Here’s the conundrum: Business writing—or the business of it, if you like—often demands that reporters collect facts, statistics and examples to fashion articles that reek of authority. No doubt, this is a good and necessary thing. I do it myself, often.
Yet the best writing I’ve ever attempted, and have often read, achieves something above and beyond. Put one way, it shows instead of tells. It’s one thing to describe how investors have lost money with a 10 percent dip in Tesla stock. Yet it’s quite the different “story,” imaginative as it might be, to conjure images of Elon Musk doubling his pot consumption over the news and Tesla drivers/investors pulling over their sleek vehicles to curse up a purple streak.
When appropriate, such techniques make the business writer’s copy stand out and let’s face it: It absolutely has to stick out. What with goldfish attention spans and a noise floor of samey-sounding dispatches that cover the latest quarterly reports, a smart writer must consider how to stand apart. In this previous column, I wrote about the concept of donning your Mike Nesmith hat. Showing rather than telling accomplishes that.
But what if you seek to go even further—beyond static words on a page or even a series of compelling still images? Long ago, under the tutelage of several Pulitzer Prize winning reporters and finalists, I learned the twin techniques of “make me see” and “making a movie with words.”
The former comes courtesy of Gene Roberts, arguably the greatest newspaper editor of the 20th Century. Under his leadership, the moribund Philadelphia Inquirer transformed into a bastion known as “The Pulitzer Factory.” It was a different time to be sure, a less take-yourself-seriously era when our managing editor Jim Naughton—a New York Times veteran, mind you—gained newsroom acclaim when he addressed his reporters while wearing a yellow chicken suit. He’d used the fowl attire before, interviewing President Gerald Ford from the tarmac after the Commander in Chief had just deplaned from Air Force One: One bird in exchange for another.
With my using those images, you may have detected my slight of hand: I made you see. Here, Roberts describes how he learned the art. It’s a bit of a read—but hang in there!
My first newspaper job was with the Goldsboro News-Argus, which, to the under-informed, is the leading newspaper in Wayne County, North Carolina. It then had a circulation of 9,000. I wrote its farm column. It was called “Ramblin’ in Rural Wayne.” I wrote about the first farmer of the season to transplant tobacco plants from the seedbed to the field; about the season’s first cotton blossom. I wrote about picnic tables sagging at family reunions under the weight of banana sandwiches, banana pudding, chicken pastry, sage sausage, fried chicken, and collard greens. I wrote of hailstorms and drought. I once wrote about a sweet potato that looked like General Charles DeGaulle.
The editor of the paper was Henry Belk. He was then in his sixties, and he was blind—he was sightless. This was in the 1950s. But he wore battered fedora hats like newsmen wore in the movies in the 1930s and ’40s, when he could still see. He was tall—no, towering. There were no ready-made canes to fit his six-foot seven-inch form, so he tapped with a stretched cane made especially for him out of aluminum. He cared passionately about the paper. And it was read to him, word for word, over the years by a succession of high-school students. And in the mornings, his wife, Lucille, once a journalist herself, read him the newspaper published in the state capital, The Raleigh News and Observer.
He was awesomely informed. Most days at the office, he would call out from his cubicle, and say such things as, “On page seventeen of the News and Observer, in column three, halfway down the fold, there is a three-inch story about Goldsboro, under an 18-point head.” Then he would demand, “Why didn’t we have it?” Mr. Belk was nothing if not demanding. Often when he heard my footfall in the morning, he would summon me to his cubicle and criticize the “Ramblin’ in Rural Wayne” column I had written the day before. On too many days, alas, my writing was insufficiently descriptive. “You aren’t making me see,” Mr. Belk would say. “Make me see.”
© 1996 Columbia Journalism Review.
Ah ha, Mr. Roberts! In writing about “make me see,” you made us see. And hear. Can’t you make out the sound of the towering Mr. Belk tapping a cane—a metallic aluminum cane—on his office desk?
And as the details of Belk’s exhortation unfold, Roberts also gives them the flow of real time. He makes a movie with words. This lifts his copy from stagnant to in-motion. It tells us a story. Read a few lines, and you’re hooked, unless you want to swim off with the other goldfish in search of Trump memes.
Here I offer my own example from my Chicago Tribune clip archive:
A jolly bearded man with a laugh like a pirate, 32-year-old Matt Howard, skipper of the Allegro, seems perfectly suited to the wooden 43-foot schooner, painted a Jolly-Roger black. He hoists a rum and Coke, singing the praises of wooden sailing vessels: “They’re so much more interesting. I can’t see anything interesting about these white plastic boats. They’re bouncy, the smell like fiberglass; they don’t have a soul.”
Can you do this with financial writing? Yes. Picture the secretive, nebbish broker with a hunched-over frame reaching intro a scratched Art Deco desk to show off a yellowing 1932 stock certificate for 1,000 shares of General Electric. Or Mark Zuckerberg, his Facebook-blue tie knotted with a schoolboy’s ham-fisted skill, smirking as he rings the golden bell for a New York Stock Exchange trading day, missing the actual opening by 30 seconds.
Show, don’t just tell. Forget the prospectus narrative: Make me see. Don’t just let your words stand there like mocha goop caked on you MacBook: Make a movie with words. Not all the time, of course—but as often as you can… because you want to win readers and get heard as you stand out from the herd.
This week on Lou Carlozo’s “Bankadelic”: Lou Carlozo engages in an epic rap battle with British financial guru Chris Skinner. After Skinner took the bizarre step of releasing a “FinTech Rap” on Monday, MC LouZo responded with a musical smackdown for the ages. Special guest this week is Doug Wilber of Denim Social, talking about winning social media strategies.