Tell them what you’ll tell them: Writing rules to forget

We all remember writing rules we learned in school. The most prevalent must be the “tell them” rule:

  1. Tell them what you’ll tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Tell them what you told them.

I learned this in grammar school—I’m betting you did too—yet I can still recite the rule verbatim.

It’s an excellent example of a sticky idea—shout out to the repetition of “tell them” for providing the stickiness. But as writing rules go, it could hardly be worse advice.

Okay, sometimes style requires an “executive summary” and a section summing up conclusions. But let’s think for a moment about why those sections exist: It’s because no one expects most people to actually read the stuff in between the opening and closing.

Why do so many organizations waste time and resources creating something they don’t expect people to read? Beats me.

But that’s not really my concern. My concern is when this terrible writing advice makes its way from the world of the white paper into the world of presentation.

Yes, I recently heard an otherwise perfectly intelligent woman say during a podcast interview with a speech coach, “I know when you give a speech you tell them what you’ll tell them, you tell them, and you tell them what you’ve told them.” And I started shouting, “NO NO NO NO NO NO!” Fortunately I was alone in the car at the time.

Your poor audience can’t flip pages to escape the triple redundancy. Trapped in their seats, they can’t get up and leave after the “executive summary” of your speech. So in a speech, tell the story ONCE. Tell it memorably and you won’t have to repeat yourself.

Now, if you want to tease the content up front, that’s fine. Generate a little intrigue about what’s coming next. And don’t tell me you can’t “generate intrigue” in an academic context. Actually, the best writers in academia do that regularly.

Writing Rules: Mystery keeps people’s attention

In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath tell a story about a study the social psychologist—and noted academic—Robert Cialdini did “to improve the way he talked about science in his writing and in his classes.”

Cialdini examined a range of scientific works aimed at a nonscientific audience. In passages he identified as “unclear,” he found overly formal prose laden with jargon. The clear passages used vivid examples and fluid language. In other words, they were written well. But he noticed something else about the good writing. As the Heath brothers quote him:

“The most successful of these pieces all began with a mystery story. The authors described a state of affairs that seemed to make no sense and then invited the reader into the material as a way of solving the mystery.”

As Cialdini notes, the “aha!” experience is much more powerful if it’s preceded by the “huh?” experience. This is as true in business as it is in academia. So don’t “tell them what you’ll tell them.” Tell them a story, pique their intellectual curiosity.

And if you want to sum up your main points at the end, yes, you can do that. But don’t just cut and paste it from your opening. Weave it into  your call to action. Add something new to the material that further enhances our understanding of it.

If you really need a set of writing rules, here’s mine:

  1. Tell them the beginning of a story.
  2. Tell them more of the story, and why it matters.
  3. Tell them what they can do about it.
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