Novel Strategies for Business Writing

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—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

October 30, 2019 

Novel Strategies for Business Writing

“Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. . . . It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining”

— Mark Turner, author of The Literary Mind

At a recent economic summit, the head of Australia’s central bank urged global economists to focus less on raw data and more on storytelling. Philip Lowe stated that stories help consumers understand trends in ways that numbers and coefficients simply cannot. If the right story can influence global markets, it can also enhance your own business interests . . . and your business communication. 

But how can you incorporate storytelling concepts into business writing, a genre that seems like a far cry from a Tolkien novel? Try some of these literary staples.

Action

Good stories pull readers along with vivid verbs and active sentences. You can energize your business writing in much the same way. Turn passive sentences into active ones by asking “who or what is doing the action of the verb” and making your answer the new subject. Then replace dull verbs with vivid ones.

A new app feature was created by our creative team. (Passive sentence, dull verb)
Our creative team launched a new app feature. (Active sentence, vivid verb)

Conflict

The most compelling moments in stories occur when characters face problems head-on. In a similar vein, you can create a compelling story by showing how your idea, product, or event solves a problem. Check out how the folks at Firebox use a problem-solution format to market their product:

Keeping warm is no mean feat when the merciless chills of winter start creeping in. You can clutch onto a smelly hot water bottle that’ll be cold in less than an hour, shuffle round in a pair of slippers, layer on a multitude of hats and scarves, or just give up and crawl back into bed.

Now a distinctly more toasty solution has popped up—the Toast Heated Pillow. Snuggle and squeeze this super-sized (and very smiley) slice, and he’ll keep you nice and cozy for up to 4 hours.

Humor

Depending on the situation, humor can add voice and interest to your writing. However, use discretion. Avoid humor altogether in formal writing situations and make sure your witty aside, dash of irony, or strategic self-deprecation passes the “Pixar” test. Ask yourself, “Would this joke be appropriate for a Pixar movie?” (Warning: “Dad jokes” often pass but may cause groans.)

Anecdotes

Anecdotes (like the one that began this eTip) are small stories that demonstrate a larger point. You can use anecdotes to connect abstract ideas, actions, or policies with individual people and experiences.

At 4:00 a.m., plant manager Bill Curtis lurched awake to answer his cell phone: "Intruder alert at the plant! Intruder alert at the plant!" Bill rushed to the plant and shut off the alarm, just minutes before the police arrived at the scene. Both parties discovered an employee error triggered the alarm.   

This marks the third employee-caused false alarm in the last two weeks. Let's make sure Bill and the police don't receive another unnecessary wake-up call. Please review the attached security and alarm instructions to keep our workplace safe and avoid further disruptions.

Metaphors

Engaging comparisons anchor unfamiliar (or unclear) ideas to something familiar. Check out how Malcolm Gladwell’s metaphor clarifies a leukemia treatment plan for a lay audience.

Their solution was to use multiple drugs simultaneously that worked in very different ways. . . . Methotrexate worked by disrupting folic acid uptake, which was crucial in the division of the cells; 6-MP shut down the synthesis of purine, which was also crucial in cell division. Putting the two together would be like hitting the cancer with a left hook and a right hook.

Speech

You can create a storytelling aesthetic by downshifting your writing voice from formal and stuffy to conversational and speech-like. A conversational voice makes writing more enjoyable to read and easier to understand. Marketers understand this and routinely use casual, speech-like writing in advertisements and publicity material. But a conversational voice extends beyond the marketing realm. The federal government requires its employees to use plain language in official government documents. You can, too, with simple, effective wording and a friendly "we" voice. 

Formal: The goal of Boniface Sanitation is serving the Tallahassee community. As indicated in the attached client list, Boniface contracts with 300 companies for waste removal.

Conversational: Our goal is to serve you well. As Tallahassee’s leading waste collector, Boniface works with more than 300 organizations like yours.

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Try It Out!

Find an uninspiring piece of workplace writing—yours or someone else’s. Make it more engaging by incorporating one or more storytelling strategies.

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Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide and past eTips for more ways to generate interest in your writing.