William Trevor's Writing TechniqueI'd like to follow up briefly on Sunday's post about research concerning how a message deliverer's expertise and expressed degree of certainty affect persuasiveness.
The research indicates that surprising consumers by having a message containing a subjective judgment be delivered by a somewhat uncertain expert, or by a highly certain non-expert, will engage consumers' interest and make it easier to persuade them that the message is valid (assuming it includes a strong argument in favor of the judgment in question).
This notion of using surprise to gain audience attention, and get them thinking about what you have to say, came back to mind as I was reading a review of William Trevor's latest novel in the November 19 issue of The New York Review of Books (not yet online).
Reviewer David Lodge likes Love and Summer. After several paragraphs explaining Trevor's long career he is now eighty-one and introducing the novel, Lodge makes the following comment about Trevor's writing technique:
The novel begins:
On a June evening some years after the middle of the last century Mrs Eileen Commulty passed through the town of Rathmoye: from Number 4 The Square to Magennis Street, into Hurley Lane, along Irish Street, across Cloughjordan Road to the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. Her night was spent there.In short, it begins with a funeral, though it is not until you get to the last sentence that the penny drops. This is typical of Trevor's technique: enlivening the meticulous realism of the scene-setting not by metaphor and simile, but by little enigmas and surprises in the way information is fed to the reader. He belongs in a tradition classically represented by the fiction writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries like Maupassant, Chekhov, and the Joyce of Dubliners. The narrative voice is impersonal and detached but reliable, in complete possession of the story and its milieu, giving us enough information to be interested, but withholding a good deal to ensure that we read on, and think about what we read ...
Lodge's description of how Trevor presents his story carries a lesson for anyone wanting an engaged audience. A major part of your job in planning the flow of a presentation, especially if the size of your audience limits mid-presentation dialogue, is to decide how to launch your story in a way that gets people to sit up because it is somehow unexpected, and then how to parcel out your information and supporting arguments in a way that continues to inject surprising points that keep listeners' minds in gear.
For related ideas concerning use of stagecraft as a tool for persuasion, see this post from 2006 that talks about David Gergen's views on what effective leaders do that makes them persuasive.