Business Writing Tips by Robert Bullard
Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!
In this summary, you will learn
- How business writing differs from traditional writing;
- How to plan an article, get started and write in a way that engages your readers; and
- What best practices to use in writing reports, blogs, press releases, web pages, ads and marketing materials.
You probably haven’t received any training in writing since you were in school. And that instruction probably didn’t prepare you for writing business pieces, such as reports, marketing materials or articles for your company’s website. Academic papers and essays follow a structure that starts with a statement of purpose or a thesis, followed by support of the thesis, methodology and results, and a conclusion. Business writing, by contrast, opens with the conclusion – a statement of the benefits of your proposal.
Novice writers share certain tendencies, including adopting a formal tone, copying someone else’s writing style and using big words when common words read more fluidly, like saying “endeavor” instead of “try.” Stay true to your voice. Use natural, conversational words. Your goal is to keep people reading to the end of your piece, so your writing must engage your audience.
Plan your article. Starting without thinking through your writing strategy is like cooking without reading the recipe; you might discover you’re missing key ingredients halfway through. Define your objectives and your target audience. For example, magazines develop “readership profiles,” sketches of the person they wish to address. These profiles include the reader’s age, interests, occupation, level of education, and the like. Clarify what you want your writing to encourage readers to do, such as fill out a coupon, buy a ticket or visit a web page. Do you want your writing to prompt a purchase, affect someone’s viewpoint or make a claim? Compose a brief outline for anything longer than 300 words. Work out the order and intent of each paragraph or section.
Before you write, gather and organize relevant material, research and references. Choose the times and places that work best for you. That may be at the kitchen table, in a busy office or in a coffee shop. Clear away distractions, set your to-do list aside and focus on the task at hand. Note writing styles you enjoy and find inspiration in other writers’ work. Break longer projects into manageable pieces so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Write with your audience’s perspective in mind. Many writers erroneously prioritize their organizations’ attributes instead of focusing on the subjects that matters most to their customers. Enable your readers to find the information that addresses their needs. Lists such as “Five Benefits of Sponsorship” or “Five Reasons for Choosing Us” make advice easy to find. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Consider the medium people will be using. The writing on a web page should differ from the writing in a newspaper or magazine.
Marketing messages bombard people every day. Standing out from the clutter is a challenge. One technique is to link your message to something topical – an issue or story that is already top-of-mind. Appeal to people’s emotions by showing how your product or service solves a problem, addresses a fear, fulfills a dream or makes someone feel loved.
KISS is an acronym for “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” or the friendlier “Keep It Short and Simple.” That is the foundation of effective writing for business. Be concise, use familiar language and get to the point quickly. The choices you make while writing communicate a certain tone of voice and highlight your organization’s values. Make it clear that you’re “honest, friendly and principled” or “reliable, proactive and knowledgeable.” Writing styles range from formal to informal, familiar to reserved, and energetic to restrained. Your vocabulary and grammar contribute to your writing’s mood.
Focus on the rhythm and cadence of your writing by varying your sentence length and noticing how your words sound when you read them aloud. Long sentences connote an academic bent, while short sentences are more conversational. Avoid overusing contractions and abbreviations as well as visual sentence dividers, such as dashes and colons. Learn the difference between active and passive voice. Active voice tells readers “who did what.” “The committee presented a report” is active voice. “A report was presented by the committee” is passive. While active voice is preferable, use passive when you don’t want to attribute an action to particular party, as in, “A man has been shot in the park.”
A Beginning, a Middle and an End
Your lead sentence must grab attention. To begin, state a statistic, ask a question or provide a quote. Your lead-in sets the scene, tells a story and creates atmosphere. It provides a first impression to capture and hold readers’ interest. Don’t try to compose the perfect opening. To get your creative juices flowing, begin writing at any point in your piece that comes to you easily. The middle of your article offers stories, updates, explanations and examples as it tells an engaging story. Identify a thread to weave through your article so that it flows and holds the reader’s attention. If you get stuck or hit a wall, take a short break, read a sentence or two out loud, or simply write around a problematic section.
Journalists front-load information and structure their articles as inverted pyramids. They lead with the meat of the story, covering the five W’s – that is, “who, what, when, where and why.” In contrast, web copy follows a diamond shape. The opening sentences hook readers, the story’s middle section provides details, and the end offers a summary or conclusion or forges a memory.
One common copywriting structure follows the acronym “AIDA,” which stands for “Attention, Interest, Desire and Action.” The “AIDCA” structure adds the letter “C” for “Conviction,” as in:
- Attention – Hook your readers with a catchy headline and enticing introduction.
- Interest – Stimulate attention by demonstrating how your offering fulfills a need.
- Desire – List the benefits of your product or service by showing how it satisfies an emotional desire.
- Conviction – Reinforce the value of your offering with testimonials or research.
- Action – End with a call for reader action. Tell people what you want them to do.
Ways to Engage
Appeal to people’s senses to engage their emotions. Refer to colors, smells and sounds when describing a scene. “Similes, analogies and metaphors” make an unfamiliar idea easy to understand. A simile, such as “he’s as hungry as a horse,” compares one thing to another, using “like” or “as.” An analogy compares something familiar to something unfamiliar or unexpected, such as “Life is a box of chocolates.” Metaphors use imagery, like “the rat race.” For example, “He has other irons in the fire” is a metaphor.
Writing that makes a reader smile is memorable. Use humor judiciously, because the appeal of a joke is subjective. Alliteration, repetition and rhythm also make your material more memorable.
Writing Sales Material
Sales or advertising copy must connect with people’s feelings and persuade them to make a purchase or take action. Know your sales objectives. Use strong headlines to draw consumers’ focus. Writing in the first person or second person is more personal and conversational than using the third person. Tell stories to illustrate your main points. To sway readers, exploit universal human tendencies like needing to belong, find a good deal or feel happy. Testimonials are a valuable sales tool. People believe your customers’ comments on your product or service.
Writing for the Web
Writing for a website requires understanding how people read online. Most users scan pages instead of reading each word. Post a few concise, strongly worded messages on your website’s home page and make it easy for people to find what they seek. Include one sentence describing what your business or organization does. Many companies have a slogan or “strapline” that summarizes their goal. Consider Nike’s “Just Do It” and BMW’s “Ultimate Driving Machine.”
Easy-to-skim web pages use clear headlines and logical subheads, visually friendly fonts, and attractive graphics and images. Boost your website’s usability by organizing information into bullet points, posing questions, and writing in the first or second person.
Writing Blogs and Case Studies
Like web copy, the text in blogs and feature stories follows a diamond shape, with the bulk of the content in the middle. Engaging blog posts are entertaining, relatable, newsworthy or informative. Give followers a reason to read your blog posts by providing a new angle or approach to a topical subject that’s already on their minds. Develop a strong storyline.
Seize people’s interest by recounting stories that spring from common ground, such as a shared experience or a situation many readers might face. Write your text to flow from beginning to end. Use descriptions, rhythm and wordplay, and end with a satisfying close. Conclusions can wrap things up, recap the main points, provide readers with something to think about or suggest future possibilities.
People relate more strongly to stories than to research and data. Case studies, examples, testimonials and quotations inspire readers’ imaginations. Collecting accurate quotes can be tedious and time-consuming, but it’s worth the effort. In some cases, to save time, you might be able to draft a quote or comment for a client’s approval. Limit quotes to one or two lines, and shorten long quotes while being careful not to change the speaker’s wording or meaning.
Businesspeople rely on reports for making a range of decisions, such as whether to support a project, approve funding or hire personnel. Writing a good report requires planning thoroughly, obtaining relevant reference materials and resources, and carrying out thoughtful editing. Before you begin, identify the report’s objectives, audience, purpose and due dates. Consider the recipients’ perspectives, requirements, biases and areas of expertise.
First, collect primary and secondary data to support your case. Allow ample time for research. Write the body of the report before you draft the introduction to ensure that your intro will emphasize the main points. Organize your data into attractive graphs and diagrams; highlight two or three major points. Compose clear headlines and subheads. Add a comprehensive “Executive Summary” introduction. Sometimes that’s the only section people will read. Edit for length to ensure that each sentence and paragraph adds meaning. End with a wrap-up of your main points.
Writing Press Releases
Identify which publications might want your stories. Peruse magazines at a newsstand or library. Consider local radio stations that have slots to fill in their programming. Reporters will discard unoriginal, broad or self-serving press releases. They want only new information. Standard press releases include clear headings – which are understandable at a glance – and a release-by date. Address the expected who, what, when, where and why elements in the opening sentences. Include a relevant, meaningful and concise quote. Use double-spaced text, limit the length to one page, and include references, unusual spellings and additional information in the footnotes.
Organize your thoughts by planning carefully before you write. Know your targeted word and line count. Understand your audience members and their needs, and be familiar with the context in which your writing will appear. Ask someone you trust for feedback.
Know the difference between editing and proofreading. Rather than editing while you write, let your words pour onto the page. Editing means adjusting your content, layout, balance and flow. While editing, double-check all facts or consult with the author about questions or changes. Proofreading – for misspellings, incorrect punctuation, layout verification, numbering, and the like – occurs after the writing is complete. Editing a printed document is more efficient than editing on a computer screen. Like all writing pros, always have someone else check your work.[/text_block]