What business writers can learn from journalists — and what they can’t
Should business writers write like journalists? Some journalist habits — like never burying the lede — make perfect sense. But if you imagine you’re Woodward and Bernstein, you’re deluded. Learn which journalistic conventions will make your writing better, and which will ruin it.
Journalist habits that business writers should adopt
Journalists and business writers share one important quality: they’re out to communicate the truth that they’ve found. This is why both should embrace these principles:
- Only share news. If most of your audience already knows what you’re emailing, writing, or posting about, you’re wasting their time. Don’t be a spammer. If you have nothing new to say, say nothing.
- Be brief. Write what matters in an organized way. Don’t waste words.
- Make your lede count. News articles start with a sentence or two that say what’s important, then give details. In a world where everyone reads on a screen, you must do the same. People won’t wade through your elaborate introduction, so don’t bury the lede.
- Back up your points. If you can’t prove it, or at least provide evidence, don’t say it. If a fact is potentially in question, cite your source.
- Use graphics. If a graphic makes your point easier to understand, create one — even if your graphical skills are limited to PowerPoint. Yes, even in an email.
- Add links. It’s an easy way to reference other material, but one that business writers haven’t yet embraced as journalists have.
- Tell the truth. If you lie and deceive at work, you’ll get caught. That turns out badly.
Business writing habits that would get a journalist fired
The fundamental difference between journalists and business writers is their purpose. Business writing’s only purpose is to create a change in the reader. And while journalists pursue truth, that’s not their purpose — their purpose is to entertain and keep your attention. (If they fail to keep your attention, you don’t see the ads or feel willing to pay the subscription fee.) Business content that matters to the business is worthwhile, even if it’s boring. But boring journalistic content, even if true, doesn’t fly. With that difference in mind, here are some principles that make for good business writing, but would get any journalist canned.
- Insert yourself in the story. Everything you write should have a point of view: yours. It’s good practice to use the word “I” or “we,” while in straight journalism, that tends to be a problem.
- Don’t be balanced, have a point of view. Journalists are supposed to fairly present both sides (although some now question that principle). Smart businesspeople, though, develop a clear point of view based on their experience. Explain that point of view and back it up. Address counterarguments, too, but you won’t go far if you’re always just saying “here’s what I found, you decide.”
- Don’t write in paragraphs. Paragraphs suck — they’re tedious to read on a screen. Use bullets, headings, and tables to break up what you write and make it easier to digest — even in an email. Writing like that would make a news site indigestible, but it’s effective for business communication.
- Don’t make everything into a story. True, a story is an effective way to communicate. So if business writers can tell a story, they should. But even if you have no story, still tell the truth. (The journalist with no story tends to write nothing at all.)
- Write boldly in active voice. Journalists sometimes have to hedge. They’ll write passive voice sentences like “The congresswoman was shot” because they’re not legally allowed to say who shot her until someone is convicted. They’ll qualify things they can’t be sure of, with sentences like “Most analysts believe the market is somewhat overvalued.” As a businessperson, you can’t afford those hedges. Never use passive voice to hide who’s acting. Eliminate as many hedges as possible. Because you have a point of view, you can take a stand.
Powerpoint is underestimated as a quick-n-dirty sketchup tool. But don’t push .pptx-files all over the place. Draw, then take a screen grab and insert the image. Save the .pptx for later edits.
Really good sum-up Josh.
Just two observations:
– I’d argue almost everything should be a story -or even start with a narrative even if it doesn’t end up being written as a traditional story. Even for B2B marketing collateral or technical paper, it’s important to figure out beforehand the context (setting or premise, for instance your corporate brand promise and values, parameters aka crucible), the plot (the business goal), a conflict (the antagonist can be your challenges and the protagonist your user/client/customer) then of course most importantly the theme (a core idea which will be the keystone of your argument which is usually the lead/lede) and the resolution (final KPI’s, etc)
– Your first point is indeed the main one as more often than not business writers struggle to make their output newsworthy, even in press releases! The solution to get to the real news is to strip back things to the core in an iterative process, starting with bullet points and crossing them out one by one until there’s only a bullet point left