It's important to get to the point - but all in good time

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 19, 2009 - 6:04 PM

The bottom line doesn't always go on top.

As many writing experts will tell you, the academic approach to writing is too indirect for the business world.

Delaying the conclusion until after the topic has been properly introduced and developed may make for deliberate, coherent writing, but this approach conveys information without emphasis and urgency.

For business writing, the argument goes, you need to tell your readers what you want them to do from the get-go. The bottom line should go on top.

That's good advice -- most of the time.

Leading off with a purpose statement works well for routine correspondence. Day-to-day e-mail communication typically follows a standard three-step approach: purpose, background, proposed action or deadline. For example, to reschedule a meeting, one might write:

"We need to reschedule our budget meeting from tomorrow morning to 8:30 to 10 a.m., next Wednesday. Last quarter's figures aren't in yet. Please mark your calendar."

This direct, straightforward approach works well when addressing a sympathetic, informed audience. But when communicating to a hostile or uninformed audience, consider an indirect approach.

"Direct" vs. "indirect" as used here doesn't mean bold and emphatic vs. evasive and wishy-washy. Rather, "direct" and "indirect" approaches are persuasive strategies based on assessment of audience attitude and knowledge.

Simply put, with a sympathetic, knowledgeable audience, take a direct approach: conclusion first, background second. With a hostile or uninformed audience, take an indirect approach: background first, conclusion second.

The indirect approach is a nuanced persuasive strategy that offers four main advantages. Presenting evidence first allows the writer to:

• Establish the need for action or change.

• Raise doubts about the reader's previously held beliefs or assumptions.

• Point out inconsistencies in the reader's thinking or logic.

• Move the reader gradually toward the desired conclusion.

Although the indirect approach is the more cautious, it doesn't indicate a lack of resolve. Conclusions still can be presented with conviction, but the process of getting there is more tentative.

To be forceful and emphatic in the business world is generally good, but unquestioned self-assurance can wear thin.

But -- to repeat my conclusion at the end -- the direct approach is not always the best approach. A more sophisticated strategy is to begin with a careful assessment of audience, and then decide how direct you want to be. Sometimes the indirect approach is better.

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