There it is: the blank screen. Staring at you. Mocking you. Daring you to write something that will actually be read. Daring you to write something that will be taken seriously and acted upon.
It may be an email, a report, a letter, a blog post, or any one of a dozen forms of written communication executive leaders must master today.
And there you sit. Stuck. Afflicted, not with writer’s block (You’ve got plenty to write about. Too much to write about, in fact), but with writer’s doubt. “Will anybody ever read this?” you wonder. “Will it make a difference if they do?”
You’re in good company. Legions of leaders like yourself have stared at the blank screen, desperately needing to communicate through the written word, doubting if any of it will break through the clutter. It’s like what you have to say is a tiny drop of water in a massive ocean of meaningless communication.
So here’s help for your blank screen moments. The top five tricks expert writers use to make their point in print. Use them yourself, with utter and complete abandon, to have your words pop on the page.
Writing Trick One: Tell a Story
Since the dawn of time, stories have been used as a means of communication in every culture. Aesop has his fables, Shakespeare his plays, and Ted his talks.
As a professional speaker, I’ll meet people who heard me speak years prior, and they’ll recite—nearly word for word—a story I told in a previous address (Sadly, not my fabulous three point outline).
That’s the power of a great story.
Consider the beginning of this article. I could’ve stared with the words, “There are five tricks experts writers use to make their point.” But I didn’t. I started with a story, a story about a blank screen.
Stories draw people in. They spark human emotion and illustrate truth in a compelling way. Use them well.
Writing Trick Two: Twist a Phrase
This is one of the niftiest tricks expert writers use to make their point in print. They take a well-worn phrase and twist it. This trick is eye-catching, attention-grabbing, and exceedingly memorable. Good writing all.
It’s “Ready, Fire, Aim” instead of “Ready, Aim, Fire.” It’s “The War of Art” instead of “The Art of War.” It’s Warren Buffet’s brilliant, “You can’t teach a young dog old tricks.”
To twist a phrase, identify the main point of your writing piece. Explore sayings that could be used to disprove the point. Now twist one to, in fact, prove your point.
I once read a statement on LinkedIn that said, “I survived a meeting that should have been an email.” So I wrote an article on the overuse of email when communicating emotional information, using the words, “I survived an email that should have been a meeting.”
That’s how you twist a phrase.
Writing Trick Three: Break the Rules
Some of the rules we learned in Composition 101 still haunt us today:
- A complete sentence has a subject and a predicate.
- A complete paragraph has a topic sentence, supported by complete sentences that have a subject and a predicate.
- A complete piece of writing has an introduction with a thesis statement, the logical development of the thesis statement, and a conclusion that recapitulates the thesis statement.
And forget them all (along with never start a sentence with a conjunction). Write like you speak, in short spurts and dramatic exclamations. Not in thesis statements and puritanical subjects and predicates.
Break. The. Rules.
Writing Trick Four: Keep It Short
While you’re breaking the rules of grammar, don’t break this rule: keep it short.
The most limited resource in business today is not time or money. The most limited resource in business today is attention. We fight for ever-shrinking mind-share, and to get it we must practice pith to make our point.
Here’s a quick quiz. How long is the Gettysburg address? 272 words. How long is the Lord’s Prayer? 52 words. How long is the United States Tax Code? 5.5 million words. I rest my case.
Ann Handley in her best-selling book, Everybody Writes, gives these guidelines on the ideal length of things we write as business leaders:
- Email Subject Line: 50 characters or less
- Email: 4 paragraphs or less
- Paragraph: 4 lines or less
- Blog post: 1000 words or less
- Facebook post: 100-140 characters
- Twitter post: 120-130 characters
Writing Trick Five: Always Call to Action
In this context ACA doesn’t stand for the Affordable Care Act, but something far more effective (and much more affordable). ACA: Always Call to Action.
Expert writers know words pop on the page when they ask readers to do something. Not a dozen somethings, but one specific, strategic something. Cut writing off from this practice, and all you have are mere theories, passive ideas that never change the world.
Business writing is persuasive writing, and all good persuasive writing focuses like a laser on the next immediate step. For every piece of written communication you produce, ask, “What do I want the reader to do?” Then state it clearly, practically, unequivocally.