Is business writing just about bloodless logic? Or is there room for some poetry, some inspiration, some passion in it?
This week I conducted my clear writing workshop with writers from a large technology-focused company in Silicon Valley. The participants provide their product managers with research-based information to help support smarter decisions. A typical document they’d create would identify an important technology or strategy question, share results of research and testing, draw a conclusion, and then make a recommendation on how the company should move forward.
This is a familiar report format — not that different from the research reports I used to write for Forrester, or a corporate white paper, or a scientific paper. And the company’s team was doing a pretty decent job of presenting them, too.
That’s why I was surprised when one of the participants, at the end of the workshop — a guy who’d been making bright and articulate comments all along — asked this question:
“Your recommendations today are focused on a very direct, clear factual presentation. Don’t you think there is a role for something more emotional in these documents?”
After a little back and forth, he revealed that he had a background in working with political campaigns. We all smiled to hear that. But his question is still valid.
Where does emotion belong?
My goal is not to get you to write dispassionate and lifeless memos. We are all humans, and without a human approach, what you write will never persuade anybody.
In the ROAM analysis, I suggest that you think clearly about the Readers, Objective (change in thinking), Action desired, and iMpression you seek with your writing. You will not get readers to change their thinking without a human connection. You will not create action without that connection. And the impression you want to leave is that you are there to help — and that’s not something that happens if what you write is made up of nothing but facts.
You need all the tools of writing. These include humor, storytelling, language that stirs emotions, and even passion. Without those tools, you’ll never connect.
But with that said, you still need logic.
There is nothing I despise more than the vacuous stylings of the motivational speaker and writer. “You can do it! Get up every day and seize the day! Fall down seven times and stand up eight! Rah, rah, sis boom bah!”
The exclamation points alone are enough to make you gag.
This sort of meaning-free boostership has no place in serious business writing.
So what is the right mix of logic and emotion?
Use emotion and passion to craft your ideas. It is ok to be inspired. That moment when you realize that things could be different — cherish that moment. Harness it. Your job is to help others to have that same experience — to see what you have seen.
Then do the research, seek out the case studies, interview the practitioners, conduct the studies, and gather the evidence. Organize it to make the best case you can. And if the evidence tells you that you are wrong — or at least not smart enough about how you are right — change your idea. Don’t twist the evidence to fit the passion, adjust the passion to fit the evidence.
Now tell a story with what you have learned. Weave the evidence and your other tools — like language, humor, wit, and drama — into a convincing case for your thesis. Make the reasoning ironclad — but witty, as well.
Logic dictates the content. Storytelling dictates the sequence and provides the poetry within it.
Logic illuminates the truth. Passion and humanity make it attractive.
There is room for emotion, but it should serve truth — not the other way around.
I care deeply about this. But more importantly, I hope the case that I’ve made has convinced you.