What’s the point of writing if nobody reads your words and nobody takes action? A big part of doing anything great inside an organisation is telling the story. Our partners at Fluxx have created this handy Guide to Persuasive Writing; eighteen tips, many stolen from George Orwell and Umberto Eco.
1. Before doing anything else, write the headline. An article without a great headline isn’t worth writing. Far more people (often 100x more) will see the headline than read the whole article, so it’s sensible to spend significantly more time writing the headline than writing the article. Clickbait gurus Upworthy suggest writing 25 headlines for every story, which is an interesting and exhausting process.
2. Never write ‘I’ in an article.
3. One lazy cliché can kill an argument. Familiar words and arguments have lost the power to surprise. As George Orwell puts it: “every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain”. Scriptwriter Robert McKee writes “Cliché is at the root of audience dissatisfaction, and like a plague spread through ignorance, it now infects all story media.” In the listicle at the end of Politics and the English Language, Orwell writes “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
4. When you get stuck, stop trying to write. Do one of two things. First, read a good article. Try a ‘Talk of the Town’ piece from the New Yorker, a long read in Bloomberg Businessweek, or a GDS blog post. Then…
5. Do more research. It’s very hard to tell a compelling story without the memorable fact, detail or anecdote that brings it to life. Visit the call centre, talk to another customer, run the numbers again and again to find an image as memorable as the black thumb-print on Page 3 of Road to Wigan Pier.
6. Don’t try to write like a writer. Umberto Eco, in How to Write a Thesis, writes “Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.” Words are a precision tool. Their job is to persuade readers that your argument is correct, win them over, and probably sell them something*. Inexperienced writers try to be writerly — adopting a weird, mannered style. Confident writers write like they talk, but with the luxury of fixing every ‘um’ and ‘er’. On a recent Fluxx project, we transcribed call-centre tapes to learn how sales people explained a really complex set of products (a technique we learned from Conversion Rate Experts)
7. Has someone already written this article? Google makes it dispiritingly easy to find out. At the moment, it’s really hard to find a fresh headline for an article about blockchain, VR, AR, autonomous cars, Uber or Pokemon Go. If the article is already written, don’t write it again.
8. Use short paragraphs. Umberto Eco writes: “Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.”
9. Use short sentences. Umberto Eco again: “You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.”
10. Use short words and not many of them. George Orwell again: “Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
11. Give the reader something to do next. Good writing inspires action. George Steer’s 1937 report in The Times inspired Picasso to paint Guernica. Half way through Paul Ford’s epic essay What Is Code? the reader is taught to fire up the Terminal on their mac and start coding C. What is your reader supposed to do next? It might be as simple as following a link or buying a book, but make it explicit and easy.
12. Writing an article is like launching a product. Use ethnographic research to find a story. The headline is the value proposition. The reader is the customer, and the writer needs to understand and map the customer’s journey through the article. At Fluxx we’re experimenting with a Story Generation Canvas based on the Business Model Canvas — get in touch if you want to take a look.
13. Share your work Having someone read your work is helpful twice. The reader may spot a mistake or suggest something useful. But more importantly, it lets you look at your words through their eyes. That often opens up ways to make it clearer or simpler, or simply reveals the boring bits. If there’s nobody around, reading the piece out loud to yourself can also help. There’s something about talking the words into an empty room that can loosen an idea that’s become stuck.
14. Create a banned words list for yourself or your organisation. Update it regularly. The GDS ‘Words to Avoid’ list includes robust, streamline, incentivise, disincentivise and “foster (unless it’s children)”. The BBC Academy warns against ecosystem, exponential, step change, synergy and raft (“When was the last time you heard someone say ‘I must get home. I’ve got a raft of ironing to do’?).
15. Write for the narrowest audience possible, people who really care about what you have to say. The internet is huge, so you’ll find plenty of people. Trying to write for an imaginary wider audience risks patronising those readers who might care.
16. One idea in each article. If an article contains two big ideas but only one can fit into the headline, the other is wasted. Consider splitting the article in two.
17. Make it long or make it short. A normal newspaper article tends to be 500–800 words long. It’s very hard to make that work online. Very short bits like tweets or tabloid-length stories under 500 words work because they’re fast, focussed, shareable. Very long articles — chunky features or Medium posts, over 1,500 words, can also be very shareable if they provide a real pay-off for readers who take the time. This idea is called the Quartz Curve, after the business news site.
18. If in doubt, write a list.
Fluxx is an innovation company on a mission to unlock potential in organisations, helping them to change and innovate at pace. Find out what they can do to transform your business here.