This is the guide to business writing that nobody gave me but that I wish I had.
There’s a lot of garbage business writing out there. I’ve produced my fair share.
I learned the above through making mistakes, studying advertising, and writing probably over 500,000 words over the last couple of years building my burgeoning media empire.
But the rules I learned in advertising and writing articles are 100% applicable to business writing. In fact — they’ll work better, because the bar is much lower.
Prologue — About Good Business Writing
Nobody really teaches good business writing. I had to learn it by trial and error, drawing lessons from different parts of my professional career.
I’ve learned the below from
- Consulting in high-end firms (Bain & Co, Accenture): E.g. learning that one slide out of a 100-slide pack might be the one that gets passed around, and learning that the headline of each slide should have the whole message
- Writing in for my own blogs: Learning that every sentence’s and paragraph’s purpose (especially at the beginning of an article) is to keep a reader reading, and that readers are fickle and lose attention quickly
- Writing advertising copy: a collection of lessons from great copywriting books, plus lessons learned from my own experimentation in headlines
- Countless emails in professional environments, building up email lists of 1000+ that are entirely voluntary
Because I’m not an expert, I’ll try to reference the below and add quotes to reinforce it.
- Use great headlines. Make a reader want to keep reading!
- Use an active voice. Take ownership. Say “We implemented a new process”, not “A new process was implemented”.
- Use fewer words. As few as possible. “We finished the project in three months”, not “The project was complicated and involved a lot of time, and from start to finish took us around three months to execute”
- Cut down paragraphs. Long paragraphs cause people to skim. Just one idea per paragraph, and it’s OK for it to be just one sentence.
- Use smaller words. Replace words and phrases with equivalents with fewer syllables. “Loss rates dropped to half what they were previously”, not “Vehicle perdition rates plummeted to fifty percent of prior observed data” (which also is just a terrible sentence)
- Make every paragraph and heading stand on its own. Imagine every heading or paragraph is the first one that the reader sees, and they have no context, so you have to remind the reader what you’re talking about.
- Put the conclusion first. You almost never want to surprise the reader with a conclusion.
- Be quotable everywhere. Imagine everything you write will be cited.
- Give a complete metric that everyone understands. Don’t just say “We had customer churn of 10%”, say “We had weekly customer churn of 10%”.
Examples of all these are below.
Write Powerful Headlines
One of the most popular posts on Copyblogger is How to Write Headlines That Work. Every copywriter and every journalist knows the importance of a powerful headline, and that awareness has spilled into blogging — where everyone is part journalist, part businessperson.
Despite that, most people fail to write headlines that capture attention.
There’s a deep and dark art — and science — to writing headlines.
Just like in advertising, headlines in business writing are everything.
On average, for any given document or article, eight out of 10 will read the headline, but only two out of 10 will read the rest.
Yes, your report entitled “Analysis of The Effect of Prices on Retention” is… it’s a snooze fest! There’s no two ways about it!
But imagine if you entitled your project like you’d title a blog post or newspaper article:
How We Increased Retention 50% in Just One Month Using Dynamic Pricing
Now that’s a headline!
Great headlines capture the imagination and make the reader want to read more. They’re just like any sentence in any paragraph — but if you don’t get attention with a headline, you’ve lost people.
It’s the same with email subjects. You can entitle your email “Weekly report”. But why not make it something people want to click into?
- “Five Painful Quotes from Customers that we Need to Address”
- “Why Churn Sucks — In Three Simple Charts”
- “Do You Make These Mistakes in Customer Service Emails?”
It’s impossible to give an idea about how to write good headlines in just one part of one article. But here goes:
- Use power words, like “awesome” or “essential”
- Include a number if you can. Even it’s just “one”. One is great!
- Use the voice of your reader. Use the same words they would to articulate what’s important to them.
- Include urgency. Use words like “now”. Or even “urgent”.
In short, a headline is all about the reader. It isn’t about your content, and it isn’t about your article.
How long should you spend on a headline? Probably the same time it takes you to write the entire content! Advertising legends like David Ogilvy and Gene Schwartz would spend as much time on headlines as ANY other part of the ads they were making.
At least more than a few seconds. I’d say a few minutes. If you’re not sure — workshop headlines around with a few colleagues.
Advertising writer Clayton Makepeace suggests you ask yourself six questions when writing a headline:
- Does your headline offer the reader a reward for reading?
- What specifics could you add to make your headline more intriguing and believable?
- Does your headline trigger a strong, actionable emotion the reader already has about the subject at hand?
- Does your headline present a proposition that will instantly get your prospect nodding his or her head?
- Could your headline benefit from the inclusion of a proposed transaction?
- Could you add an element of intrigue to drive the prospect into your opening copy?
I’d summarise the above with one headline:
“Silicon Valley executives say if you want to be read, ask yourself these 6 critical questions before writing the subject of every email”
(Needs to be briefer, though)
Use an Active Voice
The active voice is more engaging. It encourages the writer to take responsibility, or to assign it (both praise and blame).
The US Governments’ Plain Language initiative encourages using the active voice.
Passive voice obscures who is responsible for what and is one of the biggest problems with government writing. (Source)
- Change “A new process was implemented” to “We implemented a new process”.
- Change “The project was completed in seventeen days” to “The team completed the project in seventeen days”.
- Change “The budget was exceeded by $200,000″ to “We exceeded our budget by $200,000.”
There are some situations where you might prefer a passive voice. For example, to avoid being too direct (“It seems the rules have been misinterpreted”) or to sound authoritative (“The office closes at 5pm”).
But generally, use an active voice.
Use Fewer Words
Just use fewer words.
This isn’t my idea, of course (none of this is).
The US Government’s Plain Language initiative suggests using sentences with fewer words.
Shorter sentences are also better for conveying complex information; they break the information up into smaller, easier-to-process units. (Source)
For example, make these changes:
- Change “We are in favour of the proposal” to “We support the proposal”.
- Simplify “Oranges as well as apples” to “Oranges and apples”.
- Consider reducing “We are in the strong belief that this proposal adds an unnecessary amount of complexity, general inefficiency, and a large amount of bureaucratic red tape” to simply “We think that this proposal adds complexity”.
I’ve seen this tactic work not just in print, but also when spoken. People who speak in short sentences use the remaining time for silence for their ideas to sink in.
Use Short Paragraphs of 1-2 Sentences
It’s hard to absorb long paragraphs. But short paragraphs are easy to read.
It’s even ok for a paragraph to contain only one phrase, like this one.
There are many reasons why short paragraphs work well:
- People reading business documents tend to skim.
- Short paragraphs are less threatening.
- Writing a short paragraph forces you to really make sure the paragraph contains your entire idea.
For a counter example, look at one of these monolithic blocks from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
It may be a classic, but I have no idea how anyone waded through those sentences and paragraphs. I can’t get through a single page. Am I lazy? Yes.
Use smaller words (2 syllables or less)
We all tend to write with fancier words than we need to.
Maybe we’re trying to confuse the audience to hide the fact that we don’t actually know what we’re talking about. Maybe we’re insecure and feel like this is the best way of claiming “hey, I know what I’m talking about!”
More often, using long words is a style habit picked up from people around us. Lawyers in the UK and Australia* used to use a lot of complicated language before the Plain English movement took hold. Those lawyers find it difficult to let go of their style and they use it everywhere — even in emails and messages to family.
Here’s an example of an unnecessarily wordy sentence:
“There is an opportunity for temporal arbitrage presented by the depressed pricing currently available in one side of the market that an investor could avail themselves of and later profit therefrom at an appropriate juncture.” (syllables: 63)
You can rewrite this as:
“You can buy these for less now and sell them later for more.” (syllables: 14)
The second sentence is not as fancy, but you understand exactly what it means. It leaves you bare. If you’re wrong, people will see that you are wrong right away.
* Unfortunately, lawyers in America still write using complicated language. I don’t know why the same revolution didn’t take place.
Put the conclusion first
You almost never want to surprise the reader with a conclusion. Put it first!
There’s a whole philosophy around this called “Answer First”, made popular by McKinsey and the other consulting firms, like the non-McKinsey one I worked for.
But basically, it comes down to give someone the damn answer when they ask you a question.
I mentioned this in answering the person, not the question. “Answer First” is almost always the best way of presenting an idea.
Be quotable everywhere
Imagine everything you write will be cited. Write sentences that way.
This relates the the below point of making every sentence stand on its own. Basically, assume a journalist is reading your article, looking for the perfect sentence to lift and paste anywhere else. Write every sentence as if it’s that perfect quotable sentence.
To be quotable, you need to have good ideas and express them cleanly and pithily. Your ideas should be like cut fruit: attractive to look at, convenient to pick up and eat, and easy to digest.
See what I did with that last sentence? That was the perfect quotable sentence (though the idea isn’t that quotable, admittedly).
Being quotable doesn’t mean using huge words, clever metaphors, or complicated expression. It means the opposite — it means writing for a huge audience, as large as possible, but with as specific an idea as you can.
Give a complete metric that everyone understands.
Don’t just say “We had customer churn of 10%”, say “We had weekly customer churn of 10%”.
It’s very common in business for anyone without formal stats training — or without bosses who hold them accountable — to spew numbers that have no meaning.
People make mistakes like:
- Vague metrics: “Conversion are up 10%”. Over what period? What’s “conversion” in this case — conversion of what to what? Does everyone already know that?
- Bad calculations: “Our loss rate has dropped 5%.” A loss rate usually is a percentage. Did you just say a percentage of a percentage? Never give a percentage of a percentage. Or did you mean 5 percentage points?
- “Our repair rate is 10%, which is pretty good.” Pretty good according to whom? What’s better, zero, or 100%?
As you can tell, what I’m asking here is for specifics.
The key is to imagine: If someone with no context but with a good brain heard what I’m saying, what would they ask? Then answer that question.
Otherwise, that person asking the question is me, and I won’t be happy about it.
Make every paragraph, heading, and even sentence stand on its own
Imagine every heading or paragraph is the first one that the reader sees, and they have no context, so you have to remind the reader what you’re talking about.
There’s two reasons to make every paragraph/heading stand on its own:
- People reading online tend to skip around a lot. You want to make sure that whenever they reach a particular section, they have full context.
- You can get quoted more easily. Nobody will quote a sentence fragment. They’ll have to choose whether to quote a longer, complete idea, or not quote you at all. But the preference is to quote a short pithy statement.
Let’s start with a counter-example. You might be writing a review about a blender, saying something like:
“The most important thing a blender needs to do is make smoothies. Luckily, the Smoothitron is excellent at making smoothies.”