Let’s delve into long-term memory and travel back in time, to the Language Arts classrooms from middle school and high school. Those essay-writing days may have been painful, but the fundamental writing lessons guide us to greater focus and style variety. With that, we can create more interesting and compelling articles, proposals, presentations and other business content.
Those fundamentals I’m alluding to are the four basic types of writing we explored in various essay and book report assignments:
Think of your next business writing project as an assignment for one of the above styles. For long writing projects like sales presentations or multiple pages of content for a website, find ways to include all four of them for greater meaning and variety.
1. Expository Writing
Exposition is the genre where business communicators spend most of their time, especially those working in B2B or technical fields. As writing that explains or informs, expository writing includes reports, instruction manuals and some website content.
Expository business writing is often dry and perfunctory, but you can break that mold by exploring these tactics and approaches:
- Classification—Break down a broad topic or idea into buckets or categories your audience will understand. Try for groups of three, which will make your message easier to grasp and remember.
- Compare and Contrast—Comparison shows how things are alike; contrast shows differences. A great way to explain concepts that are complex or unfamiliar to your audience is to compare or contrast them with knowledge or situations that are commonly held.
- Cause and Effect—Identify relationships and describe how things affect and depend on each other to explain a set of outcomes or results, good or bad. Y happened as a result of X. Try one of these approaches to cause and effect: the single difference, the common factor, the process of elimination or the causal chain.
- How-To—Describe a process or procedure. How-to articles are very popular in online searches, but don’t stop there. Basic statements that describe how you did something or how your company does something are examples of this approach. If you’re afraid of revealing your secret sauce, hint at a few ingredients or “serving suggestions” to spark further interest.
How to Approach Expository Writing
If you are speaking solely to members of your “tribe” you can include jargon and other insider language. If you are trying to enlighten others who may have no prior knowledge, imagine explaining your topic to a child or a student. Better yet, don’t imagine – actually do it as a great exercise for stripping out jargon, complexity and vagueness.
Good Expository Writing Resources
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) gives an excellent, one page overview of expository writing. While written for students, it’s fast and easily adaptable to busy professionals who want to improve their business communications.
2. Persuasive Writing
Persuasive writing seeks to convince your audience to take a position or action on something. Persuasion is most commonly associated with selling and marketing, yet we all have the need to communicate persuasively—defending a budget, pitching a project or seeking buy-in from colleagues are all examples of persuasion in regular communication.
How to Approach Persuasive Writing
Persuasive writing requires familiarity not only with your subject matter, but your audience and a bit of human nature. Along with tapping into high school English, it’s not a bad idea to recall the basic psychology or philosophy you’ve learned as well. Understand and apply one or more of the theories of persuasion, a few of which are covered in the resources below.
Persuasion is difficult, so make it easier on yourself and increase the odds in your favor by making your message about them: the needs, fears, aspirations, beliefs, experiences and perspectives of your audience. To seal the deal, add a dose of passion for your message and commitment to your cause as part of something greater.
Good Persuasive Writing Resources
Aristotle’s theory of persuasion embraces the concepts of Ethos, Pathos and Logos. Or turn to contemporary experts like Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (Note: Link goes to a YouTube video explaining his 6 principles of influence in a twelve-minute whiteboard animation.)
For other persuasion techniques and principles, check out David Straker’s summary of resources (including more on Cialdini) at Changing Minds, a website about human thinking, belief and actions.
3. Narrative Writing
Narrative writing gives an account of a happening that progresses through a beginning, middle and end. Narration is storytelling! A story can be the telling of any experience, ordinary or exceptional. Turn an experience into a story by including the conflict or struggle it involved, and how it lead to a lesson, change or other outcome. Good storytellers find a way to talk about everyday occurrences in meaningful, captivating ways.
How to Approach Narration
Storytelling as it applies to business communication requires less imagination and more reflection and openness. Reflect on your day-to-day experiences, current and mining the past, and identify the feelings and lessons they conjure up for you. Be willing to expose vulnerabilities and soft spots in ways that are appropriate to the given audience and subject matter at hand.
Good Narrative Writing Resources
Following are a few storytelling resources I like for their relevance to business communicators and marketers, and they are nicely condensed in FastBlurb fashion.
The Clues to a Great Story – This 19 minute TED Talk was given by Andrew Stanton, the writer of Toy Story. His primary advice that applies to all communication endeavors? Make me care.
How to Tell a Story with Data – Put your data in meaningful context and perspective with a little storytelling. This Harvard Business Review article offers useful guidance for all business communicators, not just the brand marketers it targets.
7 Basic Types of Stories: Which One Is Your Brand Telling? – If a good brand story is what you’re after, this AdWeek article gives an excellent synopsis of how to go about it, including advertising examples.
4. Descriptive Writing
Description paints a picture with words to make something clear and real to the reader. Descriptive writing can be a form of writing onto itself, yet it’s also a component of longer forms of narrative, expository and persuasive writing. Good descriptions enhance all communications.
A caption under a photograph or the product descriptions you find in catalogs are examples of descriptive writing. Blurbs are descriptive writing! They strive to paint a picture using a short amount of text.
How to Approach Descriptive Writing
Start with a thesaurus, since word choice is key. Include sensory detail—how can you describe something in a way that appeals to vision, smell, touch, taste or sound? While adjectives and adverbs are the standby words of description, use them sparingly. The point is not to tell but to invoke, to show rather than tell.
Good Descriptive Writing Resources
OneLook Reverse Dictionary – If you know the meaning but can’t come up with the word, try this tool, which allows you to describe something and view a list of related concepts. Helpful to crossword puzzle solvers as well.
Descriptive Writing and You – Brief advice I found helpful from Arch Editing on how to write descriptively.
Exposition, Narration, Persuasion and Description are four writing styles that you are doing now, unconsciously. Now bring intention into the process. Do you rely on and maybe overuse one over the others? Are you applying the right styles to match your audience, your subject matter, your communication goals?
I hope this didn’t bring back unpleasant memories from middle school or high school! My intention was to refresh your memory so you can bring more variety to your business content and communications and greater clarity to your own thinking.