How to write better business stories
By Chris Roush
Many people don’t read business news, and for good reason. There’s nothing more boring than a story that uses a bunch of numbers in the lead without explaining what’s actually going on. But business news writing doesn’t have to be boring, or laden with numbers.
Like any other news article, the best business journalism tells a good story and entices the reader with a compelling lead. The best business journalists may use numbers in their leads, but they primarily use words to explain what’s going on. They write a story, not a balance sheet. The numbers are only there to support the thesis of the writing.
Here’s my advice to anyone writing business and economics story leads and wanting to make their prose sing:
- Avoid an overabundance of numbers in one sentence or paragraph. My limit is usually two, but I sometimes will use three if they are simple concepts to understand. And avoid numbers in the lead. Instead, explain what’s happening with the company, or unemployment, in the lead, and then use the numbers in the second paragraph to back up what you wrote.
- Use short sentences. No more than 35 words should be used in the lead of a business story. When I wrote about the embarrassing typo printed on two million 12-packs of Coca-Cola right before the 1996 Summer Olympics, the lead was, “What a difference one letter makes.” That’s only six words, but it got the point across.
- Always lead with the “what,” be it a company, executive or product. That strategy forces you to write your lead using an active verb, and results in a direct sentence for the reader to understand. It also lets the reader know up front who or what the story is about.
- Never put the time element before the verb in the lead. The verb tells the reader what the action is, and that’s what the reader wants. If you tell them when the action happened before the action has taken place in the sentence, then you just confuse them.
- Avoid using names in the lead unless the person is well known. For example, this works best for the Atlanta media: “Doug Ivester, the chief executive officer of Coca-Cola Co., resigned Sunday amid disagreements with the board about the future direction of the company.” For everyone else, go with something shorter: “Coca-Cola Co.’s CEO resigned Sunday amid disagreements about the future direction of the company.”
- Don’t use “funky” punctuation. You’re already asking a reader or listener to pay attention to something that may be foreign. A semi-colon, parentheses or a colon might just confuse them enough to make them stop reading and find something else to read. For example, don’t write this: “The CFO of a Fayetteville mining company resigned his job Tuesday; the company did not name a replacement.” Instead, go with this: “The CFO of a Fayetteville mining company resigned Tuesday amid allegations of inflated earnings.”
You can be the greatest business reporter of all time and find all kinds of amazing facts about companies or the economy. But unless you know how to put those facts together in a compelling series of words and sentences, your work will have gone to waste.
Chris Roush is the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in business journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last updated: August 22, 2011
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