Persuasive effects of stylistic choices in document design
01 / 2008 - 12 / 2012
After the decision on content and structure, a document designer faces the task of expressing the message in a linguistic form. Very often this involves a stylistic choice between options that do not change the information conveyed but affect the impact on receivers substantially. Usually, these choices refer to specific lexical variants, for instance, using synonyms, teenspeak, or English loanwords. But in some cases more general strategies are at stake such as make concrete, do not patronize or be polite. Research on a stylistic design option proceeds in two steps: (1) a linguistic characterization on the basis of corpus analyses of natural texts, and (2) an empirical assessment on the basis of experiments with manipulated texts. This dual approach of combining qualitative and quantitative methodologies adds to the ecological validity and explanatory vigour of the results. Design options are defined regarding current linguistic theorizing with respect to, e.g., the generative lexicon (Pustejovsky, 1991), politeness (Brown & Levinson, 1987), and embodied semantics (Zwaan, 2004). Corpus analyses are done to develop systematic descriptions (taxonomies) for various language phenomena, among them teenspeak, intensifiers, and expressions of quantity. Empirical results elaborate and validate notions from theoretical linguistics. Main objective are the effects on persuasiveness (beliefs, attitudes, intentions). But often other domains are assessed as well: evaluations (appreciation), affects (self-efficacy, anxiety), and cognition (understanding). The communicative goals of the genre under study determine which domains are taken into account. Results are interpreted within the framework of the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1985, 1991). In line with processing models such as the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), effects are studied in relation with possible moderating factors. The most important ones reside within the receiver (knowledge, involvement), the message (relevance, subjective costs), and the situation (attention). By delving into relations with these moderators, studies contribute to the understanding of cognitive processes involved in persuasive communication. When studying a specific design option, a genre is chosen dependent on its suitability for experimental variation. Therefore, choice ranges over cases as diverse as leaflets, web pages, product recalls, fund raising letters, e-mails, and medical encyclopedia texts. Though choice of genre is made on an instrumental basis, their diversity contributes to the practical applicability of the results in the fields of advertising, journalism, and public information.