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Applying the Fogg Behavioral Model to your writing to ensure readers do what you want.

Table of Contents

In the business world, writing has a job to do. You don’t write just for the pleasure of it. You write to bring about change in the reader.

What that “something” is can vary. You might write marketing collateral to get a customer to buy, a research paper to share a new discovery, an internal report to determine or support a business decision, a presentation to persuade the audience to take some action, and on and on.

Regardless of the specific goal, everything you write should affect the reader’s behavior somehow.

Enter the Fogg Behavioral Model.

This model was designed by Stanford behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg, who wanted to create a tool to help designers understand why users might not engage in desired behaviors. Fogg identified three elements key to inducing behavioral changes: motivation, ability, and trigger. If behavior doesn’t change, it’s because one of those three elements is missing. 

Fogg illustrated his theory of behavior change with the following graph. 

As the chart reveals, insufficient ability and motivation creates a negative region (the bottom left part of the chart) where triggers, even if present, will fail. By contrast, when there’s high motivation and action is easy, and there’s a trigger for action present, you can easily catalyze the behavioral change you desire.

How does this apply to writing?

First, your written work must motivate the reader to undertake the behavior your desire. That motivation may be physical, promising pleasing sensations. It might be emotional, creating anticipation for a desirable experience if the reader will just undertake a certain behavior. Or it may be social, cultivating a sense of belonging and place if they act.

Consider proposal writing. You might be responding to a Request for Proposal in the hopes of gaining some new business, and you want the readers to select your company as their new vendor. In that case, the proposal needs to provide the information necessary to motivate that action. Specifically, you want to help the reader understand the benefits they will enjoy from working with your company. (This is, by the way, a common failing of proposals, which frequently focus on features rather than benefits and on deliverables without ever spelling out why the reader should want to do business with you as opposed to a competitor).

Second, your work must enable the reader to take the behavior, and it should not throw up barriers or blockages to action. Fogg describes what he calls the “six elements of simplicity” that underlie the ability of readers to take the action you desire: time, money, physical effort, mental effort, social deviance, and non-routine.

In other words, an action that takes no time and costs no money, requires no physical labor or mental exertion, is socially acceptable, and fits into normal daily habits is an action that pretty much anyone can do at any time. Unfortunately, in the business world, the reader will usually have some issue blocking action.

For example, imagine that you’re writing a scientific manuscript aimed at a government agency or a certifying entity. You want them to approve or certify your product or service. As you write, keep in mind the barriers to action. Here, mental effort might be an issue. Poorly written scientific writing might be so confusing and unclear that readers must do a lot of mental legwork to come to the conclusions that the writing should just spell out for them. This is why clarity is so important in writing: it is an action-enabler.

Finally, your work must trigger the desired behavior. This means it must make an appropriate call-to-action. Fogg identifies three kinds of triggers that depend on the relative combination of motivation and ability. 

  High Motivation Low Motivation
High Ability Signal TriggerWith both high motivation and high ability, the reader is already primed to do what you want. Just include an appropriate call-to-action. All you need is to signal your desired behavior. Spark TriggerThe trigger should help overcome the lack of motivation. Think about ads: discounts, special offers, or other incentives can often help spark action even with low motivation.
Low Ability Facilitator TriggerThe reader wants to take the action but faces blocks in doing so. Be very directive and include all information needed to make the behavior clear, easy, and straightforward. If the reader has low motivation and low ability, the trigger isn’t your concern. Focus on getting motivation or ability up.

About Hurley Write, Inc.

Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.  

Applying the Fogg Behavioral Model to your writing to ensure readers do what you want.

Contact Hurley Write, Inc.

We’re here to help your team communicate better. Let us know how to reach you.
Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483
Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483

(172 Reviews)