Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Persuasive Attention Catchers

Attention catchers, leads, attention grabbers, attention getters... By whatever name your school or state refers to them, it is important for students to start their five-paragraph persuasive essay with some sort of technique that will engage the reader.  This blog post will show you some tried and true attention catching techniques to teach your students. 

1.  Ask a question or series of questions: This technique functions exactly as described.  The writer begins their essay with a question related to the topic or a series of questions.  Beginning an essay with a question can be an effective technique, because when people encounter questions, questions force people to think.  Because most people are trained to respond to questions, this can be a powerful rhetorical technique; however, students need to be taught to write proper questions.  They should understand that persuasion is an art, the art of mind control, really.  So it is not appropriate to begin your essay with a neutral question like, "Should students have cell phones in school?"  Merely rephrasing the prompt is not enough.  I teach students to put a slant on their questions.  My students are taught to begin persuading from their first sentence through their entire paper.  So a more appropriate question (or series of questions) is one for which the writer already knows the answer.  For example, "What if you were taking a difficult final exam and you were struggling to concentrate on a math problem, when a loud rap song began playing?  Would this help you focus?"  Clearly I know that it would not, and this is the point.  Good persuasion will force the desired response.

2.  Tell a related anecdote: This technique can also be very effective, so long as the students understand a couple basic points.  First, the anecdote needs to be short.  Students must be reminded that they are writing persuasive essays, not narrative essays, so their anecdotes should only be a few sentences or they risk being perceived as writing "off-mode."  Second, the anecdote must be related to the topic.  An unrelated anecdote would be worse than forgoing an attention catching technique entirely; therefore, students need to understand that an good anecdote will be related to their topic and will set the stage for persuasion.  Just as when a student leads with a question, the anecdote should begin persuasion immediately.  The point of the story must somehow reinforce the writer's argument.  An anecdote that does not reinforce the writer's argument will make the piece of writing appear unfocused. 

Sidenote: If you are currently working on a persuasive writing unit, perhaps this list of 101 persuasive essay topics will help you plan your unit.

If I am teaching students to respond to a timed assessment, those are the only two techniques which I teach, because they can be used in nearly any circumstance.  However, if I am teaching the multistage persuasive writing process, I might teach these other techniques.

3.  Startling Fact or Statistic: These are a little more difficult to use, as students will require means of research to locate such information; however, if the instructor does not find it to be unethical, students might be able to improvise some believable facts or statistics.  For example, according to a survey I took in my school, 7 out of 10 students who use cell phones in school are not on the honor roll.  Of course, I never took such a survey, but who would be able to prove that I had not?  Anyway, teaching such a method is a bit controversial, so perhaps it is best left out of your lesson plans, and it may be best to encourage students to only use the startling fact or statistic when they have the ability to research their facts.

4.  The Related Quote: It's been said that no matter what you want to say, someone has said it better.  And while I don't wholeheartedly agree with this notion, I do know that there are a lot of really nice quotes out there.  If students have access to the internet or a big book of quotes, or perhaps they are well read and have good memories, than using a quote is a very classy way to get the attention of the reader and my favorite method of catching the reader's attention.  Of course, if students don't have those means available, perhaps they remember the words of someone in their life (Mom, Dad, Teacher), in which case they could still use the quote to begin their persuasive essays.

This post has shown readers 4 ways to catch the attention of the reader in persuasive essays.  Remember, no matter which technique students are using, they angle or slant their lead so that they begin persuading the reader immediately.  May your students move mountains with their words.

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