The Science of Strong Business Writing
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Whether it’s a succinct declarative statement in an email or a complex argument in a report, your writing has the potential to light up the neural circuitry of your readers’ brains.
Good writing gets the reader’s dopamine flowing in the area of the brain known as the reward circuit. Just like good food or a hug, well-executed writing makes us feel pleasure, which makes us want to keep reading.
The magic happens when your writing has one or more of these characteristics: It’s simple, specific, surprising, stirring, seductive, smart, social, or story-driven.
Simplicity increases what scientists call the brain’s “processing fluency.” Short sentences, familiar words, and clean syntax ensure that the reader doesn’t have to exert too much brainpower to understand your meaning.
By contrast, studies have shown that sentences with clauses nested in the middle take longer to read and cause more comprehension mistakes.
Cutting extraneous words and using the active voice are two ways to keep it simple. Another tactic is to drill down to what’s really salient and scrap tangential details.
Specifics awaken a swath of brain circuits. Think of “pelican” versus “bird.” Or “wipe” versus “clean.” Our neurons actually “embody” what the words mean: When we hear more-specific ones, we “taste,” “feel,” and “see” traces of the real thing.
Using more vivid, palpable language will reward your readers. Another specificity tactic is to give readers a memorable shorthand phrase to help them retain your message.
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.
Our brains process the emotional connotations of a word within 200 milliseconds of reading it—much faster than we understand its meaning. So when we read emotionally charged material, we reflexively react with feelings. Reason follows. We then combine the immediate feeling and subsequent thought to create meaning.
So when you write your next memo, consider injecting words that package feeling and thought together. Instead of saying “challenge the competition,” you might use “outwit rivals.” In lieu of “promote innovation,” try “prize ingenuity.” Metaphor often works even better.
We’re wired to savor anticipation. One famous study showed that people are often happier planning a vacation than they are after taking one. Scientists call the reward “anticipatory utility.”
You can build up the same sort of excitement when you structure your writing. 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.
Please the readers by giving them an “aha” moment:
Our brains are wired to crave human connection—even in what we read. We don’t want just to read about people, though—we want to understand what they’re thinking as quickly as possible.
Few things beat a good anecdote. Stories, even fragments of them, captivate extensive portions of readers’ brains in part because they combine many of the elements I’ve described already.
When you incorporate stories into your communications, big payoffs can result. Research shows that people form favorable impressions of the pitches that have richer narratives, giving them higher marks for entrepreneur credibility and business legitimacy. They also are more willing to invest in the projects and share information about them. The implication: No stories, no great funding success.
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