The first two blogs in this series looked at why the idea of story is so appealing and why it is such a useful tool in business writing – because it conveys the hook, the core – which is our key meaning and purpose in business writing.
In all business writing the common element is impact. You are looking to make an impact, and the core message or story will help determine whether you have one and what it will be.
This final blog in the series takes a practical view, focusing first on the power that Twitter has to make you condense your story into very few characters; and then offering some further touchstones on summarising effectively, to help you really get to the story.
The power of tweet
Twitter is not to everyone’s liking and is looked down on, or worse, by some. Still, it remains an extremely popular social media channel, with more than 150 million active users worldwide; though perhaps an equally telling statistic is that there are more than 500 million Twitter accounts. In other words, three-quarters of people who set up a Twitter account then decided that they did not want to use it after all.
The 280-character limit is a restriction, for sure, though less of a restriction than in the old days of 140 characters.
More important, it’s a reality – and a democratic one at that. It applies to everyone using the medium, whether they have 10 million followers or ten, whether they are a celebrity, politician or anyone else.
And having a limit – even an extended one of 280 characters – is good for clarity and intellectual discipline, and a good proxy for the story, as well as a social media and political tool.
What is a tweet but the essence of an idea, the extreme reduction of an idea to its core element? In 280 characters you can’t achieve much else: around 40 words, assuming 6 letters per word on average plus a space;, or two reasonably full sentences of 20 words each. If you can tell your story effectively in such a limited wordcount, you have probably captured its essence.
By definition, tweeting is concise. It is also familiar: many people tweet daily, and often very well. By adopting a Twitter mindset a business writer can use that conciseness, familiarity and skill as an asset to support their business writing.
Punctuation and spelling in tweets
A feature of the tweet, superficially, is that it doesn’t rely on accurate punctuation and spelling.
One argument goes that there is no room for punctuation in 280 characters, so do not waste characters using it. Similarly, accurate spelling is not so critical in a tweet as in other forms of communication. All the tricks of the trade to compress your meaning into 280 characters – elisions and contractions, phonetic spelling, removal of extraneous vowels, extreme summarization – are visible all over Twitter, and fair game.
However there’s a good case, when writing ultra-short content such as a tweet, for using at least some punctuation, to preserve structure and credibility. It’s not a waste of characters, and can improve your clarity and meaning.
There is also a strong argument that you should try to spell accurately, so far as possible, in a tweet – especially a business tweet. Tweeting is no different from any other form of business communication in terms of the expectations the reader has, or the principles that should be applied to the writing: accuracy, consistency, courtesy and clarity.
More to the point, misspelling reduces impact and credibility. Tweeting is still business writing – your readers are reading your tweets with their professional hats on.
They don’t expect to see misspellings in a book, journal or article, or even in an email, so they don’t expect to see them in a tweet either. Consciously or unconsciously, readers adjust their opinions about the professionalism of a writer who serially misspells in their tweets. There is no need for it – it’s possible to save characters in other ways.
A tool, not a rule
In the end, the most important thing to note is that unless you are planning to actually tweet your story physically on Twitter, the 280-character constraint is not a hard one.
It is only a tool to help you achieve a concise story at the heart of your business writing. In fact, creating two separate 140-character sub-tweets – separated by a colon or just spliced together – is an effective way of capturing the story. It is not a rule, but a tool.
Condensing to 280 characters is not easy, but the next section shows how you might go about doing it, to help achieve clarity.
Finding the Story: an invisible thread
Another way of thinking about story is as an invisible thread, a kind of subtext, the emotional seam of your piece. You cannot see it, but is there running through your piece – everything you write connects to it in some way.
You can use this idea to test the relevance of your structure and the rest of your content as you write: if it does not connect to the story, is it really needed?
This idea of the invisible thread, alongside the elevator pitch and the ‘tweet as story’, can really help you find the story. I will illustrate how you might go about doing this by looking at the story of the book I am writing: Clear Business English in Financial Services.
A longer summary
The first thing to do, especially for a longer piece of business writing, is a longer summary.
Write down the main ideas that you want to convey in three paragraphs – around 200 words in total – highlighting the key words in bold. Stick to this constraint: anything you need to say at this stage of the writing can be said in 200 words.
My book is a practical guide for professionals working in finance and other business sectors who want to write clear, effective business English, whether they are native or non-native English writers, using simple principles that apply to any format.
Business writing needs a story, to hook the reader and convey the essence in just a few words. It needs an underlying structure to help deliver its message clearly; including title, headings, layout, some basic rules on grammar and punctuation, and some basic criteria on style and readability, including sentence length and vocabulary. It also needs content. Many different types of content are used in financial services and other businesses, from long technical documents to 280-character tweets. The underlying principles are the same whatever the format, and matter as much as the rules. How a written piece sounds to the ear and consistency are just as important.
Most professionals already have the tools to write clear, proficient business English. You can demystify English if you emphasise principles rather than rules, which anyway are not as hard as they seem. This reduces anxiety, increases confidence and gives writers – especially non-native English writers – some touchstones to help shore up their self-belief.
Next, condense the longer summary into a 280-character tweet. There are a couple of different ways to do this.
Condense into keywords and themes
One way is to take the words that matter, highlighted above in bold, and combine them in a structured way to convey the essential meaning:
A practical guide to #ClearBusinessEnglish in any format for finance/other professionals using story-structure-content, principles not rules
This phrase certainly has structure. It uses punctuation (a slash and a comma) to separate ideas while saving characters, and a hashtag. While not grammatically perfect, it has a subject, a present participle verb (‘using’) and objects, and some information on what, who for and how. For an ultra-short piece of written English, it conveys quite a lot of basic meaning.
Even so, it is not very interesting.
A more interesting way to condense the 200-word summary – to tell its story – is to pick up on the theme in the final paragraph: namely, the anxiety and lack of confidence that some people feel about their business English, whether they are native or non-native English writers:
Are you anxious or hesitant writing business English? It’s easier than it seems. Use key principles to demystify the rules & write clearly.
This condensed summary certainly has structure: three full sentences, subjects, verbs, objects, two full stops, a question mark and an ampersand. Rather than wasting characters, the punctuation here helps deliver a structured narrative with three separate ideas. It takes a different approach from the factual keywords summary, tapping into the emotional or psychological state of the reader, rather than just presenting bald, summarised content.
It is really a matter of taste whether you prefer facts, themes, or neither. Both the above summaries represent different condensed versions of my book: elevator pitches to use if someone asks what I am currently writing about. They give me clarity and some underlying threads which can anchor the piece while I am writing it.
Combine into a story: the hook, the core
Finally you could splice together the two elements to convey a story which has both factual content (the first part – what it is about) and a more emotional or psychological theme (the second part – why it is interesting):
A practical guide to clear business English in any format for finance or other professionals using story, structure and content, and based on principles not rules. Are you anxious or hesitant writing business English? It’s easier than it seems. Use key principles to demystify the rules and write clearly.
This story takes about 20 seconds to say out loud, so it fits neatly into the elevator pitch format. And as mentioned previously, you only need adhere strictly to the 280-character limit if you are actually planning to tweet this content. Even if you are not, using the
discipline of Twitter you can condense an entire piece (a book, in my case) into a tweet-sized story via a 200-word summary.
Finding your story: a practical summary
1. Before you start writing – whatever it is you are writing – know what your story is.
2. If you are writing a longer piece, summarise what you want to say in 200 words, highlighting keywords in bold.
3. Convert the bold words into a short, cogent half-tweet (140 characters) with structure, including punctuation and good spelling.
4. Rewrite your 200-word summary as another, completely different, half-tweet (also 140 characters) with a completely different angle.
5. Combine the two half-tweets into a 280-character tweet, representing the story of your piece. Think of it as a title and subtitle. What it is about: why it is interesting.
And don’t forget the idea of the elevator pitch.
These disciplines can be applied or adapted to any piece of business writing you do. With your story in mind, you can really start looking at the structure and content of your piece.