How to write business copy that works

Think like a journalist to make your business documents ring

When business journalists face the blank page and ask, “Where do I start?” The journalist’s tried-and-true who-what-when-where-why-how questions are a good place to start.

As the organizing principle for most professional texts, the 5Ws and 1H are essential. The first four are factual and easy to answer. But the “why” and the “how” are what are most interesting—the pieces of information that are 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 audience point of view. And the “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-directed article, blog post, or feature.

A song from the swamp, a lesson for the heart

Donald Liebenson’s 2019 Vanity Fair film 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. Thoroughly researched and well-crafted, it’s packed with descriptions and background information about Williams and the Muppets.

But it’s also solid business literature with spot-on news hooks.

It pays off “Why now?” with the 40th anniversary of The Muppet Movie and 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 learns – and by extension, the audience – how the song got its name and how it has become a popular hymn to the human condition that honors the questions, not the answers.

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

He shared these tips for more compelling content:

  • Take “a deep dive into the research to get facts and details.”
  • Separate facts from opinions.
  • Discover “Something New to Say”.
  • In conclusion: “Don’t be afraid to try. Reach out to experts, celebs, and C-suite executives for quotes and insights.

While he couldn’t get any quotes about the Muppets organization, Williams himself was a generous and available interview subject who offered insight into the song’s origins, and thus the a-ha! Moments when creativity flowed. The resulting article makes great reading: informative, entertaining, and timely.

‘Fat’ is the word

My second example comes from the case study State of the Grease Industry: Weathering Disruptions by communications pro Jennifer Roop 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 about 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 consistent fat supply across a variety of industries. Your articles on LinkedIn caught my eye during the height of the pandemic’s supply chain crisis.

With simple subheadings posed as questions, “Why are grease components important?” and “How Pack Logix can help,” she emphasized the need for grease as an essential industrial component and how to navigate the current uncertainties; She also demonstrated her client’s expertise and reliability during the looming crises.

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In a subsequent discussion, Roop noted that even an industrial product can be fascinating and fun. “The customer’s enthusiasm for the topic was contagious,” she said. And her team contributed powerful visuals to draw readers in. Short, scannable paragraphs with numerous subheadings make the stories a quick, informative read.

Staring at that blank screen, you can answer the journalist’s basic factual questions to get started. But by carving out the “why” and “how” of your story, you’ll uncover the fresh and deeper content that your audience will appreciate, remember, and respond to.

Jill O’Mahony Stewart is a writing teacher and coach. Since 1986, she has run Stewart Communications, a public relations firm dedicated to “relevant issues.” 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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