Let’s start by debunking the myth that good writing is about having an outsized vocabulary. It also hasn’t much to do with long and complex sentences. Of course, you already knew that.
“I wish I needed to use the dictionary more when I read stuff” said no one, ever.
Also, if you’ve read a sentence thrice and are still grasping for meaning, it’s probably too convoluted for its own good.
No, the difference between poor and decent writing is often one of structure.
This is great news. Because whether it’s research reports, client presentations or marketing packs lurking in your office folders, there is a recipe for structuring business writing that delivers crisp, powerful copy.
It’s called The Pyramid Principle, and was developed by Barbara Minto, who spent a good chunk of her career with management consulting firm McKinsey, honing the firm’s analysis communication methods.
And it starts with the simple observation that, when we try to make a case, we tend to string together different bits of information to support it. What counts is HOW we string the information together.
I’ll explain this using an example.
Working as a writer for Copylab, much of my writing involves articulating fund managers’ thinking concerning their portfolios.
Being highly analytical, they tend to structure writing as if proving a point, and will say something like:
The election of Donald Trump led to heightened concerns over the Mexican economy. Clashing with the prime minister over the construction of a wall at the border weakened the peso, and Trump’s push for greater trade protectionism can prove detrimental to Mexican companies. Therefore, we decided to reduce our exposure to Mexican equities.
Notice how the paragraph’s key message is revealed only at the very end.
Also, all the statements beforehand serve to support the thinking leading to that conclusion.
The trick is to invert the structure: Make the key argument first, and make sure that all other statements relate to it through the same logical link.
In our case:
We decided to reduce our exposure to Mexican equities.
(WHY?) The election of Donald Trump led to heightened concerns over the Mexican economy.
(WHY?) We believe Mexican companies are likely to suffer should the new administration push for greater trade protectionism.
(WHY?) Additionally, Trump’s clashing with the country’s prime minister over the construction of a border wall has led to a weaker peso.
Note how few are the changes to the underlying text!
There was no need for fancy words or clunky sentences. All that’s required is a clear answer to the question: WHAT IS THE MESSAGE I AM TRYING TO ARTICULATE?
Let’s make the bit about the logical link clearer.
The link doesn’t have to answer to the question WHY. It could be answering a different question (like WHO, or WHERE). Another popular link would be SUCH AS, useful for listing examples.
Obviously, the links aren’t added to the text itself. They only serve to structure the mental flow as you’re writing and editing.
But here is where this tip works a charm for lucid copy.
When the supporting statements don’t all link in the same way to the key message, you know the problem is nothing to do with the choice of words.
This will save you A TONNE of time trying rewrite a problem away. See for yourself with this example:
Despite the headwinds to value investing over the period, our fund delivered strong performance in 2016, by focusing on outperforming companies that are growing their market share. Crucially, we maintained our faith in the banking sector, which performed poorly for the first part of the year, but recovered strongly towards the end of the period. We believe the sector will continue to boost the fund’s strong performance in the coming year.
Reading this, you know the writing is off.
What’s the key message? The fund delivered strong performance in 2016.
(HOW?) Our focus on outperforming companies that are growing market share delivered returns despite the headwinds to value investing over the period.
(HOW?) Crucially, we maintained our faith in the banking sector, which performed poorly earlier in the year, but recovered strongly thereafter.
(WHAT WILL HAPPEN?) We believe the fund will continue to benefit from the sector’s strong momentum in the coming year.
That’s your problem right there. No amount of editing and re-wording can turn a forward-looking perspective into a snippet discussing the past.
Fixing this is easy enough, and each of the two ways to do so bring something different to the table.
Making a separate key point by moving the last statement into a paragraph of its own helps if you want to mention other factors concerning future performance.
Or, you keep the two headline arguments in the same paragraph, by adding an overarching statement to which the two points are logically linked in the same way:
The portfolio is well-positioned to capitalise on current market dynamics.
(WHY?) The fund delivered strong performance in 2016. (and all the other text relating to this point).
(WHY?) We believe the fund will continue to benefit from the sector’s strong momentum in the coming year.
One tip, instantly better business writing. To recap, for each paragraph,
1. Make your key argument first.
2. Make sure what follows links to the main point through the same logical link.
Finally, if you’ve had enough of READING awful writing, help others improve and make the world a better place by sharing this around. Because you’re that awesome.
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