it.

When people read convincing arguments, it gets their mental gears going. It gets them thinking. It makes them look critically at their views and opinions. It gets them viewing things in a new light.

At its most basic, creating a strong argument requires two things:

1. Evidence. This is comprised of your data and research — facts you’ve collected that back up the points you make.
2. Reasoning. This is your interpretation of the evidence, wrapped up in a weave of logic and reason that serve to further your claims.

Practice crafting strong arguments and you’ll have a very strong weapon in your arsenal for writing provocatively. On top of that, you’ll develop a very useful skill that you can apply to other areas, most especially in your chosen profession.

Provoking With Stories

Almost every single one of us, at one time or another, has read a story that made us rethink our lives and our outlook on various subjects. Whether it’s a depiction of heroism, a story about an individual’s triumph over adversity or a sad tale about a person’s struggles in life, there are stories that make such a strong impression on us that it literally affected the way we think. Such is the power of a good story — provoking us to respond in ways we couldn’t even anticipate.

Storytelling is one of the most effective, but also most difficult, ways to provoke readers. And it’s also one of the oldest, having been employed by everyone from generals inspiring troops in the battlefield to ancient philosophers educating students to modern politicians trying to get your vote. If you can craft a good story, you can provoke people by simply telling one that speaks to issues and struggles that are relevant to them.


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