The point of this blog is that rhetorical pieces of writing like blogs and speeches should have a point. One that’s so strong and clear that people remember it and can act on it – should action be desired.
I should stop right here. Job done! But a point without an explanation is like dinner without dessert or Queen without Freddie Mercury. It just doesn’t quite satisfy. So, let me elaborate and add some advice on how you can ensure that anything you write is distinctly pointed.
Let me start with an example from one of my favourite sources of great rhetorical writing, Project Syndicate. Daniel Gros, an economist and Director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, recently published an article with the following headline and write-off.
You don’t have to agree with Gros, but you can see what he’s saying by the end of his headline.
Another example of pointed prose is this article from Bill Gates’s personal blog.
Again, the headline, write-off and picture make it super clear what Gates is talking about and what he thinks about it. But unfortunately, not every writer or public speaker is so clear.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve been re-reading the excellent The Art of Speeches and Presentations by Philip Collins. He wrote speeches for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and says the key to any great speech is to be clear about your central proposition or what he – and Cicero well before him – calls the topic. As Collins writes, “Get the main argument right and you cannot write a bad speech. Get the main argument wrong and you cannot write a good speech.”
We also think about this in our day-to-day work at Editor Group, given we write plenty of blogs, speeches and other items that are designed to inform and persuade. One of our first questions is almost always “What’s the main point here?” or “What’s the key message?”
Those seem like simple questions, but it can be tricky to tease out an answer – especially if a person is commenting on a complex issue on behalf of a large organisation or does not have a clear goal or agenda. The result is a headline like this from Google’s corporate blog, which indicates the subject but gives you no idea what they’re going to say about it.
So, how can you make sure your blogs, speeches or other pieces of rhetorical writing that are designed to inform and persuade have a strong, clear point?
1. Be clear about your purpose
One of the biggest issues in business writing is that people often publish or speak at a conference without a clear purpose. That might sound odd – why go to all the effort to communicate if you have nothing to say? But it happens regularly because there’s a slot to fill, whether or not the person or the organisation has something to say. For example, a company’s content calendar calls for a new blog every week, an executive has been invited to speak at a conference, or a marketing team has secured space in a media outlet in return for an ad or sponsorship payment.
Another common scenario is that a person or organisation is quite clear about why they’re publishing or speaking but feels they can’t be too direct. The Google article that follows the above headline has a lot of interesting information about how the company is supporting journalism in Asia, but you get the sense it’s treading carefully on a sensitive topic. That can be understandable – and I certainly recognise the issue because we often write things that are necessarily a bit roundabout – but it does make a piece of writing slower to access and harder to follow.
No matter the background, if you’re putting together a rhetorical piece, start by asking yourself why you’re doing it, what you want to achieve and what you want the audience to do after they read or hear it. And if you draw blanks on those questions, or you’re not very convinced by your answers, consider having more conversations with yourself and your colleagues, or stopping right there.
2. Consider what your reader or audience wants to know
You should also consider what your reader or audience is most interested in learning. This is considerate and can be a good way to decide which of your ideas should become your primary point. In other words, if all else is equal, focus on the thing your reader or audience cares most about.
In his book, Collins advises phoning some of the people who will attend a speech to ask, “What single thing could they learn from your speech that they really need to know?”
I have found that such chats can have a huge impact on the direction of a piece of writing. It’s particularly interesting to ask not only what someone wants to learn, but what they expect your speaker or writer to say. If you can’t actually quiz people, at least take the time to consider who you might reach with your writing, what they might already know and what they would value.
3. Keep boiling till you have one point
One of my best mentors as a young journalist was the technology writer Bill Bennett. To help me prepare my monthly column for the imaginatively named LAN Magazine (yes, there used to be a whole magazine about local area computer networks!), he would ask me to come to his office and tell him what I was going to write about. Over about half an hour, he’d gently help me corral my random thoughts into one main angle for my column – mostly just by frowning or nodding, depending whether he thought I was getting warmer or colder on saying something intelligible.
Go through a similar boiling down process until you’re very clear on what you’re writing about and what you’re saying about it. You can do this in your mind; by talking to a colleague, adviser or friend; or by writing drafts then winnowing them down to something clear. You’ll know you’ve arrived at your destination if you can tell someone what your forthcoming blog, speech, book or email is about in less than 30 seconds. If you can’t, keep boiling.
Collins offers a useful distinction between subjects and points in his book, saying, “The most important thing for any presentation is that the speaker is utterly sure of the main idea that they have … ‘What’s the topic? That does not mean ‘What is the subject?’ It means what do you have to say about it? Your material needs to follow inexorably from this central idea.”
4. Deliver your point well, using all the tricks of great writing
If you do the first two steps well, you will be well on the way to creating a strong and compelling piece of rhetoric. The final step is to deliver the goods in words. A great starting point is simply to convey the point you’ve arrived at in simple, everyday language.
Politicians in my home country of Australia are good at this sort of no-nonsense, colloquial communication. For example, here’s our Prime Minister Scott Morrison talking about Australia’s early acquisition of COVID-19 vaccine doses in a media release.
“By securing multiple COVID-19 vaccines we are giving Australians the best shot at early access to a vaccine, should trials prove successful.
“We aren’t putting all our eggs in one basket and we will continue to pursue further vaccines should our medical experts recommend them.
“There are no guarantees that these vaccines will prove successful, however our Strategy puts Australia at the front of the queue, if our medical experts give the vaccines the green light.”
There are a few too many unintended puns and metaphors here for my liking, and I’m sure you can do better when writing, but hopefully you can follow his meaning. As you convey your own points, it should pay to follow the classic structure for rhetorical writing. That is to capture your audience’s attention, to convince them of the merits of your argument, with facts and examples, and then to close with a compelling summary and, ideally, call for them to take some form of action.
The final step is to add a little flair. That might come from using some unusual words, making your prose poetic or bringing your argument to life with emotive examples, to name just a few literary devices. Here’s an example of lovely writing by Professor Diane Coyle from the University of Cambridge, starting an article titled ‘The Key to the Productivity Puzzle’ on Project Syndicate.
“In a 1996 lecture entitled ‘Big Bills Left on the Sidewalk,’ the late Mancur Olson made a powerful observation: an individual from a poor country – say, Haiti – who migrates to a richer country like the United States immediately becomes vastly more productive and earns a far higher wage than before. The individual has not changed overnight, so their skills or cultural attitudes cannot explain their improved situation. The answer must instead lie in their new country’s environment.”
I like this as a lead paragraph because it offers historical depth, an interesting name and a compelling question – why should the same person be more productive and earn more just because they’re working in a different country? Hopefully you’re intrigued enough to click on the link above and read the full piece, both to learn about productivity and read a strong article with a clear point.
Grant Butler is the founder of Editor Group and the author of the book Think Write Grow (Wiley) about thought leadership writing.