‘Writing to Win’: 3 Tips For Engaging Writing in Business And Science
“The reader is impatient. Start with the most important conclusion and then explain how you got there.” –Glenn Kramon
In a recent episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, a podcast rich with insights on writing and communication from the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), host Matt Abrahams, a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford GSB, interviews Glenn Kramon, also a Stanford GSB lecturer in management and an editor at the NYTimes. The episode is entitled: “Writing to Win: How to Quickly Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged.”
The interview is packed full of great tips and tricks for improving your writing, not just in the business world but for anyone trying to write more compelling prose. 3 tips stuck with me in particular. Not because they are exceptionally new, but because of how Kramon reframes tried-and-true tips in novel ways. They are:
- ‘Bottom line upfront’ (say your main point first).
- ‘Google Sterling K. Brown’s Stanford commencement speech’ (know your audience).
- ‘Why say utilize when you can say use?’ (write succinctly and without jargon).
Below, I delve deeper into 3 of the highly actionable tips Prof. Glenn Kramon recommends to improve your writing.
Writing Tip #1: Bottom Line Up Front (B.L.U.F.)
Kramon says that one of his biggest pet peeves is a common writing habit of taking our sweet time to get to the point. The reason many of us do this isn’t an accident. Much of our writing education in K-12 and college teaches us to build up to our main point, which comes at the end in a grand finale.
There’s a prevailing belief that we should ‘surprise’ our reader at the very end with the real, deep insight we’ve been leading them up to all along.
I know from personal experience in graduate school burying the main point in winding prose is all too common in academic writing.
For example, as a fail-safe measure to make the point of an academic journal article loud and clear, an abstract comes front and center in journal articles. Its goal is to distill the main points of the article you’re about to read into a nice, clear paragraph. Unfortunately, the desire to make even this fail-safe measure convoluted and leading is too overwhelming for many academics to resist. And so abstracts have simply become just another way to tell the reader: ‘hey, my main point is buried somewhere in the article ahead, happy searching!’
To avoid this, Kramon says, bottom line up front, or BLUF for short. “The reader is impatient,” he says. So “start with the most important conclusion and then explain how you got there.”
“Another pet peeve is starting slowly before getting to the point. My boss, the New York Times’s Fred Andrews, used to call this type of writing organ music before the church service begins.”
— Glenn Kramon
Writing Tip #2: ‘Google Sterling K. Brown’s Stanford commencement speech’
The main idea here is to know your audience.
This is the seemingly most simple piece of advice I’ve ever received about how to write better. But it’s also the hardest to actually do well. At least in my own experience.
We often think we’re writing for the masses. But when we write for everyone, we write for no one. Too often business writers try to target a general audience, like some vague group of people called ‘the market.’ Instead, know your audience by choosing a specific person, or small group of people you’re trying to reach. Counterintuitively, you’ll reach the hearts and minds of more people by writing for fewer.
The two questions I always start with when thinking about how to ‘know my audience’ are: What problem is the particular person I’m writing to trying to solve? And how can my idea help them solve it?
Glenn Kramon offers this great example of Sterling K. Brown’s Stanford Commencement Speech. Speeches are a double whammy because you’re not just writing to some potential future reader. You’re also performing that writing for an audience in the here and now. And Brown’s speech is just brilliant at accomplishing this feat.
Kramon explains that Brown is so successful at delivering an inspiring speech because he doesn’t just select a single, particular audience to address. He recognizes that he is addressing multiple audiences at once: parents of graduates, graduates themselves, and his former Stanford residence, Stanford’s Ujamaa House. And Brown’s speech melds these three audiences together fluidly. As Karmon puts it:
“My favorite example of this comes from a commencement speech right here at Stanford a couple of years ago by the actor Sterling K. Brown…he knew the largest group in that audience in Stanford Stadium that day was the parents. Most of them had never heard of Sterling K. Brown. And they were saying, who the heck is this guy to be our graduation speaker? I want Bill Gates. I want Oprah. So Sterling knew that while graduation celebrates the students, the real celebrities are the parents who worked their butts off to get their kids to where they are today. So right at the start, he told the parents what is his goal that day was to make them say ‘what a nice young man, I think I’ll go home and watch his show.’”
“…anyone who wants to read some winning writing google Sterling K. Brown’s Stanford commencement speech. That should be your top takeaway from Matt’s podcast today.”
Writing Tip #3: ‘Why say utilize when you can say use?’
In his interview on the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast, Karmon adds another useful piece of advice: ‘speak succinctly and avoid convoluted jargon.’ As he goes on to say:
“Be yourself. So why say utilize when you can say use? Why say incentivize when you can say encourage or motivate…”
This is a struggle for science writers, a genre of writing I’m involved in. But business writers write in jargon-filled prose all too often too. In my experience, writers in these areas write in a jargony style that is painful to read because we’ve been trained to do so in college and grad school. This is because the main purpose of jargon is to signal to our science and business colleagues that we’re ‘in the club,’ or ‘in-group’ of people in our field.
Unfortunately, as much as jargony writing brings people into the fold of some field of science or business, it does an equally good job of shutting people out. Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman puts it well when he says jargon, like ‘autonomic’ or ‘sympathetic,’ are used to make sure all neuroscientists are on the same page. There is simply no concern with how bad these terms are for explaining neuroscience in a clear way to the public. As he points out, when talking about the nervous system, calling it ‘autonomic’ doesn’t mean it’s automatic, and ‘sympathetic’ has nothing to do with sympathy.
Kramon raises the same issue, but this time in the tech world of Silicon Valley:
“Silicon Valley, by the way, boasts some of the worst offenders. A good friend of mine has compiled a list of his favorite nonsensical jargon. And I’m going to give you two examples, Matt. So here’s one. Yes. This is about scaling emerging solutions to pivot the frame to embracing what’s possible. I’m going to give you another. I’m particularly excited about their interest in pivoting more toward a solutions frame as they step into this next season of storytelling. As I tell you, the dairymen from Fiddler on the Roof would say, “That’s not talking, that’s babbling.” No one understands it. It’s pretentious and so alienating. So just speak English.”
Over many, many years of figuring out how I learn new information best, I realize now redundancy is key. That means I need to hear the same idea, even simple ideas, in 5 or 6 different ways until it finally sinks in.
I’ve heard tips like ‘know your audience’ and ‘don’t use jargon’ many times before. So hearing these tips again, but from Kramon’s unique perspective as a business writing professor and editor at the NYTimes, gave me a few actionable tools to bring to my writing sessions. I hope they do the same for yours. In the spirit of redundancy, here they are again:
- Say your most important point first: ‘Bottom line upfront’
- Know your audience: ‘Google Sterling K. Brown’s Stanford commencement speech’
- Speak succinctly and avoid convoluted jargon: ‘Why say utilize when you can say use?’
I just discovered the Think Fast, Talk Smart from Stanford Graduate School of Business, and even though I’ve only listened to one episode, it’s clear this will be a great podcast for those interested in developing their writing and communication skills. The episodes are short and packed with a surprising amount of practical writing and communication tips.