The role of emotion in business writing

Is business writing just about bloodless logic? Or is there room for some poetry, some inspiration, some passion in it?

This week I conducted my clear writing workshop with writers from a large technology-focused company in Silicon Valley. The participants provide their product managers with research-based information to help support smarter decisions. A typical document they’d create would identify an important technology or strategy question, share results of research and testing, draw a conclusion, and then make a recommendation on how the company should move forward.

This is a familiar report format — not that different from the research reports I used to write for Forrester, or a corporate white paper, or a scientific paper. And the company’s team was doing a pretty decent job of presenting them, too.

That’s why I was surprised when one of the participants, at the end of the workshop — a guy who’d been making bright and articulate comments all along — asked this question:

“Your recommendations today are focused on a very direct, clear factual presentation. Don’t you think there is a role for something more emotional in these documents?”

After a little back and forth, he revealed that he had a background in working with political campaigns. We all smiled to hear that. But his question is still valid.

Where does emotion belong?

My goal is not to get you to write dispassionate and lifeless memos. We are all humans, and without a human approach, what you write will never persuade anybody.

In the ROAM analysis, I suggest that you think clearly about the Readers, Objective (change in thinking), Action desired, and iMpression you seek with your writing. You will not get readers to change their thinking without a human connection. You will not create action without that connection. And the impression you want to leave is that you are there to help — and that’s not something that happens if what you write is made up of nothing but facts.

You need all the tools of writing. These include humor, storytelling, language that stirs emotions, and even passion. Without those tools, you’ll never connect.

But with that said, you still need logic.

There is nothing I despise more than the vacuous stylings of the motivational speaker and writer. “You can do it! Get up every day and seize the day! Fall down seven times and stand up eight! Rah, rah, sis boom bah!”

The exclamation points alone are enough to make you gag.

This sort of meaning-free boostership has no place in serious business writing.

So what is the right mix of logic and emotion?

Use emotion and passion to craft your ideas. It is ok to be inspired. That moment when you realize that things could be different — cherish that moment. Harness it. Your job is to help others to have that same experience — to see what you have seen.

Then do the research, seek out the case studies, interview the practitioners, conduct the studies, and gather the evidence. Organize it to make the best case you can. And if the evidence tells you that you are wrong — or at least not smart enough about how you are right — change your idea. Don’t twist the evidence to fit the passion, adjust the passion to fit the evidence.

Now tell a story with what you have learned. Weave the evidence and your other tools — like language, humor, wit, and drama — into a convincing case for your thesis. Make the reasoning ironclad — but witty, as well.

Logic dictates the content. Storytelling dictates the sequence and provides the poetry within it.

Logic illuminates the truth. Passion and humanity make it attractive.

There is room for emotion, but it should serve truth — not the other way around.

I care deeply about this. But more importantly, I hope the case that I’ve made has convinced you.

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  1. Couldn’t agree more. I get this push back from B2B clients in my copywriting business regularly. What I always say is that there is a human being on the receiving end of their words, so they should be treated like one. Storytelling in business isn’t the “once upon a time” approach, but a way of leveraging a story’s classic structure to provide a logical flow to the message.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Almost 30 years ago, I was let go from my federal job as a report writer/editor because my new boss believed that reports should be “just the facts”–no analogies, no imagery, no humanity.
    She dinged me for using “plug-and-play” even after I pointed out that General Colin Powell had just used it in a guess essay in BYTE. She blasted me for explaining early numerical control (CNC) machine tools by comparing them to a player piano, even though that’s exactly how they worked.
    I couldn’t understand how the same report-writing toolbox that had earned me accolades for 11 years in private industry was now about to get me fired.
    Desperate to be validated, I sent a few pages of her redlined markups to the Document Design Center to ask, “Is it me, or is it her?” They responded (paraphrasing), “Ourheart goes out to you. You’re in a no-win situation. We read these criticisms in stunned disbelief. Sometimes we were flabbergasted.”
    I made the mistake of reading these comments aloud to her at my review. That only made matters worse.
    I suspect that the reason my boss was so paranoid about human writing was that she held only a BS in Applied Technology but was managing a team of computer scientists who held M.S. degrees and Ph.D.s. She came from a working-class background, would say “He don’t” at meetings, and felt that she needed to “sound educated” to command respect.
    Ultimately, I would create my own “brand,” UBER: Writing that will be Understood, Believed, Enjoyed, and Remembered. Now, when I interview, I make sure my employer knows what I can deliver. And what I can’t.

  3. Most of my career has been in marketing for companies with complex products and services. That means I often rely on engineers and other technical specialists as subject matter experts. One of them objected to the use of persuasive language, so I asked what kind of car drove. A Lexus ES300, he said. Why, I asked him, did you pay $5,000 too much for a Toyota Camry? Resale value, he said. Based on superior performance? I asked. No, he answered, based on perceived value. And then he understood. He had responded—made a buying decision and committed his own money—to the very kind of rhetorical writing I did. We got along great after that.