The Inverted Pyramid for Effective Business Writing

Updated on February 5, 2019
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Yong operated a marketing communications agency for 18 years before semi-retiring in 2017. He now devotes his time to online writing.

The Inverted Pyramid: A reliable formula for effective business writing.
The Inverted Pyramid: A reliable formula for effective business writing.

Nope. The Inverted Pyramid is not some new archaeological destination. It is the writing technique used by journalists and many other writers to present information tersely, efficiently, and compellingly. Because of its emphasis on brevity and quick communication, it has many applications for business writing too.

In essence, the Inverted Pyramid acknowledges the likelihood of the audience not reading any written communication in full. Thus, it places the most important information at the beginning and gradually dwindles down. This method of writing is useful for businesses, particularly startups, because in a world where hundreds of glossy brochures and sleek websites compete for attention, the likelihood of your client not having the sustained interest to read everything is extremely high. You would therefore need to punch your message across immediately. You also need to cut to the chase and lock down your client's attention straight away. The Inverted Pyramid is the formula to effectively accomplishing these objectives. Also, if you are having difficulties churning out content, its structure can guide you through the task.

In a world of intense competition for attention, it's practically assured that your audience won't read everything.

The Lead: The Most Crucial Segment of the Inverted Pyramid

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: the who, what, where, when, why, and how.

In business writing, writing the lead is a matter of juggling the 5Ws and 1H, based on their respective importance.

If you are writing a business profile, who, what and why should be your primary focus.

  • WHO are you?
  • WHAT services or products do you offer?
  • Briefly: WHY your services or products 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 well-aware 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 the 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.

Too Formulaic an Approach?

Of course, approaching business writing in such a 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. Take note that whichever method you use, the objective remains the same. Communicate your most important information right away. Always assume that the client will not finish reading. Ensure that even when that happens, they at least walk away knowing the skeleton of your message.

Be aware that very often, it's impossible to include every component of the 5Ws and 1H. Be sensible when deciding what's most important to tell.

The Body

The body, or the middle segment of the pyramid, is where details are presented. In the case of business writing, this would usually be elaborations of products/services offered, and the justifications to buy these.

Again, the emphasis here is the grim fact that a client might abruptly stop reading. This translates to an all-important need to be terse. You have 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, efficiently.

The Bottom Tip

In journalistic writing, this is where the least important information is found: things like related background stories, general information, and secondary quotes. In the case of business communications, this would be where the furnishing of the “house” built in the above two steps.

To put it in another way, the bottom tip contains auxiliary information that further convinces your client to do business with you. For example, case studies, testimonials from existing customers, or some interesting company background tale.

Here, in the lowest segment of the writing structure, you can consider yourself on safer ground. If a client lasts till here, chances are he or she will finish reading. In other words, you could afford to be a shade more colorful. Colorful, but not verbose, though. Brevity remains the core of the Inverted Pyramid. It should always be the focus of effective business writing.

Other Benefits of the Inverted Pyramid Writing Style

Space is costly in journalism. In the world of business, it is costly for you too.
Space is costly in journalism. In the world of business, it is costly for you too.

Journalists adopted the Inverted Pyramid style not just to encourage concise writing but to allow 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. With this writing style, they can simply start chopping from the bottom up.

Additionally, this bottom-up approach is useful for effective business writing, because chances are, "space" is also limited for you. If you're doing a brochure, and have a lot of product information or pictures to show, you need an efficient, safe way to condense your words, so that you don't run out of layout space. If you're doing a website, or blogging regularly for your company, you would similarly appreciate a systematic way to keep your information digestible for the Internet audience. In short, the Inverted Pyramid is a practical instrument for ensuring you churn out usable, useful business writing, in the fastest way.

Why Is Brevity a Must in Effective Business Writing?

I don't know about you but it is very challenging for me to understand a business message when I don't at least have a grasp of the 5Ws involved.

When you swarm on me with tales of how satisfied your clients are, or sing accolades to yourself, yet have not clearly told me who you are and 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. There is plenty of other business content that grabs my attention in a better, quicker way.

Boredom and distractions are your worst foes in all forms of business writing.
Boredom and distractions are your worst foes in all forms of business writing. | Source

Applications in Graphic Design

The Inverted Pyramid technique could be applied to other forms of communications too. For example, graphic design. Be it printed publications or for the Internet, 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 have still 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.

5Ws and 1H applied to flyer design.
5Ws and 1H applied to flyer design.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Kuan Leong Yong


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