How do you write for a business audience?

In my work here at Leff Communications—and before that in my years as a journalist—I’ve had occasion to encounter various sorts of communications. Each of them seems to have its own conventions. However, many of those conventions are poorly suited to communications aimed at a business audience.

A legal filing, for example, typically follows a standard framework: set out facts, establish jurisdiction, and make an argument revolving heavily around citing precedents and case law. Such writing is wrought with considerable use of legal terminology (“legalese” to most of us non-lawyers), all meant to sway a judge to provide the desired verdict.

If you read an academic research report, you’ll often find an abstract followed by a considerable amount of the article addressing issues of methodology and details of data sets, with results or findings ultimately presented in very matter-of-fact fashion. Given that peer review is an important part of academic writing, it makes sense that such reports are often focused on defending the research from others who will be looking for potential flaws.

As a journalist, certainly the importance of capturing your reader immediately was driven home early in my experience, and newswriting conventions supported that. After the headline, the lede was all important, the key to drawing your reader into the rest of the story. (Late at night I still sometimes hear the no-nonsense voice of a certain copy desk chief from years gone by chiding earnest young reporters for “burying the lede.”) Conventions for “hard news” stories saw the lede (hopefully complete with who, what, when, where, why, how) followed by an inverted pyramid structure to facilitate cutting from the bottom. Feature stories offered more leeway but still demanded the nut graf early on to convince the reader to read on.

via http://historyofjournalism.onmason.com.
via http://historyofjournalism.onmason.com.

All of these are good, proven approaches for their purposes. But do these approaches necessarily work in reaching a business audience? Not so much.

The business reader isn’t looking to dole out justice, assess the validity of the article, or read breaking news. Typically, the business reader is looking for ways to solve problems or do business better. Thus the results—the answer to “what does this mean?”—are critical to business communications and capturing the business reader’s attention.

Write for the reader

First, you need to consider your medium (my colleague Brittany Petersen does a very nice job of outlining various B2B content marketing formats) and your audience. Your audience takes the ultimate precedence, as that—along with the sort of information you’re providing—will help drive the decision on format. Who are you looking to reach, and what will it take to get them to read, watch, or listen? In every case it’s essential to think about your audience, what they care about, and what makes your ideas important to them.

For example, your research might have produced great insight into certain demographic changes that could create tremendous demand for new insurance products. Your research methodology and the quality of your data are beyond reproach. But if you’re looking to share your findings with an insurance industry audience, is your insurance executive reader interested in reading about your methodology or data? No. He or she is looking for ideas for new opportunities in a crowded market and ways to make the company more profitable. What that executive needs from you is a straightforward discussion of what’s important from his or her perspective: what your findings mean, in a practical sense—the business opportunity your research suggests exists and how to seize it.

Conventions are still important

Business communications does have its own conventions. You’ll hear people talk about the Situation, Complication, Resolution framework or the Issue, Action, Impact formula. These templates are aimed at presenting your information in a way that will get the business reader’s attention and communicate most effectively. Whatever the approach, it all comes back to the reader.

When you’ve given real thought to who you’re trying to reach, then you’re ready to start on that article or script or blog post or even Tweet. Yes, even on Twitter you should think about your reader and the medium’s conventions. Not being Justin Bieber, if I’m hoping to communicate with followers I’d better be thinking about what will get readers to read my tweet, the right hashtags to help folks find it, and whatever else it might take to get followers to click through any link I might include, let alone expand my Tweet’s reach by retweeting it. All that in 140 characters, or 120 if I want to follow a standard convention for facilitating a retweet.

Ultimately, the point is that if you’re thinking about content marketing, whatever your business, put your audience first. That will go a long way to helping you put content before them that will give you the best chance of achieving your desired results.

Rodd Zolkos

Rodd is an editorial director at Leff Communications. Prior to joining Leff, Rodd spent more than 35 years as a working journalist, including time with daily newspapers, community journalism, and the business press. Follow Rodd on Twitter @RoddZolkos.

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