KL Yong operated a marketing communications agency for 18 years before retiring in 2017. He now devotes his time to online writing.
Nope. The Inverted Pyramid is not some new archaeological travel destination. It is instead the writing style used by journalists and many other writers to present information tersely, efficiently, and compellingly.
Because of its emphasis on brevity and quick communication, it is also a useful template for effective business writing.
In essence, the Inverted Pyramid writing style acknowledges the great likelihood of any audience not reading written communications in full. Thus, it places the most important information at the beginning and gradually dwindles.
This presentation style is extremely useful for businesses, particularly startups, because in a world where numerous marketing collateral compete for attention, the likelihood of your client not having the sustained interest to read everything is extremely high.
You therefore need to punch your message across immediately. You also need to cut to the chase and lock down your client's attention right away. The Inverted Pyramid format is the way to effectively accomplish these objectives. Also, if you are having difficulties churning out content, the diminishing structure is a guide through the task.
In a world of intense competition for attention, it's practically assured that your audience won't read everything.
A. The Lead. The Most Crucial Segment of the Inverted Pyramid Format
The Inverted Pyramid opens with the lead. This is not the header (headline) or the byline. Instead, the lead is the first paragraph or statement. In journalism, the lead is where the 5Ws and 1H are, these being the who, what, where, when, why, and how.
In turn, within business communications, shaping the lead is a matter of juggling the 5Ws and 1H, based on their respective importance.
If you are writing a company profile, who, what, and why should be your primary focus.
- WHO are you?
- WHAT services or products do you offer?
- Briefly: WHY your products or services deserve attention.
If you are advertising a sale, why, when and where should be your emphasis. In most cases, such communications assume the audience is already well-aware of who you are.
- WHY is this sale worth paying attention to?
- WHEN is the sale?
- WHERE is the sale?
Whichever the scenario, the crux of it is that you must immediately communicate the cornerstones of your message. You must address fundamental queries right away. Additionally, this approach also lays the groundwork for your message to develop. It assists in conditioning your client into favoring you.
Is This Writing Style Too Formulaic an Approach?
Needless to say, approaching communications in such a structured way could result in really dry opening statements. Or you might cram in so much information that you unknowingly leave out one of the Ws.
To avoid this, experiment with different styles of leads: for example, the attention-seizing anecdote.
Note too that whichever approach you use, the objective remains the same. Communicate your most important information right away. Always assume that the audience will not finish reading too. Ensure that even when that happens, they at least walk away with the skeleton of your message.
Be aware that very often, it's impossible to include every component of the 5Ws and 1H in the lead. Be sensible and prudent when deciding what's most important to tell.
B. The Body
The body, or the middle segment of the pyramid, is where details are presented. In the case of business writing, this would typically be elaborations of products/services offered, and the reasons to buy.
Again, the emphasis here is the grim fact that a client might abruptly stop reading, which translates to the all-important need to be concise. Fluff, hyperboles, metaphors, "the likes of": down the drain, please. Respect your client as a terribly busy professional and deliver the meat immediately.
With the lead you have laid the cornerstones of your message. Here, you fill in the walls and pillars, succinctly.
C. The Bottom Tip
In news articles, this is where the least important information is placed. Things such as related background stories, general information, quotes of secondary importance, etc.
In the case of commercial communications, this would be the furnishing for the “house” built in the above two steps. In other words, the bottom tip contains auxiliary information that further convinces your (potential) client to do business with you. For example, case studies, testimonials from existing customers, or some company background story with strong human interest.
Within this lowest segment of the pyramid, you can also consider yourself to be on safer ground. If a client “lasts” till here, chances are, he or she will finish reading.
In short, you can afford to be a shade more colorful at this point. Colorful, but not verbose, though. Brevity must always be the core and the objective of commercial communications.
D. Other Benefits of the Inverted Pyramid Writing Style
Journalists embrace the Inverted Pyramid style not just for the sake of brevity but also to facilitate easy trimming.
Publication space is extremely valuable in print media – often there is no space for thousand-word articles. Editors therefore need a quick and safe way to trim articles. When presented with a format that places the least important information at the end, they can simply start chopping from the bottom.
This bottom-up approach is similarly useful for effective business writing because chances are, "space" is also limited for you. If you're doing a brochure, and have lots of product information or pictures to show, you will need an efficient and safe way to condense your words so that you don't run out of layout space.
Likewise, if you're preparing a website or blogging for your company, you will require a systematic strategy to keep your information digestible for the Internet audience. The short of it, the Inverted Pyramid style is a practical instrument for churning out usable and useful information. In the fastest way possible too.
Why Is Brevity Doubly a Must in Effective Business Writing?
I don't know about you but it is very challenging for me to understand a commercial message when I don't at least have a grasp of the 5Ws involved beforehand.
When you swarm me with tales of how satisfied your clients are, or sing accolades to yourself, yet have not clearly told me who you are or what your setup is, the only thing you accomplish is to confuse me.
With confusion also comes skepticism. Very soon, I’d suspect you might be hiding something; just why aren't you telling me more about yourself? Why aren't you clear on what exactly you sell?
It won’t be long before I trash your message.
Or, you don't get me suspicious, but you bore me. It's a colorful world out there. There are so many things to enjoy on the Internet alone. If I need to tire myself with guessing about you, you're not worth the time.I would consider your content worthy of only the trashcan.
Applications in Graphic Design
The Inverted Pyramid format could be applied to other forms of communications too. For example, graphic design. Be it printed publications or for online materials, the same principles apply.
Your "opening" page lays the groundwork, addressing the 5Ws and 1H. Your subsequent pages or web sections then flesh out the message. This ensures that even if your client stops reading after the opening page, they would still have received the crux of your message.
When executed properly, this approach also assists message retention. This, in turn, lays the foundation for you to initiate second contact.
© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong