The real secret of success in business writing happens before the first word reaches the page.


Nearly all commercial or business writing is aimed at causing a change of some type – in behaviour, attitude, perception or all three.

To achieve this, writing is really only half the story. The other hidden half is knowing how to approach the task. You need to understand your audience, give them a reason and then structure the message; marrying the three together in a way that involves the reader.

To get there it’s the thinking behind the writing that counts the most.

Now I’m not about to tell you how to write, but rather give you some highlights on whatyou should think and write about to improve the impact of your work.

That’s because if you get the what wrong, then it doesn’t matter how well you write – it still won’t succeed.

Here are three keys to think about:


1. Focus on the reader, regardless

There are lots of distractions – it’s urgent, knee-jerk reactions, competitive activity, internal politics, you’re multi-tasking, the list goes on and on. Then there’s the lurking hunch that you think you know what it should say and what the reader should do and hear as a result, but you’re not totally sure because you really don’t know them well enough. So where should you start?

Before you write anything, there needs to be a sizable chunk of thinking time done. Ignore all the distractions. You need to focus on your reader, regardless of everything. You must understand and know them well enough to hit the ‘sweet-spot’ that will inspire them into action.

Do your homework on your audience. Ask questions. Who, where, how, when and in what mood? I’m sure you’ve fallen into the trap (as I have at times) of ‘knowing’ who the audience is. But, it’s something totally different to know how it feels to be them.

Get to know them as well as you know yourself, know how the message will be received and what it will mean to them. Go through this base list as a starter:

  • Who are they?
  • How technically literate are they?
  • What does it feel like to be them?
  • Are they the people who will ultimately react to the message?
  • Does the message have to work across a range of audiences?

And remember the reader is always king. Talk to them that way.


2. Why should they change or act –  give the reader a reason

As you know, the objective of the majority of business messages is to bring about some kind of change. This change can be active – a change in behaviour or can be passive – a change in perception.

Remember though, that very few people will change anything without a good reason for doing it. And that reason has to be good for them – not you or me, just them. So if you are going to persuade people to change through your message, then your message needs to offer some actual or implied reward.

It comes back to the simple what’s in it for them. Tell them why they should care about your message. It’s the old features and benefits story, and has everything to do with human nature.

Your message structure should ensure that you tell them right now, what pain or problem is it that your product/message solves for them

Don’t leave it to the end or middle. You’ve got to grab their attention fast. This applies as much to the humblest of business communications as it does to the fanciest….

Remember, its benefits that people want to know – that’s what’s in it for them – not your features. In other words, benefits sell. Features well, just tell. As a reminder, features are what something is; benefits are what it does for you.

Lots or too many benefits can dilute the impact of each other. Often one ‘umbrella’ benefit not only gets more attention, but it can provide a central focus for what your message is all about. Hunt down the core focus, to make your message structure stronger.

This central focus in many cases is what the advertising world calls the USP – unique selling proposition. Not all business messages are sales oriented, but at the end of the day we are really all trying to cause a change of some type, which often needs to be sold.


3. Structure the message –  assess and assemble individually

Being methodical about this, unfortunately there is no one secret formula for putting the elements together into messages that is likely to work. Much as I’d love one (it would save me so much work every day) there is nothing that works for every business communication project.

Sadly the truth is that every project needs assessing and assembling individually.

However, if you must have a guide, try this:


Message brief + audience + medium x what’s in it for them = message essence


Remember though, that the message essence is the gist of the message, not the final words.

These are done later, after identifying the 3 keys emotions, drafting, applying the twenty word rule and finally adopting the samurai editing and polishing attitude to your final piece.


Photo via stock.xchng user eliteds3


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