The value of Bill Birchard’s eight S’s for strong business writing

In the Harvard Business Review, writing coach Bill Birchard describes how the brain responds to business writing and recommends ways to write better. His analysis generates some fascinating insights, but one key point is missing: business writing works only if if causes the reader to act.

It’s worth your time to read Bill Birchard’s “The Science of Strong Business Writing” in HBR. In it, Birchard purports to show what brain science has to say about the human response to writing. Here’s the thesis:

Good writing gets the reader’s dopa­mine flowing in the area of the brain known as the reward circuit. Great writing releases opioids that turn on reward hot spots. Just like good food, a sooth­ing bath, or an enveloping hug, well-executed prose makes us feel pleasure, which makes us want to keep reading. . . .

Whether it’s a succinct declarative statement in an email or a complex argument in a report, your own writing has the potential to light up the neural circuitry of your readers’ brains. 

This is absolutely worth investigating. If people like what you write, they will keep reading it, and it is more likely to make an impact.

While lighting up the brain is necessary for effective business writing, it’s not sufficient in itself. If I write a fascinating email or a report that you love, but the net effect is simply to delight you, I have failed. The only purpose of business writing is to create a change in the mind of the reader. If there is no change, the writing has failed. If there is no action based on that change, the writing has failed.

That said, there’s still enormous value in lighting up the brain — the better you do that, the more likely you are to get the chance to make a change that matters.

Evaluating Birchard’s eight S’s

Birchard describes eight qualities of strong business writing, all of which start with S: simple, specific, surprising, stirring, seductive, smart, social, or story-­driven.

Let’s take a close look at them, one by one:

  • Simplicity. According to Birchard, “Simplicity increases what scientists call the brain’s ‘processing fluency.’ Short sentences, familiar words, and clean syntax ensure that the reader doesn’t have to exert too much brainpower to understand your meaning.” This includes reducing sentence complexity and avoiding passive voice. I find that much of my editing consists of helping people get to the point quickly with short, direct, declarative sentences. I agree with Birchard: Learning how to write simply and directly is the most important element of the writing craft.
  • Specificity. Birchard writes, “Using more-vivid, palpable language will reward your readers. In a recent letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t say, ‘We’re facing strong competition.’ . . . [H]e wrote, ‘Third-party sellers are kicking our first-party butt. Badly.’ ” My experience with business writers reinforces this — they are prone to generalize, which makes a mushy impression. Examples — the more specific, the better — are essential to making an impression.
  • Surprise. You need a little drama in your writing, even business writing. If what you write is exactly what people expect, why bother writing it all? This is not a mystery story, so don’t overdo it with the surprise, but I certainly endorse the idea of playing up what’s new and unexpected.
  • Stirring language. Birchard recommends tapping into emotion. “[W]hen you write your next memo, consider injecting words that package feeling and thought together. Instead of saying ‘challenge the competition,’ you might use ‘outwit rivals.’ In lieu of ‘promote innovation,’ try ‘prize ingenuity.’ Metaphor often works even better.” Most business writing is bland and boring; I’m certainly in favor of tapping into emotion. But a purely emotional writer won’t gain the trust of business readers. Temper the emotional appeal with logic and facts and you’re more likely to succeed.
  • Seductiveness. This doesn’t mean sex: it means telling people what’s coming. Birchard suggests, “[S]tart a report with a question. Pose your customer problem as a conundrum. Position your product development work as solving a mystery. Put readers in a state of uncertainty so that you can then lead them to something better.” By all means, tell people why they have to read what you wrote, and how it will help them make an important decision. Is that being seductive? Not really. (I guess he had a hard time coming up with a word beginning with S for this one.)
  • Smart thinking. The problem with this criterion is that it’s a cliche. (Who’s in favor of dumb thinking?) Birchard’s description of smart thinking is that it generates an “aha” moment. All I’d say is that whatever you write must be based on a big, non-obvious idea. If your idea is too small or too obvious, make it better.
  • Social content. Birchard writes, “Remember also to include the human angle in any topic you’re discussing. When you want to make a point about a supply-chain hiccup, for example, don’t frame the problem as a ‘trucking disconnect.’ Write instead about mixed signals between the driver and dispatcher. . . . Another simple trick to engage readers is to use the second person (‘you’) . . . ” Business writing must be about people, so this is good advice. And if you are recommending action, using “you” is a great tip. The best business writers use it all the time.
  • Storytelling. People think in stories. And Birchard has proof: “Research by Uri Hasson at Princeton reveals the neural effect of an engaging tale. Functional MRI scans show that when a story begins, listeners’ brains immediately begin glowing in a specific pattern. What’s more, that grid reflects the story­teller’s exactly. Other research shows that, at the same time, midbrain regions of the reward circuit come to life.” This is easy to describe, but not so easy to do. When you write a memo, an email, or a marketing piece, here’s how to turn it into a story: Describe the problem. Lay out the facts. Analyze. Generate an insight. Recommend an action. And tell how we’ll all live happily ever after. And I described in the previous bullet, the more you can write about actual people, the more effective the story will be.

There’s great value in Birchard’s formulation, even if he does have to stretch it a little to make everything start with S. And the brain science here was new to me, and very persuasive. I endorse all of these tips. Just make sure that focus, not just on writing that engages, but on writing that creates change and generates action.

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  1. Playing devils advocate, I would arge that while changing the readers mind often a key objective, it is not always the litmus test of good writing. If you have an existing relationship with a customer, you are not always trying to change their mind. Delighting them or even just informing them efficently can reinforce the relationship without having to jump the high bar of creating change in the mind of the reader.