Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

The Media Coach is often asked if we run courses for business writing and the short answer is yes we do. [See more in the last paragraph]. The enquiry normally stems from deep frustration of someone senior who has just read a paper or report from someone more junior and thought ‘what did they teach them at school!’.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Senior staff are often moved to ask: ‘what did they teach you at school?’.

I am a stream-of-consciousness writer for whom grammar and spelling do not come easily. One of my colleagues at BBC Look East once said to me: ‘You are very unusual. Most people who can’t spell don’t care. You can’t spell but at least you care!’ I think this was a sort of weak compliment. Anyway, I have put a lot of work into it over the years but I am still deeply insecure about my spelling and grammar. Reuters, where I worked later in my career, had a very good ‘two sets of eyes’ rule and this is one I impose throughout the Media Coach, yet I know mistakes still get through.

I may be an inaccurate writer but I am not someone who struggles to put words on the page. I have always been able to write and write fast. But if you are not like that, what advice can we give? Well, here below, are the Media Coach tips for both sets of writing problems: how to get started and how to check and check again.

Have a plan

Sounds obvious but you cannot write a document – whether a press release or a white paper – without a clear understanding of the business purpose of the document. This involves identifying the audience and the objective.

Pay heed to the structure

Structures are not blindingly obvious, whatever anyone tells you. Most business documents have an established style. If you are being asked to write a type of document that is new to you, you need to find out what is expected. Find other examples and analyse the sections. Ask if there is a template. It is much easier to get started if you have clear chapter headings.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Start writing – even if you think it is rubbish

Everyone knows it is easier to correct, polish and hone once you have something to work with. Don’t expect to get it right first time but just get something down on screen. When the time is right for a natural break, walk away and come back to it with fresh eyes. Rewrite, tweak or reuse paragraphs of your original in a different order.

Read it for sense

Once you are nearly done on a short document or have a substantial amount written on your long document, read it through for sense. It is always most effective if you do this aloud. Ask yourself: will your audience be able to follow the thread of the argument? This is crucial. Put your most self-critical hat on and ask: is it clear? Can you use less jargon? Can you substitute less formal language? Perhaps fewer words or more words, shorter sentences, fewer sub-clauses, etc. The writing must flow logically from one paragraph to the next.

Read it to check grammar and spelling

Always best done after a break. Reading for sense and reading for grammar and spelling are to my mind two different things. This time you are looking for missed apostrophes (its instead of it’s), commonly mistaken words (there instead of their), missing commas, etc. Check the spelling of all names even if you think you know: is it Hilary Clinton or Hillary Clinton?

Ask someone else to read it

For me essential, but may not always be practical.

Sort out the layout

Not worth doing this earlier but at this stage you are checking the fonts are right, that the margins are the same and that the style is the same throughout. If you have made changes, you may have mucked up the layout or the sense. Check it again.

Once you have some words on the page, read once to ensure it makes sense and a second time to check the grammar and spelling. If you change one or the other you will need to check again.

I fear there will be people who have worked with me guffawing into their Chablis to see me write this. But I have sweated over how to write better most of my adult life, so I feel I am entitled now to give a few pointers from my experience.

You will be relieved to hear that I don’t run any of the Media Coach writing courses. We leave that to Oliver Wates, a former Reuters reporter, bureau chief and desk editor (the guy who corrected everyone else’s copy). He has been my most patient and tolerant advisor on these things for more than a decade and he can build a fun, interactive course that is designed precisely to meet the needs of your team if you need such a thing. Just drop me an email or give us a call if it’s something you would like to discuss.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

It’s easier to start writing if you have a clear business objective and some chapter headings. (And coffee!)

Meanwhile, if you are struggling to self-educate on these things, here is our suggested reading list.

Economist Style Guide There are lots of style guides, the Times and the Guardian, for example, both do one. All are useful but we particularly like the Economist’s version.

Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss is a classic; it’s really a grammar primer but is readable and funny rather than a dry textbook.

The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto is maybe a bit old fashioned but I have had it recommended to me a number of times and so include it here. This is all about helping you bring clarity to your writing.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage I have never lived in a house that didn’t have Fowler’s on the bookshelf. Both my parents were journalists and before the internet this is where you checked easily confused words, etc. However, there is nothing in here that you can’t find more easily online in my view and I rarely look at it. But if you don’t know what you don’t know, it might be worth buying cheap and dipping into.

Photo notes: Feature photo from istock, used under creative comms licence. Other photos from

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

Trump Banned Unfriendly News Organisations: Why You Should Not

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations from a White House press conference at the end of last week stepping up the ‘ante’ in the clash between the new President and the Fourth Estate. He has banned The Guardian, New York Times, Politico, CNN, BBC and Buzzfeed; all organisations apparently seen as hostile to the new order.

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

President Donald Trump banned some news organisations from a White House briefing

Trump ban: no surprise

In some ways, it is no surprise. Trump comes from a business background and business is always much more selective about engagement with the media than politicians or administrations. How this will all play out in American politics is anybody’s guess. We are in unchartered territory.

But it does highlight the issue faced by many companies. Do they risk engaging with the media, knowing there is a possibility they will get unfriendly coverage? Or do they refuse to engage and hope little will be written or read about their company or any issues?

Business is too cautious

My own view is that business is much too cautious and much too controlling when it comes to the media. There are certainly times when it is better not to put your corporate head above the parapet but in general, the risks of media engagement are well understood and reasonably easily managed. There are of course a few exceptions.

But this is why I think business should engage more than they do.

Firstly, there is the obvious reason that editorial coverage is worth a great deal more than advertising. It tends to be read by the right people – your customers and other stakeholders will read stuff that is relevant to them. Despite the fact that fewer people pay for a newspaper these days, the efficiency of search engines and social media sharing means little is missed. Editorial coverage is also seen as more credible than advertising, and there is scope for much more sophisticated communication than in advertising.

Established relationships with journalists are useful

Secondly, it is hugely helpful to an organisation or business to have established relationships with journalists. It means that when they do want to get information ‘out there’ it can be done much more easily. It also gives the press office more options: to pick one journalist over another from a position of real knowledge, offer exclusives etc. Working relationships are essential and understood in other areas of business but undervalued in PR.

Thirdly, it is also hugely helpful to organisations to have trained and experienced spokespeople. This is particularly true if there is likely to be a crisis at some point in the future. You need a handful of people who know the game, have done a few radio and TV interviews and are not going to be phased by the process. As media trainers we are all too often asked to take people from first steps to ready for Radio 4’s Today programme in one four-hour session. Common sense will tell you that this is not ideal. 

The big win: shaping the conversation

mp banned George_Lakoff

George Lakoff has written about how the right-wing in the US has been shaping the public conversation

Finally, there is a more subtle benefit: engaging with the media provides the opportunity to, over time, shape the conversation. This requires a somewhat sophisticated longer-term media strategy but is something that can really work particularly for innovative industries – FinTech for example. There is a business benefit to softening up the public or creating expectations. This has been endlessly written about in politics. For example, the hugely readable ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ by George Lakoff. His revised and updated edition demonstrates how the right wing have played a very long game and a very successful one in shaping the debate in the US. While the democrats have mostly failed to do this. In the UK think about how Micheal O’Leary at Ryanair has shaped the debate over what we pay for when we buy an airline ticket.

Withdrawal of business from public debate has been damaging

On this last point, I would like to get on my socio-political soap box. The withdrawal of business from the public conversation over the last 30 years has been hugely damaging to British society. As a result of the apparent risks of media engagement going up in the mid-eighties and early nineties, more and more companies decided to control all conversations with journalists and in many cases turn down most interview opportunities. I know this happened because I saw it first hand as an output editor on BBC Financial World Tonight. During my time from about 1989 to 1994, it got steadily harder to find business people to talk.

[Although a few businesses did nail their colours to the mast over Scottish Independence and Brexit very few chose to be interviewed. It was deemed that the risks were too high. But my main concern is about more general everyday matters.]

Trump banned capitalism crisis

Many young people now believe business is bad for humanity

The result this withdrawal from the public conversations is that huge swathes of the under 25’s now think making money is wrong and that anyone making money is damaging the human race. Whilst the reality is, while some businesses can be exploitative – and I know a few – in general business is delivering an extraordinary level of comfort, service, interest and freedom of choice to the population.

So, why are businesses in general so reluctant to talk about their successes in the media? Well occasionally they do but when you think what a huge role business is playing in the life and development of the country, business is vastly under-represented.

If you would like to get more media coverage for your organisation we can of course help by training your spokespeople or helping develop your messages. So do pick up the phone (020 7099 2212) . Your country needs you!

Shaping the conversation: further reading

A good introduction to ‘shaping public conversations’ from a poverty action group in the US.

Why we all need an elevator pitch

Why we all need an elevator pitch

I have come to the conclusion that each of us who represent our business to the outside world, however that is defined, needs to have a honed and perfected elevator pitch.

What is an elevator pitch?

It is a succinct, thought-through and rehearsed explanation of what the business does.

Why do we need one?

Why we all need an elevator pitch 2

Can you describe your company in the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator?

Because the world is complicated and we all assume too often that others completely understand where we are coming from and what we do. Most people interviewed at the start of media training make daft assumptions about the knowledge of the journalist. Once this is pointed out, it is obvious but it is not just relevant for journalists. I am always using my elevator pitch when introduced to new people. I lengthen or shorten it depending on the circumstances.

What are the elements?

I think the elements are first an overview or helicopter view. ‘We sell software that helps people cut their use of paper and save money’ or ‘we provide a wide range of personal and business insurance for the UK market’ etc. Second a bit of detail e.g. size of the business, number of employees, range of contracts, key clients etc. and finally an example of a good piece of work you have done.

Do I need to include the history of the business?

I believe the history of the organisation is only relevant if it is memorable and interesting. If it was started in a cow shed in 1901 or was the brainchild of an astronaut, use it, otherwise don’t bother.

Why is the overview so important?

Because detail makes no sense to people if you don’t provide a frame for it. Once you have the frame you can hang different things on it, but you need the frame.

Why so much emphasis on numbers?

Numbers allow people to understand scale, whether that’s scale of an operation, scale of the growth, scale of the potential market. Without scale, people are left wondering or guessing.

Do you really need examples?

Never miss the examples, they are always the things people will remember after they forget the overview and the numbers.

Warning! Do not try to be all things to all people!

Sounds daft but this is such a common mistake. A story I often tell from the early 2000’s when I was media training a start-up in the dot-com boom.

Me: ‘What is your website for?’
CEO: (aged 22): ‘It’s for all sorts of things, all sorts.’
Me: ‘Okay, what sort of people do you envisage visiting your website?’
CEO: ‘All sorts of people’
Me: ‘So, what might prompt them to visit the site?’
CEO: ‘Oh, all sorts of things!’

I left after three hours none the wiser what this company planned to do (of course, it is possible they didn’t know either which is a different problem.) Much better to give an idea and then layer in further information later if you get the chance.

Warning! Avoid positive bland!

This is another major problem. People think it is impressive to say ‘we provide a great service for our customers’, ‘we help clients become more efficient’, ‘we help make staff more productive’. No detail and only positives means it is unconvincing propaganda. You might as well not bother.

Warning! Do not use the org chart unless you have a diagram!

People are tempted to explain how many division and subdivisions there are in the company. This really will bore the pants off anybody and is difficult to hold in your head unless it is very simple (e.g. two divisions, one UK and one European focused) or you happen to have a diagram to hand.

We ran a competition at a conference (ECS 2015) last year asking people to do their elevator pitch to camera. We called it the Message in a Minute challenge. Even PR professionals found it remarkably difficult to do it well. Here is an example from our trained friend: how do you think she did?