When I made the leap from management consulting to business writing ten years ago, I’d had no professional writing training. But I’d always been at the top of the class in English at high school, so I figured the writing part would be a breeze.
I was in for a surprise. The first blog post I wrote for our website about how quality content generates traffic came back from the editor under a sea of red ink.
“What on earth was wrong with this?” I asked.
“Well,” the editor said, “let’s start with the fact that you have so many ideas stuffed into one piece the reader can’t figure out where you’re going. You need to decide which one you want to write about.”
“But I’m a smart and sophisticated guy,” I said. “I can’t just write about one idea!”
It turns out I can. And should.
In the decade since I started to write for a business audience, I have confronted the same issues in our clients’ drafts as my editor encountered in mine. Repeatedly. Like every week. So, I thought it might be helpful to list what I have learned about writing to attract and keep the attention of a busy executive.
- Write only some of what you know. A college professor may give you a point for every fact you regurgitate about a subject, but an executive will thank you if you don’t. A typical CFO, for example, doesn’t need you to explain the importance of cash flow during a recession. She already knows. Instead, focus on telling her about the new-and-improved ways you’ve discovered to quickly free up cash.
- Put a nut graf near the top. Most of us were taught to start with the background of an issue, discuss the various aspects for a few pages, and leave our conclusion to the end. In business writing, you don’t have time. Executives want to know what you have to say right away. So, forget trying to explain the history of Industry 4.0 and move quickly to your nut graf – a paragraph that captures, in a nutshell, the Industry 4.0 problem you’re addressing and your superior way of solving it. Then get into the details.
- Write like a person. When I was in college studying science and engineering, I noticed that academics prefer a passive style of writing: “The remote sensor was attached above the conveyor, and the data was received and processed at the computer.” Talk about robotic. If you want to hold the attention of actual humans, give them characters to follow by writing in an active voice: “We duct-taped an iPhone over the conveyor, and within minutes the computer was using the images to fine-tune the extraction process.”
- Forget high school grammar. Don’t tell your teacher I said this, but you are allowed to end sentences with prepositions and use the word “data” as a singular noun (“the data shows” instead of “the datum shows”). Even a publication as conservative as the Wall Street Journal decided seven years ago it’s okay. And while you’re at it, try starting a sentence with “and.” If it sounds more natural than writing inside the guardrails of convention, then don’t be constrained by them. (There is nothing unnatural about the split infinitive in #1).
- Use plain language. I remember getting kudos from my teacher (and ridicule from my classmates) for using the big word “consequently” in a chemistry assignment in sixth grade. Executives don’t care if I’d ace the SAT. The simpler the language, the easier it is to read, and the more likely they are to do so. “Take one step at a time” is more pleasant to read than “Adhere to an incremental implementation process.”
- Finish with a call to action. In college, restating your paper’s key points in the conclusion is how you show your professor you’ve covered all your bases. If you tell a busy executive what you’ve already told her, you run the risk of being boring and patronizing. Instead, explain what she can do Monday morning to start benefiting from your sage advice, such as talking to the head of procurement about AI-enabled tools that could analyze your spending and find savings opportunities in a fraction of the time it used to take.
- Give it a catchy title. A good headline is critical because no one will see the other fruits of your labors if they are not inspired to read your story in the first place. Since a colleague has already written the definitive piece on this topic, I’ll refer you to that.
And finally, if a piece does not need a call to action (often the case with a blog post), feel free to ignore rule #6.