The Business of Better Writing
Let’s be clear
Selling a product? Seeking support for an internal initiative? Securing the next round of funding? No matter your purpose, your writing must capture your audience’s attention and clearly communicate your ideas. Many people find this easy to do in a conversation. Expressing themselves in written form is something else altogether. Businesses spend $3.1 billion a year on writing training for employees. And, according to one study, American businesses spend “6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material.”
There are four essentials I like to identify before starting to write: story, structure, support, and style. When you can master each of these essential elements, you’ll find it much easier to verbalize your thoughts in a concise and compelling way.
What’s the story?
The first and most important dimension of any written piece is the story. Humans are hardwired to seek out stories and pass them on. If you can tell a good story, there’s a good chance people will pay attention. If you can’t, there’s a good chance your readers will wind up confused, bored, or frustrated. Every piece of writing needs a thread—the story—that holds it together and makes the message worth following. Not sure if you have a story? Here’s an easy way to find out: talk to someone. If you can articulate your story in 60 seconds and they can repeat it back to you in their own words, it’s a clear sign that you’ve got a good grip on your story. If you can’t pass this simple test, I’d wager that your message will fall flat when you try to put words on the page.
Structure, structure, structure
Do you have that certain uncle who always corners you at family events to tell you an hour-long story? Even if he has an interesting one, it always gets lost in the rambling delivery. The same thing happens in business writing. When you clearly organize your thoughts, readers will breeze through your content. If you waste their time with jumbled writing, your emails will go straight to “junk.”
Start with an outline. This can be as simple as three main points jotted on a note pad. If you find yourself deviating from your outline as you write, either eliminate those stray thoughts or revisit your outline and update it. It’s OK to change the structure of your piece, but make an intentional decision to do so.
Support your local objective
In business writing, we always have an objective. It may not always be to close a sale, but there is usually some element of persuasion. Sourcing appropriate pieces of evidence or data is an important part of persuasive writing. There are two common mistakes that people make when searching for support:
- They “boil the ocean,” starting with very general searches about their topic. Don’t waste time visiting countless websites to find just one relevant nugget. (This is a good way to procrastinate, but not an effective way to find what you need to be convincing.)
- They include evidence or data that might be related to their topic but doesn’t advance their story. Don’t waste your reader’s time with flashy charts or graphics that don’t support your message.
Instead, start with a specific question as you research. Ask yourself what information would advance your story and support the conclusion you want your readers to reach. Then conduct a targeted search for that specific piece of information.
Say it with style
Style means making your writing more engaging by making it distinctively your own. Microsoft, in a 2015 study, found that the average human attention span is just eight seconds—less than that of a goldfish. That means it’s important to figure out and act quickly on what matters most to your readers. No pressure, but you don’t have long to make that initial connection! Should you use casual language or be more formal? Will they respond to humor? Will technical details pique their interest or make them tune out? Will they enjoy visuals or find them distracting? When you tailor your message to your audience and infuse unique personality, you can communicate with virtually anyone—and start the connection in under eight seconds.
Use the S words
Successful business writing is difficult, but mastering the simple "four S" recipe makes it easier. Find the STORY behind what you want to say. STRUCTURE your thoughts with a clear outline. SUPPORT your points with targeted information that advances your goal. Customize your STYLE to suit your audience and your own personality. Stick to this simple four-point plan and your business communications will never again be business as usual.