Writing to Win: How to Quickly Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged
In this episode, we discuss how to write simply, succinctly, and with relevance.
“The reader is impatient,” says Glenn Kramon, Stanford GSB lecturer in management and editor at the New York Times. “Start with the most important conclusion and then explain how you got there.”
On the latest episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, lecturer and podcast host Matt Abrahams sits down with Glenn Kramon to talk about just how important our writing is — from a lengthy report to the opening line of an email. Listen as they discuss tips on improving your writing skills and share examples of what not to do.
Matt Abrahams: Emails, slack messages, technical documentation, memos, product pitches, the ability to write well is critical to business success. Yet many of us feel insecure about our writing ability, while others simply don’t spend any time thinking about it.
I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast. Talk Smart, the Podcast. Today we are so fortunate to be joined by Glenn Kramon. Glenn has been an editor at the New York Times for close to 35 years. He also teaches an incredibly popular class at the GSB called Winning Writing. Glenn really understands what makes for good writing and is a master at helping others hone and improve theirs. In fact, GSB students honored Glenn by awarding him their annual Distinguished Teaching Award. Welcome, Glen. Always great to chat with you.
Glenn Kramon: Thank you, Matt. Great to be here with the master communicator.
Matt Abrahams: Well, you’re too kind. Hey, before we dove in, I’m curious if you have a pet peeve or two when it comes to others writing, what gets your hackles up?
Glenn Kramon: I do, and it drives me crazy beginning an email with, “Hope you are well.” Everyone does that. Avoid it. It’s a cliche and it’s implied. Make yourself one in a million, not one of a million in everything you write.
“Hope you are well.” Wasted space, particularly for those in a hurry reading on their phones. If you want to begin with a greeting like that, at least be more clever. Recently I heard hope you are feeling positive and testing negative. That’s just ripe for a pandemic. It makes you one in a million instead of one of a million. Another pet peeve is starting slowly before getting to the point. My boss, the New York Times’s Fred Andrews, used to call this type of writing organ music before the church service begins.
Matt Abrahams: Wow, start fast. Get to the point. As my students from the military say about responding to an officer: bottom line up front. It’s a sign of respect not to waste an officer’s time or anyone else’s.
I’ve definitely heard of BLUF before. Bottom line up front, and I have to admit, Glenn, I am now totally nervous that I might have invited you to be on this podcast by starting with. I hope you are well. I will never do that again.
Glenn Kramon: My students, when after they graduate, they always send me that and then cross it out.
Matt Abrahams: I see. Good lesson learned. And they’re demonstrating that any guidance on how we should approach writing for business.
Glenn Kramon: Yes, the first rule in all my classes is no as much as you can about your audience, then you can make them laugh and cry and act on what you want them to do. And my favorite example of this comes from a commencement speech right here at Stanford a couple of years ago by the actor Sterling K. Brown. Right. So we know he’s on this is US and Black Panther. But he knew his audience and he knew the largest group in that audience in Stanford Stadium that day was the parents. Most of them had never heard of Sterling K. Brown. And they were saying, who the heck is this guy to be our graduation speaker? I want Bill Gates. I want Oprah. So Sterling knew that while graduation celebrates the students, the real celebrities are the parents who worked their butts off to get their kids to where they are today. Sure. So right at the start, he told the parents what is his goal that day was to make them say what a nice young man, I think I’ll go home and watch his show.
And so they did. He won us all over. I’d never heard of him. I admitted he won us all over then.
OK, that was his largest constituency, the parents. Now, the second largest constituency in the audience was students themselves. So as a Stanford grad himself, Sterling told the students, I’ve set where you set. And he likened his experience to theirs. What a connection, always want to make a connection like that. They were transfixed.
Only once he had won over all, twenty thousand people in the stadium, did he reach out to the black students. Sterling K. Brown is black and he engaged them with a chant from Stanford’s Black House, Ujamaa. When the black students responded with their own chant, the whole crowd went crazy. They loved it because they already felt on the inside, not on the outside, because Sterling K. Brown knows his audience. So anyone who wants to read some winning writing Google Sterling K. Brown’s Stanford commencement speech. That should be your top takeaway from Matt’s podcast today.
Matt Abrahams And you know what, Glenn? The idea about knowing your audience has surfaced so many times in this podcast. And it is critical and I was actually in the audience when Sterling K. Brown spoke.
And not only did he know his audience well, but he delivered it in such an engaging and conversational manner, it made it really easy to connect.
Glenn Kramon: I couldn’t agree more, Matt, and that’s why rather than reading it, I would Google and watch it. You can find the video on YouTube because the way he delivers it is as important as the words themselves. Absolutely. I had a couple more tips. Sure. One is speak succinctly and simply avoid convoluted jargon. Some people think complicated words and sentences make them sound smarter. They don’t. Remember the words of Kurt Vonnegut? He said, I trust my writing most and others seem to trust it most when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. Be yourself. So why say utilize when you can say use? Mm hmm. Why say incentivize when you can say encourage or motivate. And I’ll bet the educated Americans listening to your podcast right now, Matt, I bet a lot of them have no idea what ideate means. I mean, why not improve upon. I keep telling the students, you know what ideate means but your audience doesn’t. Silicon Valley, by the way, boasts some of the worst offenders. A good friend of mine has compiled a list of his favorite nonsensical jargon. And I’m going to give you two examples, Matt. So here’s one. Yes. This is about scaling emerging solutions to pivot the frame to embracing what’s possible. I’m going to give you another. I’m particularly excited about their interest in pivoting more toward a solutions frame as they step into this next season of storytelling. As I tell you, the dairymen from Fiddler on the Roof would say, “That’s not talking, that’s babbling.” No one understands it. It’s pretentious and so alienating. So just speak English. And then the third one I had, Matt, was tell stories. So much of business writing reads like term papers and want to write something closer to scripts for Hollywood movies with vivid scenes, with dialog, with humor. My friend at The New York Times, Nick Kristoff, reminds us you can write about millions starving in Africa and readers won’t respond. But if you tell the story of one stick thin girl reduced to eating clay with the buzzards waiting for her to die, then readers respond. I call it the power of one and a story, one personal example makes such a difference.
Matt Abrahams: I’m curious, what role does structure and emotion play in business writing?
Glenn Kramon: Emotion is huge, our Stanford business school colleague, Jennifer Aaker shows how readers are far more likely to remember a story than to remember a statistic, particularly a story with emotion like the one about the little girl in Africa. And I always ask my students, raise your hands. If you’re more affected by stories and statistics, everybody raises their hands except for a few.
I, by the way, am more affected by statistics, and I tell the few others we are in the minority. We have to remember in the audience they care more about stories. As for structure, I would suggest writing, as journalists do with the most important facts and the take away right at the start, not at the end, as so many people do in term papers, it’s something we must have learned in high school. You have your most important words at the end. I would say right on the assumption that the reader will not finish your wonderful piece, even if you are Shakespeare.
Matt Abrahams: That’s sad, but likely very true. So we were very fortunate to have Jennifer on this podcast where she talked about story and her new adventures into humor. And Glenn, as a former high school teacher, I taught high school for two years when I left high tech before I came to academe. And you’re right, we do teach students in high school to build up to their most important point. And in fact, that sounds exactly opposite of what you’re recommending.
Glenn Kramon: That’s also what academics do all too often, and I know editors of The New York Times who are using pieces by academics spend a bunch of time telling them, no, the reader is impatient, start with the most important conclusion and then explain how you got there. Also you mentioned humor. It’s so important in any kind of writing, I know that I’ve been told that the admissions officers at Stanford fairly cry when they read an application essay that has humor because everyone is so earnest and when you’re seeing 40 thousand earnest application essays, you are thrilled when someone says something funny and it’s true of any kind of writing and speaking.
Matt Abrahams: Glenn, you’ve just given away part of the secret sauce about what to do to apply at Stanford. I think people will be listening eagerly to hear that advice. I’m curious to understand what process you recommend that writers follow in terms of how they write. You’ve mentioned thinking about your audience, putting your bottom line up front. Is there anything else involved in the process you suggest?
Glenn Kramon: There is Matt, but I would start again with picture your audience, perhaps you’re a friend or a colleague, think of a person you’re writing to or a reader.
Then pretend you’re telling them a story.
Relax. Play is what I do, I play, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin, huh?
That move with your laptop to an appealing place, a lot of people, a lot of the students that are going outdoors, so your creative juices flow, don’t just sit there and stare at the computer saying, oh, my God, how am I going to start? Now, the one thing you need to know your main point before you start writing, and I would write it at the top of the document, this is in newspapers, we call this the headline. Thought you could call it the Web summary. It’s just the main thesis. And that what you keep looking up to it and it keeps you moving in the right direction. Then outline what you want to say. And that’s so important, particularly for a longer piece, but don’t feel compelled to write the first paragraph first, and that surprises a lot of people. My my friend, David Barstow. He’s the only reporter on the planet to have won four Pulitzer Prizes, says he wrote the first few paragraphs of his blockbuster on Donald Trump’s dubious tax avoidance. This was the first of the big stories about Trump playing games with his taxes.
He wrote those first few paragraphs only after he’d written much of the story. And I think the story was about thirteen thousand words, one of the longest stories The Times has ever run. And we were amazed when he said, no, no, I didn’t. I knew it. My main point was going to be. But his his point is you don’t have to start at the beginning. Just start putting down what you know is going to be in the story. And that’s the beauty of computers, is you don’t have to you can cut and paste so easily. And then when you finish writing, try to cut it by at least a third. Wow. A third. I’m I’m serious, Matt, that most people it’s even more exercise, unnecessary words, sentences, even paragraphs. I always say it’s like a dentist cleaning teeth. You if you can actually I get satisfaction out of it, although I’m not sure I’ve ever found this to do does. But but just it looks so much cleaner when you finish and all the jargon is gone and then replace the jargon with conversational English, go through it and look at words and say, is that just jargon for my little community? Will the intelligent generalist understand it or think it’s pretentious? And then one more tip is that I find that reading your writing aloud is a great way to find improvements, thinking, well, I don’t need those three words, why did I even have those? And speaking is different. Sometimes people when they speak, they add words just as they put their thoughts together. But you have no excuse to do that when you’re writing. Make it as concise as you can.
Matt Abrahams: So, Glenn, many of us feel that writing is like pulling teeth, but I’ve never heard anybody say it’s like cleaning teeth, but I like that analogy. I got to steal that man. I like that.
There you go. There you go. Glad I could help you as much as you’re helping all of us. Can you provide me with two or three other best writing practices that you suggest?
Glenn Kramon: Yeah, I’m going to say and I always say, when you’re giving speeches, you’ve got to repeat the thought if it’s really going to sink in. So I’m going to say one know as much as you can about your audience.
Matt Abrahams: Mm hmm. To write simply and succinctly, huh? Three. Tell stories, don’t write essays. Mm hmm.
Glenn Kramon: The hardest habit for most people to break because they weren’t taught that the best stories you need to think you’re writing a Hollywood script rather than a term paper.
Matt Abrahams: That analogy, I think, is really helpful to change people’s approach and frame of mind.
Do you recommend specific tools you encourage your students to use to help them with their writing?
Glenn Kramon: Yes, for me, it is keep a daily journal.
I’ve kept one for fifty seven years, and I am striving for the world record. Ninety one years really. That means I’ll have to live to be one hundred and three to break the record, but I’m just determined to do it. Nothing else has so improved. My writing practice makes perfect, just as with playing the piano or running or climbing mountains. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And I always tell the student there’s an added benefit where we live in Silicon Valley. It it is great therapy and it is a lot cheaper than going to a therapist. Some therapists charge five hundred bucks an hour around here, Matt. Yeah, not worth it. And I mean, I’m quite serious when I say you learn so much about yourself, about what’s important and what isn’t. It was Nora Roberts who said that when you’re juggling a lot of balls, as we all are, you have to remember which of the balls are plastic and which of the balls are glass made. And keeping a journal is such a great way to do this. As you read back on it, you realize, why did I make such a big deal out of it, that it was so unimportant and oh my God, I didn’t realize how important this other thing was going to be. And you learn then to be a better person and to live your life. You could say more efficiently, more effectively. And then one more thing I tell them is read The Economist, and if you can only you’re going to say, oh, that’s just the business magazine. It isn’t. It’s written for the intelligent generals particularly. I commend its obituaries on the back page, their works of art, such great writing. They write about people you probably never heard of and will wish you want to see a movie about them after you read the obituary and write as The Economist does. It’s it. It has. It’s clever. It’s fair, concise. Obviously. I say read The New York Times too. But I think a lot of people know to read The New York Times, I think the economy is a secret that more people should know about.
Matt Abrahams: I have certainly learned a lot from reading The Economist, and I think it’s really awesome that writing can help others to understand us, but also writing can help us understand ourselves. And I think that’s great advice. And practice, certainly when it comes to communication, does make you better at it. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone. Are you up for that yet?
All right. Number one, if you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Glenn Kramon: Well, say what you like and what you would like. Not what you don’t like. Well, sorry about.
That’s 14 words, but important. OK, OK, I’m going I got to practice what I preach. I’m just going to say, ok, ok. How about this praise and be constructive, not destructive. Huh. That’s six words that my work in half. You’ve got to do that with all your writing.
So praise and be constructive, not destructive is the best communication advice I can offer because people will be willing to listen if if they think you’re on their side, if they think you’re out to get them, they will shut down, turn the other way. Try to go over your head.
Matt Abrahams: I like that advice a lot and so much of the communication in the world today feels destructive and I like the idea of starting with praise.
So I’m going to be very curious how you answer question number two, who is a communicator that you admire and why?
Glenn Kramon: Steve Jobs.
I loved the guy when he was dying 10 years ago, he visited us at The Times, probably against doctor’s orders, to talk about how we could improve NY Times that he knew we were slow to accept that computer screens would replace print newspapers. He could have called us chimpanzees, but he followed that fundamental rule of writing and speaking with influence. Say what you like and what you would like, not what you don’t like. Women, I just said that. But it’s so important to say what you like and what you would like, not what you don’t like. So Steve started by saying what he like. He told us that the nation needed The New York Times, that he and his family were such avid readers that they would fight over the Sunday print sections in their living room. We were so flattered that we would have followed him off a cliff after that. And then he said what he would like, for example, he told us the Times needed to make it easier for people to sign up online and offered his own iTunes as a model. So he never said what he didn’t like, that the Times was still in the Stone Age and wouldn’t survive unless we move forward in time. And you know what, Matt? He was so passionate. He so clearly loved his work and his life. And that is contagious. All right. Steve Jobs. Mm hmm.
And speaking of amazing commencement speakers at Stanford, Steve Jobs delivered quite a impressive commencement speech.
His message, that was in 2005. His my favorite line was “love what you’re doing, find what you love and stick to it.” And that was Steve.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Question number three, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Glenn Kramon: Oh, good. So I get to repeat my most important points at the end, which is what you should do in the speech. It doesn’t mean, though, that you introduce them at the end, but you can certainly repeat them at the end. No one knows as much as you can about your audience to write simply and succinctly. And three, tell stories, don’t write essays.
Matt Abrahams: Well, if people missed it, you absolutely put an exclamation point on that by reminding us of the three most critical factors. Glenn, how we write is a direct reflection of who we are, and we all must take time to develop and hone our writing. And thanks to you and the tips and advice you’ve given us, I believe all of us can be better writers. Thank you for your time, your insight and your humor.
Glenn Kramon: Thank you, Matt. It’s my pleasure.
Matt Abrahams: Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the Podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to GSB.Stanford.edu. Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
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