5 Building Blocks of a Compelling Business Article

One of the most common problems we see in drafts that we receive for editing is they are poorly structured. Often, most of an article is about a problem, followed by a few throwaway lines on the solution. Other times, multiple sections follow each other in no obvious or logical order.

Getting the structure of a thought leadership piece right can consume a lot of time and effort if you don’t begin with a framework or template. We use the same one for almost every piece we develop, whether it’s a 500-word blog post, a white paper, or a 50,000-word research report. It saves us reinventing the wheel, and it helps us get our clients’ work published and read.

Here are the five parts of our framework with their approximate proportions:

  1. Statement of problem (10%)
  2. Why current approaches fall short (10%)
  3. Key elements of the solution, including examples with benefits (60%)
  4. Key barriers and how to overcome them (10%)
  5. Call to action (10%)
  1. Statement of problem (10%)

An article has to address a problem or opportunity an executive cares about if it’s to get their attention, one that’s complex and unresolved. If the problem is already well known, inflation, say, we don’t need to belabor it. But if it is less obvious, say declining margins in apparel retailing, we should use enough data or examples to establish that it is something that needs addressing. Naming the problem is the obvious place for a thought leadership article to begin.

Exhibit #1: In this article written by Rob Sher and published on HBR.org, the problem is that a single toxic executive can destroy an entire midsized firm.

  1. Why current approaches fall short (10%)

This section follows right after the problem statement because some readers will already be handling the problem or have a plan to address it if it arises. You, of course, have a newer, better way of dealing with it, so you need to point out why old, conventional approaches – the actions your reader presumably is taking or plans to take – either don’t work or don’t work as well as yours.

Exhibit #2: In this article, the author explains that sweeping counterfeit product off a market, as many high-value goods producers try to do, is like playing whack-a-mole. He goes on to describe how severing their supply chains is much more effective and how to do it.

  1. The solution in detail, including examples with benefits (60%)

How do you convince the reader that your solution is real, effective, and not merely theoretical? How do you demonstrate that you have the expertise to make it worthwhile for a reader to call you? By describing your solution in detail. For a typical 2,000-word article, this description should constitute nearly half the piece. You needn’t provide an operating manual, but you should provide enough detail that the reader can envisage implementing your solution. The question will arise of how much family silver you want to give away. If you give the reader everything they need to solve the problem, why should they call you? Sometimes, you’ll want to describe the whole solution at a high level and then go into depth on a few of its more interesting elements. And if you illustrate your prescriptions with examples of companies that have done what you recommend and benefitted from it, the reader will see that your solution works, and you’re not just peddling promises and fairy dust.

Exhibit #3: In this article, the author explains that patients that have advance end-of-life planning conversations with their families and physicians take greater advantage of palliative and hospice care and avoid the more aggressive interventions associated with poor quality of life and death.

  1. Key barriers and how to overcome them (10%)

Sometimes readers will have objections to a new approach that will make them skeptical of its effectiveness. Since we are writing an article and not having a conversation, there is no opportunity for us to respond to objections. So we have to raise and dispose of obvious ones ourselves.

Exhibit #4: In this article, the author explains that the learning curve for companies to use data visualization for marketing is steep. He allows that it may not be useful for every company and describes what kinds of firms can best benefit, and what they’ll need (mostly time, specialized skills, and money).

  1. Call to action (10%)

It’s tempting to end an article with a conclusion. All too often, that’s a recap of what’s already been said. But telling an intelligent reader what you’ve just told them is annoying and boring. Instead, end your article with a statement that emphasizes why your message is important and why the reader should do something about it Monday morning.

Exhibit #5: At the end of this article, the author makes it clear that having the right Investor Relations Officer correlates with higher profits. What should the reader do Monday morning? Take a hard look at whether their IRO is up to the job.

If you consider the publications that have published the examples I’ve used (Forbes, HBR, McKnights, CFO), you’ll see it’s a framework the editors of business publications embrace. You’ll also see that, unlike a news story, they often have a long shelf life. And if you look closely, you’ll see this piece is constructed the same way.

Building an article this way requires thinking, research, and confidence in the validity of what you’re suggesting. But writing to this structure will separate your article or report from innumerable others on the same topic and capture the attention of readers and editors.

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