I’m about to commit heresy: sometimes (often) the corporate American bigwigs who are asking you to write something have no idea what they actually want you to write. Not because they’re unintelligent, but because good businesspeople aren’t necessarily good communicators. In fact, I’ve written for brilliant MBAs who couldn’t put a decent paragraph together. And that’s just fine, because if they could, they wouldn’t need us!
But that leads to a dilemma: Do you write what they tell you to write or what they need you to write? In almost every case, I’d advise writing what needs to be written…if you can get there without hacking them off so much they’re not listening to you anymore.
And you can. You just have to know how. The key is asking the right questions. Here’s how such a scenario often unfolds. We’ll call the characters “You” and “Exec” (short for Bigshot Executive):
Exec: “I need you to write something telling everybody that Widget A is now going to be made by Company Z.”
You: “And what do you want them to do after they read it?”
Exec: “I want them to know that Widget A is now going to be made by Company Z.”
You: “OK…and why is that important?”
Exec: “Because Company Y, who used to make them, only uses Chemical H in their manufacturing process. Company Z uses Chemical J.
You: “And why is that important?”
Exec: “Because Chemical J is more heat resistant.”
You: “OK…why is it good that Chemical J is more heat resistant?”
Exec: “Because it makes the widget last longer.”
You: “So it sounds like you want the salespeople to push Widget A over the one made by Company Y, right?”
Exec: “Well, we’re not even selling widgets from Company Y anymore, but our competitors are, and we’re worried that our customers will just go to them because it’s cheaper. “
You: “So why would customers go for the more expensive product?”
Exec: “Because it lasts so much longer that it ends up being cheaper in the long run; it just costs more upfront.”
You: “So you want me to convince the sales force that the way to sell Widget A is by explaining to customers that, even though the upfront cost is higher, they’ll save in the long run because they won’t have to replace it as often. And the reason for that is because Company Z uses Chemical J in their process, and that makes the widget last longer than the process Company Y uses?”
Exec: “Yes, that’s what I said!”
A good corporate writer always, always, always gets a goal statement before starting an assignment: “Who is the audience? And what do you want them to think/believe/accept/do when they finish reading it?”
But don’t think that’s going to give you enough to start writing the corporate version of The Great American Novel. Usually it takes a few rounds of “And why is that important?” to get to the heart of the message.
The hardest part is accomplishing all of this without making your favorite neighborhood executive feel like you think he’s an idiot. Because then he’ll feel compelled to put you in your place, and that never ends well.
And, yes, I know…you didn’t pursue a writing career to play silly political games. But here’s the thing. You want people to pay you to write. For that to happen, you have to be effective…and you have to do it without being so irritating that you’re not worth the trouble. So…you end up playing silly political games. But that’s sometimes a necessary part of getting people to pay you to do what you love. Just remember these three questions:
- Who is the audience?
- What do you want them to do after they read this?
- Why is that important? (Ask this as many times as it takes to get to the real message.)