Academic & Professional Writing With Monroe’s Motivated Sequence
How a data scientist writes about scientific and technical results at work with this unique form: Good for students, academics, and others too!
Not multiple jobs. I’ve had multiple careers. One of the most common skills that strings across each career has been writing. Whether I was working in higher education administration, law, health, research, or data science, it was the ability to write well that often helped me do the most for myself and others who depended on me.
I’ve previously written about my devotion to the form of an essay. Explicitly following a specific form isn’t for everyone. Sometimes I follow form. To my detriment, I sometimes do not follow a form.This article is about Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. This form is not a new form. Alex Monroe first began disseminating it as early as the 1970s (see the Internet Archive’s entry on the first edition of Principles And Types of Speech Communication).
If I’m honest, my best writing follows a form. I’ve used Monroe’s Motivational Sequence in many significant pieces of writing including my law school admission essay, my graduate school admission essay, research proposals, grant proposals, job cover letters, my PhD dissertation, and here on Medium.
There are five steps in Monroe’s motivational sequence including 1) attention, 2) need, 3) satisfaction, 4) visualization, and 5) action. This article will show each of the five steps and discuss how to apply them as you write for Medium or other venues.
This step is where a writer looks to get the reader’s attention. On Medium a meaningful title and subtitle are what will get the reader’s attention. When writing titles and subtitles remember three things:
- Be specific. Be as specific as possible. Make sure your title shows your specific topic.
- Be complete, accurate, & honest. A variation on the previous point. Clickbait titles are usually incomplete, inaccurate, and dishonest. Avoid clickbait.
- Know your audience. Each article will have a specific audience. Write for that audience. If your article has a couple dozen reads, that is okay. You did excellent work for those couple dozen readers. Other articles will perform better for other audiences.
I advise against clickbait as an attention grabbing technique. Just don’t be misleading. Remember that the goal is not to get clicks. The goal is to help others. And some articles will help many readers, while others will help fewer readers. There is space in a writer’s article history for both.
Writing for Medium is about building a relationship. Clickbait trades long-term relationships for cheap views and reads. Those that respond to clickbait will be less likely to return for your future articles.
I frequently include a TLDR at the top of an article as an additional attention grabber. This TLDR technique also serves as a courtesy to the reader (which builds more trust). It says, in a sentence or two, the bottom line up front. Where I think it will be helpful, I put the bottom line up front so the reader can make an informed decision about either moving forward with the article or otherwise browsing away.
Also helpful in getting attention on Medium are the images you select for your article. If the article is a technical or programming tutorial, the code snippets are also important in grabbing attention. An additional attention grabbing technique is to include a table, figure, chart, or diagram that summarizes or illustrates your major points.
Selecting appropriate images, writing code, and building visual aides for your article require additional effort. When done well, the additional effort will help you grab and keep the reader’s attention.
At the end of this phase you want your audience to say or think “I want more.”
Need & Satisfaction / Solution
First, this step is about identifying a need that you know your reader experiences. Maybe your reader knows about this need. Maybe the reader has thought about the need. Maybe the reader is otherwise unaware of the need. On some level, this step is about letting the reader know you plan to discuss one of their needs. Let this need tie back to the article title.
At the end of the need phase you want your audience to say or think “I agree there is a problem or need.”
Second, of course, the implication is also that you satisfy that need. Tie your solution back to your title.
One of my best performing articles on medium discusses and satisfies a need that I didn’t know was a prominent need in my community until after I saw that article’s search engine performance. I work with large datasets. I needed a convenient way to rearrange the columns for easier and more intuitive data exploration. This data management task is trivial in some programming languages, but not so trivial in others.
By porting what I knew from one language to another, I solved a need for myself. Then, I wrote an article about it. After publication, based on that article's performance in search results, I now know that this was a pervasive unmet need throughout my community.
At the end of the satisfaction phase you want your audience to say or think “I understand your solution.”
For an example related to how I met a need by porting what I knew from one computer language to another, see: Reordering Pandas DataFrame Columns: Thumbs Down On Standard Solutions.
In this phase, there is an opportunity to overcome the audience’s objections. Visualization is my favorite phase of Monroe’s Motivational Sequence. There are two ways to execute this phase. You can use either or both.
- Help your audience visualize what will happen, and what the benefits will be if they adopt your solution.
- Help your audience visualize what will happen, and what the consequences may be if they do not adopt your solution.
The second of these two options tends to be the most ominous and provocative.
The goal is to be pragmatic. Some of the best performing articles on Medium solve pragmatic every-day concerns. For me, the articles that do best in the long-term (meaning they get reads months and years after publication) are those that solve persistent but mundane problems. There is nothing wrong with pragmatism here!
Do not skip this step. Use your imagination and creativity. Effective execution of this phase requires visual, concrete, specific, and tangible information.
For researchers and data professionals, this is where your skills in extracting and communicating information that has been derived from empirical data sources will shine.
An example of how data helps during this phase: The audience might think, for example, that your solution is too expensive. In the visualization phase you can show the audience what the problem or need costs now and what that problem or need will cost in the future. Subsequently, in this phase you can also rely on data to show your audience exactly how much they will save by adopting your solution.
This phase is an opportunity to show that the solution may look costly, but that ongoing costs of the status quo far exceed the cost of implementing your solution.
At the end of this phase you want your audience to think or say “I agree this solution will be a good use of resources.”
Action (Call To Action)
For best results, you need to be as specific as possible with your audience. Also, make the action as simple as possible.
For example, I recently wrote an article about making contributions to open source software. The call to action was, find an open source software project and contribute. I wrote the article for new and intermediate programmers and data scientists.
To make getting started as easy as possible, I provided a partial solution that a reader could further develop into a full contribution. I am happy that at least one reader has already started with a contribution based on the partial solution I included in that article.
At the end of this phase you want your audience to think or say “I will do as you suggest.”
My call to action for you is: Add a bookmark in your browser this article so you can look back at it when you write your next article, memo, cover letter, dissertation, or anything else!
Press Control + D on your keyboard now!
There are some frequent questions I know folks ask about this sequence. Below, I address those.
Q: Will it work to adjust the order of this sequence? For example, could I offer visualization before the satisfaction?
A: I discourage changing the order. Bu, you can adjust the order. That can work, but there are drawbacks. If you plan to focus on visualizing what will happen if the audience maintains a status quo, for example, this change to the order works. A drawback, is that this change will inhibit your ability to visualize what will happen if the audience adopts your solution. If you adjust the order, proceed with caution.
Q: Do you really need a call to action?
A: No. Technically, you don’t need any of these phases. All of them are optional. But, for best results, stick to the form. Trust the form. Also, for the action phases, there are pragmatic and psychological reasons that weigh in favor of a CTA. Pragmatically, a CTA reduces friction ~ it can get the ball rolling. Psychologically, for example, humans expect a call for action. We look for CTAs. We naturally ask, “what’s next?” When we get what we expect, it can operate like a reward to the brain.
Q: Among the various forms (for example, Monroe’s Motivational Sequence, the essay, Attention ~ Interest ~ Desire ~Action (AIDA), and others), which form should we use and when.
A: That is up to you. Also, typically the forms are not mutually exclusive. Often when you write to satisfy one form, you can look back to see how you inadvertently also satisfied or met the requirements for other forms.
This article showed five steps in the Monroe’s motivational sequence including 1) attention, 2) need, 3) satisfaction, 4) visualization, and 5) action. This article showed each of the five steps and discussed how to apply them as you write for Medium or other venues.
I also mentioned other forms, including the essay form and also the AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) form. The bigger picture is that others frequently ask me for advice on their writing. When someone asks me for writing advice, one of my initial questions is, “what form did you use?” I ask this question because I’m an advocate of form. I am an advocate of form because I know it helps me write better — and I know it can help you write better, too.
Bookmark this page (Control + D) in your browser so you can look back at it the next time you’re writing.
Thanks For Reading
Thanks for reading. Send me your thoughts and ideas. You can write just to say, hey. And if you really need to tell me how I got it wrong, I look forward to chatting soon. Twitter: @adamrossnelson | LinkedIn: Adam Ross Nelson| Facebook: Adam Ross Nelson.