Avoiding the Unkindly Cut ...


I don’t smoke.

I rarely drink more than two Old Fashioneds at a sitting.

If I have a weakness, it’s called WG Yogurt. Their root beer yogurt deserves a Michelin star — “creamy with hints of cherry tree bark.”

What does this have to do with business writing?

During my last stop at WG Yogurt, the owner bombarded me with questions as he readied a content marketing campaign (would have been nice if he threw in free sprinkles as a thank you, but no such luck). It’s yet another proof point that business writing matters.

Unfortunately, the road of persuasive business writing is fraught with peril.


With this in mind, we’ve captured seven issues that guide us in our storytelling workshops as well as our own writing.

1. Education of stakeholders:

This has nothing to do with the actual writing part, but everything to do with the end product. An old-school mentality still pervades many companies in which those with sign-off power adhere to the copywriting adage, “me, me, me and now here’s a little more about me.” In conducting our storytelling workshops over the years, the No. 1 question I hear from participants goes something like this: “I believe in storytelling and have made the shift in my writing. Unfortunately, the big bosses who need to sign off on the copy haven’t gotten the memo. How do I get them on board?” I wrote a post with this in mind, “Who Moved My Story?”

2. Online is a different game:

I won’t numb you with the science, but suffice it to say attention spans have shrunk as people read information online. As a result, writing content earmarked for the web calls for pace; i.e., shorter sentences, more paragraphs and subheads that break up the copy.  A few years ago now New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote a story for Slate, “You Won’t Finish This Article.” It turns out that most readers scroll to about the half-way point of an article in Slate according to Chartbeat (OK, a little science). It takes a certain style of writing and cunning to pull that reader from start to end.

3. And mobile is a different game than online:

As the devices of choice for online reading increasingly are tablets and mobile phones, attention spans get even shorter. This means shorter pieces. It also means visual storytelling must come into play. While few PR people  come with MFAs and the ability to match colors, we absolutely need to get the visual storytelling religion for mobile. No one expects you to morph into a graphic designer. The idea is to develop a basic understanding of design and a commitment to harmonize words and visuals. We’ve become big fans of illustration where anything is possible.

Ishmael's Corner image spread

4. Break out of the industry lexicon:

Every industry has its own lexicon. EVERYONE — including those who manage content as well as copywriters  — gets conditioned by his/her industry lexicon. This results in everyone using the same words to describe the same things, which makes everyone sound the same. If you need to see this concept in action, pick an industry, identify the top three players in that industry, and take a look at the “About” section on their corporate websites. Right, everyone is essentially saying the same thing, trapped by the industry lexicon.

5. Don’t do dull:

It’s a little like the line from Mary Poppins, “A spoonful of sugar helps the content go down.” Even in technical areas like semiconductors, spewing only the facts will not keep people reading. There’s an expectation of being “entertained,” not in the classic sense of a Hollywood movie, but with content that makes the read enjoyable. Every agency with a pulse espouses storytelling, but it’s not just about storytelling. The reality is that in business communications, most opportunities don’t afford the articulation of a story with a beginning, an end and something going horribly awry in between. Instead, it’s about applying storytelling techniques and surprising the reader. Even one line that jars the senses within a page of conventional copy can make a difference.

6. Headline writing:

This relates to the entertainment quotient. Have fun with language and word choice. Puns. Double entendres. Contrarian angles. They all grab the reader’s interest by rising above convention. Of course, you can’t take this too far and end up with click bait, a topic I mocked in the post, “Aliens Converge on Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in Quest of Killer Headline.” In short, the content needs to deliver on the promise of the headline.

7. Show, don’t tell:

This can be a tough one for those who write for companies. I love using the opening scene from the movie “500 Days of Summer” as an example in our storytelling workshops. The narrator doesn’t tell you that Tom Hansen is a hopeless romantic and Summer Finn is a tough chick. Instead the viewer reaches that conclusion on his/her own. So it should be in business writing. Don’t tell the reader that the company is innovative. Show actions and decisions from the company that cause the reader to conclude that the company is innovative.

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