If you read one book about the financial crisis this year (actually, if you read one book about anything this year), make it The Big Short by Michael Lewis.
It reads like a thriller – an unputdownable romp about collateralised debt obligations (CDO) and credit default swaps. Oxymoron? Not in the hands of Lewis, who has a real gift for making the complex compelling.
Last week, I heard Lewis speak about the book at his alma mater, the London School of Economics (LSE). When he touched on the writing process, I gleaned five tips for every business writer.
1. Sweat over every word
Like many professional writers, Lewis doesn’t find writing particularly easy.
“The easy part is getting my head round what happened,” Lewis told the LSE audience. “I spend much more time thinking about the writing than the subject matter.”
Lesson for business writers: Don’t expect to get it right first time. A recent participant on one of my business English courses expressed surprise when I told him how much rewriting of my own work I did. He’d assumed that only amateurs had to work hard to find the right words. The opposite is true – only amateurs believe their writing can’t be improved by multiple revisions.
2. Write for your mum
For Lewis, a former bond trader, understanding the complexities of the mortgage-backed securities market was easy. The hard part was describing them in terms the rest of us understand.
“I had to be able to explain what a CDO was to my mother,” Lewis said.
Lesson for business writers: Step back and assess your work from a complete outsider’s point of view. Circle every word, phrase or allusion that would leave your mum with a furrowed brow. And if it’s your job to help others in the business get their messages across, do the same. Your outsider status is a boon. Use it.
3. Edit with a knife
When Lewis told the audience, “it’s what you leave out that’s as important as what you leave in,” I had to stifle a cheer.
Lewis trawled through reams and reams of data so his reader didn’t have to. It’s the kind of discipline that many in the corporate world could do well to adopt.
Lesson for business writers: Know that everything you’d like to say isn’t necessarily the same as everything your audience needs to hear. Edit accordingly. Help others do the same.
4. Find your angle
Another essential part of deciding what stays and what goes is finding your “angle”. That’s journalist-speak for focusing on a particular aspect of a much larger topic.
When Lewis knew he wanted to write about the financial crisis, he began by interviewing the people at the heart of it – the bankers who got burned.
Pretty soon, he realised that the really interesting stuff happened outside the banks. His angle was to tell the stories of the mavericks who saw the crisis coming – the one-eyed autistic ex-surgeon, the equities analyst who believed he was Spiderman, the kids in California who ran a hedge fund from their garage. Focusing on individual stories allowed him to get a handle on a subject so large it would overwhelm most readers.
Lesson for business writers: Think creatively about “key messages”.
One internal comms professional on a recent business writing course I led was struggling with an exec who insisted that every memo or intranet story had to include the phrase “disciplined origination” – and she wasn’t even sure what it meant.
I suggested she brainstorm ideas with him about what “disciplined origination” meant in practice? What are the three things every employee can do today to ensure it? Can we tell a story about where it’s paid off? Or where it’s not happened, causing disaster?
Readers struggle with the big and the abstract – so break things down into smaller stories and concrete details.
5. Imitate others till you find your voice
Lewis said that he used to be highly susceptible to other writers, unconsciously adopting their style. Today, he feels much more comfortable in his own skin, but being “ruined” for a month by Martin Amis et al was an essential part of his development as a writer.
Lesson for business writers: The very pervasiveness of corporate gobbledygook is indicative of our natural tendency to imitate. So work your inner mimic to your advantage by picking better role models.
Your story on the intranet about “leveraging sustainable excellence across the business” is competing with thousands of magazines, newspapers, websites and novels, many of which your reader has paid money for. Study the style of the paper you read each day – and try rewriting your article the way they’d do it.