Bill Birchard wrote an article for Harvard Business Review (July-August 2021) titled The Science of Strong Business Writing.

« The magic happens when prose has one or more of these characteristics: It’s simple, specific, surprising, stirring, seductive, smart, social, or story-driven. »

« Simplicity…  “Keep it simple.” … Short sentences, familiar words, and clean syntax ensure that the reader doesn’t have to exert too much brainpower to understand your meaning.  »

« Specificity… Think of “pelican” versus “bird.” Or “wipe” versus “clean.” … Another specificity tactic is to give readers a memorable shorthand phrase to help them retain your message. Malcolm Gladwell coined “the tipping point.” Management gurus W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne came up with “blue ocean strategy”; essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “black swan event.”  »

« Surprise… Our brains are wired to make nonstop predictions, including guessing the next word in every line of text. If your writing confirms the readers’ guess, that’s OK, though possibly a yawner. Surprise can make your message stick, helping readers learn and retain information.  »

« Stirring Language… You may think you’re more likely to persuade with logic, but no. Our brains process the emotional connotations of a word within 200 milliseconds of reading it—much faster than we understand its meaning… When we read emotionally charged material, we reflexively react with feelings—fear, joy, awe, disgust, and so forth. Reason follows.  »

« Seductiveness… As humans, we’re wired to savor anticipation… So start a report with a question. Pose your customer problem as a conundrum. Position your product development work as solving a mystery. Put readers in a state of uncertainty so that you can then lead them to something better.  »

« Making people feel smart—giving them an “aha” moment—is another way to please readers.  »

« Social Content… One way to help readers connect with you and your writing is to reveal more traces of yourself in it. Think voice, worldview, vocabulary, wit, syntax, poetic rhythm, sensibilities. Take the folksy—and effective—speeches and letters of Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett. His bon mots include “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago,” “It’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who’s been swimming naked,” and “Beware of geeks bearing formulas.”  »

« Storytelling… Few things beat a good anecdote.  »


Bill Birchard is writing a book, tentatively titled Eight Secrets from Science for Aspiring Writers. His previous books include Stairway to Earth: How to Write a Serious Book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s