Here's how to write like you mean it

  • Article by: TODD NELSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • July 5, 2009 - 10:06 PM

To find out how business writing coach Stan Berry believes he can boost your company's productivity, please continue reading.

You'll learn more about Berry and his Writing to Get Things Done seminars and online course, including:

Why Berry believes his company's approach to writing is especially timely today.

How Berry turned his long-time appreciation of writing and training (his mother a poet and writer and his father an English teacher) into a small business.

How to avoid the all-too-common writing pitfall he calls "Rambling Rose": meandering, stream-of-consciousness writing, apparently churned out in the hope that something will get done.

Why you'll never again have to concoct a dreaded introductory paragraph to a memo or e-mail. Berry's tip: "Put what you want to get done in paragraph one."

Where to put background details (in bullet points like these) and how to avoid closing with cliches, ending instead with clearly stated deadlines or timelines, such as:

Please finish reading this story (the top of which emulates Berry's method) now before you turn to the sports section or update your Facebook page.

"What differentiates our course from most others is that the whole focus is to use writing as a tool for getting things done, meeting important deadlines and keeping projects on track," said Berry, founder of Berry Writing Group in Bloomington.

Berry has taught more than 55,000 corporate and government employees since he started his company almost 35 years ago, riding out a number of boom-and-bust cycles in that time. Corporate clients include Land O'Lakes. Berry said he's also taught hundreds of employees at such companies as Target, American Express and Eli Lilly.

Corporate cutbacks mean companies are booking fewer seminars these days, Berry said, when most need it more than ever.

"They've got fewer people trying to do more stuff, so they can't afford to have cluttered in-boxes full of rambling e-mails," said Stu Tanquist, Berry Writing Group's executive vice president.

Force multiplier

Still, Berry said, the last two years have produced record revenue of nearly $250,000, and this year's sales appear to be keeping pace. More than offsetting the lost corporate work is a sharp rise in seminars for government clients, particularly the military, Berry said. He's done training at more than two dozen military bases and learning centers since he presented a pilot seminar in early 2006.

"Working with the Navy and the Marines is probably 90 percent of our business," Berry said. "It's keeping us on track."

Ralph Soule, a federal government employee who has sent more than 100 of his people to Berry's training, describes it as a "force multiplier."

"If you only have five people, it helps those five people communicate like 10 because it's so much clearer," Soule said in an interview. "A large part of what we do is communicate with people, make it clear what needs to get done and what problems we're having. If you can do that clearly, you don't need as many people to get it done."

Berry said he also expected to be busy this year training Social Security Administration officials. They, in turn, will train hundreds of employees who will rewrite the agency's policies and procedures according to Berry's method.

Online push coming

Berry and Tanquist spent most of a year developing the online course and another nine months testing it. It's the first and only such online course certified by the American Society for Training and Development, a national workplace training organization.

The online course hasn't gotten much of a marketing push yet, and most of the 200 or so people who have completed it are military members, Berry said. Today, the company has only two employees, Berry and Tanquist. Berry scaled back from having as many as 12 people working at one point in the 1990s.

"I was spending so much time doing H.R. stuff and legal stuff and training stuff," Berry said. "We made more money but I didn't end up with any more money in my pocket."

In the classroom, perhaps the greatest obstacle Berry faces is the deeply ingrained three-part academic writing model: introduction, body and conclusion.

The problem, Berry said, is the academic style simply isn't effective for business writing. What you want to get done often ends up lost in the middle or near the end, with no sense of urgency.

His approach turns the English 101 model upside down.

In business writing, he contends, the bottom line should go right at the top.

That also serves as your introduction.

The key, Berry said, is to figure out what you want to get done before you start writing. Just follow your statement of purpose with supporting details and a timeline or deadline, and you're done.

"Everything people write on the job, regardless of the industry, can be presented in ... a simple, three-paragraph model," Berry said. "The focus is productivity, not how to write a perfect sentence."

Berry taught his first course -- a how-to-study class for high school students -- when he was just 13. That was at a college prep and remedial reading school run by his father, a high school teacher in St. Louis Park.

He tagged along at night when his father taught writing classes at companies around the Twin Cities.

That experience formed the basis for Berry's business, which he started after getting a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Minnesota and a master's in arts and religion from Yale.

"I saw early on that corporate people, engineers, very intelligent people, didn't know how to write for the business world," Berry said. "We're taught so much stuff from English 101 that gets in the way of good writing," Berry said.

The expert says: Avinash Malshe, assistant marketing professor at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said Berry has an interesting product that meets a definite need.

"It's one of the most important skills that any manager should have," Malshe said of business writing. "Many times you see many great business ideas not making it because they're poorly written or because your audience does not understand what you want to communicate."

Berry might do well to consider his plans to grow before the economy recovers and corporate demand for his seminars rebounds, Malshe said.

"Going forward he might need to keep in mind that he needs to expand his work force," Malshe said. "This downturn also might allow him a little more time to think about and rethink how he can fine-tune his existing products and develop new products."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is

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