Incisive, informative and impressive writing

If you've got a something important to write, this is the way to get it noticed, appreciated and ensure it has impact, says Simon Hall.

One of the most common, and saddest failings I see in professional life is:

  • The Death of a Good Idea

This blog runs through why it often happens, and how to prevent it.

Don’t get me wrong. Having a great idea is a good start, but alone it isn’t enough.

What’s the point if you can’t communicate it well, meaning no one hears it, understands it, and puts it into action?

This is how to write to ensure your idea makes a mark, gets taken seriously, and means it’s got a fighting chance of being adopted.

Writing for Impact

There’s one major fail I see time and again when someone’s trying to write a report, briefing, policy document, news release, or so many other forms of communication.

The way they approach it is all wrong. A 100% score on the Error Scale.

I suspect the reason goes back to schooldays, when we were first taught how to set out an argument, or scientific experiment.

Remember that?

You start with the background, then waffle a bit about the context, talk about the problem, how you’re going to analyse and investigate it, come up with a load of data, reveal some findings and thinking, then finally get to your conclusion.

The problem is that leaves the sexy stuff, the new thinking, your findings and what they mean, until last.

Which is the exact opposite of how to write for impact.

You’ve got to be more like a journalist and start with the interesting stuff.

News order is what it’s called in the trade, and it’s worth getting to know and practising.

Think what’s the most important part of what you’re saying, and begin with that.

Here’s a weird example, but it makes the point:

I discovered alien life today!

I was out on a walk around the river in Cambridge.

It’s something I do most days, to break up the tedium of lockdown, get some air in my lungs and enjoy a bit of nature.

I heard this strange noise, there was a bright light in the sky, and this huge shiny disk thing landed in a field.

A long, thin door opened and…

I know I’ve got a strange imagination, but you get the point.

Start with the stuff that matters.

If I’d have begun by talking about going out for a walk, in the way I usually do, bumbling around the river a bit before…

You’d probably have switched off and moved on, never reaching the interesting part.

Which is why so many good ideas die quiet and sad deaths.

They fail to get noticed, because they’re poorly sold.

In more everyday examples…

You might have an idea which could make your company more efficient:

  • We can save tens of thousands of pounds by…

And then into the background etc.

You might have a concept for a new product:

  • This could nail us 10% extra growth…

Or a redesigned service:

  • This solves our clients’ number one problem.

I know it might feel strange initially, beginning at the end.

But you’ll soon get used to it, and quickly find out how much more effective it is.

It’s as powerful as having a big bag of bread when you meet a gang of geese.

(And, as per the picture, that never fails to get you some attention!)

When you’re writing something important, never forget this:

Modern life is busy. You have to earn attention, not expect it. People have very limited time.

Hook them with the interesting stuff first, then go on to explain the background and all that later.

They won’t mind reading on once you’ve hit them with a great hook.

But if you don’t start off with a bang, you risk losing your readers before you’ve even got going.

Incisive Writing

This is much easier to adopt. So much so that I’ll sort it with you in seconds.

Once you realise its importance, you’ll never go back.

I’ve probably said enough to explain it already.

If you get what I mean?

Again, don’t forget how busy people are, particularly the senior types your idea is likely to land with.

They don’t have time to read your writing repeatedly until they work out what you’re trying to say.

Keep it short, sharp and simple.

Not long and meandering sentences, but straight to the point.

Just like this.

Also note the lack of long words in this blog.

Before you think it, that’s not because I’m insufficiently intellectual with my presenting of the prose (see what I did there?!) to sprinkle a few around.

I know the temptation is to sometimes indulge in wordiness, to try to demonstrate how clever you are.

Don’t. Keep it simple.

That’s true cleverness.

Simple isn’t stupid. Simple is smart.

Another weapon to make your writing incisive is not to waste words.

Never waffle. Say what you need to say and stop.

No briefing should ever be more than a couple of pages long.

If more information is needed, your phone or email will soon be buzzing with a request for you to come talk further…

Once you’ve got the people you need to impress hooked on your thoughts, that is.

By writing well.

A final point worth bearing in mind is that much of what you put together will probably be read on a mobile phone.

A small screen size makes incisive writing all the more important.

Informative Writing

Let’s end with a lovely rhyme, as a treat, because you’ve been kind enough to read through all my waffling.

I could just tell you to make sure you include all the relevant facts, but that’s dull.

So let’s make it more interesting with the help of the great Rudyard Kipling, and his checklist to ensure you’ve covered everything you need:

I keep six honest serving men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are what, and why, and when,

And how, and where, and who.

Isn’t that lovely? A checklist in rhyme.

Include those six points in your writing, whatever it might be about, and it will be a complete story.

Make it incisive too, and you should have done an impressive enough job to get your idea off to a good start on the path to being adopted.

By Simon Hall, first published at March 14, 2021