How to write business copy that works

To get to the heart of the matter, write like a journalist.

To make your business writing sing, think like a journalist

As business writers face the blank page asking, “Where do I begin?” the journalist’s trusty Who-What-When-Where-Why-How questions are a great place to start.

As an organizing principle for most professional writing, the 5Ws and 1H are essential. The first four are factual, easy to answer. But the “Why” and the “How” are the most interesting – the information most likely to tell us something new.

Properly presented, the “Why” gives us the purpose or reason for the piece. It should also address “who cares?” from an audience standpoint. And “How” gives us the means and the methods, ideally in layman’s terms.

Two of my favorite articles demonstrate this notion that “Why” and “How” are the essence of a well-written, well-targeted article, blog post, or feature.

A song from the swamp, a lesson for the heart

Donald Liebenson’s 2019 Vanity Fair feature, “A Frog, a Banjo, and an Indelible Message: Making ‘The Rainbow Connection,’” is a beautiful tribute to songwriter Paul Williams, the Muppets, and the creative process. It is thoroughly researched and well crafted, dense with descriptions and background on Williams and the Muppets.

But it’s also a solid piece of business writing with spot-on news hooks.

It pays off “why now?” with the 40th anniversary of “The Muppet Movie” as well as Williams’ then-current collaboration on a Broadway musical adaptation of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It also answers the “how?” of the songwriting process. Based on an interview with the songwriter himself, Liebenson – and by extension the audience – learns how the song received its name and how it has become a beloved anthem to the human condition, honoring the questions, not the answers.

In my interview with Liebenson about what makes this piece so special, he shared that writers should draw on their own personal experience and interests. He is clearly a Muppets fan himself and an expert on the furry entertainers’ charm, appeal and career success.

He shared these tips for more compelling content:

  • Take “a deep dive on research to obtain facts and details.”
  • Sort out facts from opinions.
  • Discover “something new to say.”
  • Finally, “Don’t be afraid to ‘go for it.’ Reach out to experts, celebs, and C-suite execs” for quotes and insights.

While he couldn’t get any Muppets’ organization quotes, Williams himself was a generous and available interview subject offering a peek into the song’s origins, and thus, the a-ha! moments when the creativity was flowing. The resulting article is a great read: informative, entertaining, and timely.

‘Grease’ is the word

My second example comes from comms pro Jennifer Roop’s  case study “State of the Grease Industry: Weathering Disruptions”  and its predecessor: “The Down and Dirty: Grease Components, A Primer on What Makes Grease — and What Makes It Good.”

The pandemic provided the platform for educating customers on this importance of this industrial product with a “what’s-in-it-for-me” approach. Using the analogy of a perfect storm, Roop’s perfectly timed blog post addressed the need for a consistent grease supply in a variety of industries. Her articles caught my eye on LinkedIn during the height of the pandemic’s supply chain crisis.

With straightforward subheads posed as questions: “Why Do Grease Components Matter?” and “How Pack Logix Can Help,” she stressed the need for grease as an essential industrial component, and how to navigate the current uncertainties; she also showcased her client’s expertise and reliability during the converging crises.

In a follow-up discussion, Roop noted that even an industrial product could be fascinating and fun to work on. “The client’s enthusiasm for the topic was contagious,” she said. And her team contributed strong visuals to help draw readers in. Short, scannable paragraphs with numerous subheads make the stories a quick, informative read.

When staring at that blank screen, answering the journalist’s basic factual questions will get you started. But by teasing out the “Why” and the “How” of your story, you’ll uncover the fresh and deeper content your audiences will treasure, remember, and act upon.

Jill O’Mahony Stewart is a writing teacher and coach. Since 1986 she has managed Stewart Communications, a PR firm devoted to “issues that matter.” She is also an adjunct faculty member at DePaul University’s College of Communication. She loves helping students and young professionals become better writers.

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