How to Write Business Stories That Matter
There’s more to business writing than earnings and executive appointments. Beyond the sales figures and percentage points is the human element.
How do business journalists take a dry business profile and transform it into an article that matters?
During ProfNet’s latest Twitter #ConnectChat, freelance writer Gwen Moran (@GwenMoran) shared her insights on how to dig through the boilerplate pitches and company facades to find interesting, authentic stories worth telling.
An award-winning, small business expert and business writer, Moran co-authored “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Plans” and regularly writes for FastCompany.com about leadership, productivity, and women’s issues. Her work also has appeared in Entrepreneur, Kiplinger.com, Newsweek.com, Woman’s Day, Los Angeles Times Magazine, and other publications.
Visit gwenmoran.com to learn more about Moran, and keep reading for highlights from our #ConnectChat.
I would think most business stories are about dry topics like theory and numbers. But you say that’s not the case, correct?
Businesses are run by and affect people. Think about the courage it takes to give up a paycheck and bet everything on an idea. What I mean by “business stories that matter” are those that have a disruptive, human or service element — business issues that owners and employees face.
Lately, I’ve been writing about women in business and the challenges we still face. Inclusion is still an issue in many sectors.
And I also mean business stories that help business owners avoid common mistakes/do things better. They matter.
When I write a service piece, my goal is to surprise and inform. I owe it to readers to make the story worth their time.
People who start businesses find solutions to problems. They see what we need and provide it. The fervor of pursuit we see in business settings has a driving force.
Find that story. It’s the one worth telling. Numbers can be fascinating. A startup creating a new sector (eBay, Uber) can change the way we live.
Why are those kinds of stories important to tell?
Because they show how businesses and people in businesses can change the world — or a small corner of it. I like to write stories about interesting people in business or the ways businesses make a difference.
I also often write about how businesses and employees can do things better, find solutions, or be more successful.
A few examples of these stories include:
- [words] Bookstore is a haven for autistic children and a magnet for high-profile authors: bit.ly/1xvnjEa
- Shiza Shahid left a promising career at McKinsey & Company to co-found Malala Fund: bit.ly/1s0MXcA
- Even your to-do list can be better: bit.ly/1mCTKMq
So it can really be anything from how to do business better, to how to be a better business?
Yes. What matters — to people, to business owners, to business communities? So many of us spend a good part of our lives working. Some fascinating things are going on in the workplace – good and bad. Entrepreneurs solve problems. And they often do so in interesting ways.
I’m also interested in why we do what we do and how we can make it better – find solutions, hacks, better methods. People who use their businesses or careers to make the world a better place are often worthy of recognition.
It’s one thing to give X percent to a cause, but when giving back or caring for employees is part of company DNA, it’s often a good story.
What is the key to finding that human side of business stories? What do you look for?
Look beyond the surface. What motivates employees or leaders, their partners, customers? Why do people want to work there? Why do they stay? Start asking questions about what makes the people tick.
At companies with great stories, it’s rarely about the paycheck or the profit. What are their values? It may be to make money — that’s okay. Why is that a value? Look at where they’re focusing their efforts. That tells you a lot about what’s important to them.
Philanthropy: Businesses give back for a reason. Is there an interesting backstory? Is the mission connected to philanthropy? It has to be part of the culture, not just cutting a check.
Another aspect of the human element: People, of course. What do they care about? That affects what they do every day.
Ask about mistakes, proudest moments, biggest surprises in business. Stories are most interesting when business owners show warts. Find common workplace issues – discrimination, poor engagement, innovation – and look for ways businesses are solving them.
I’m not as interested in XYZ business or business leader as I am in what it/he/she does. That’s usually the story.
What is the difference between companies that have a genuine culture of caring vs. companies that are all for show?
That definitely starts from the top. If the leader doesn’t believe in initiatives, they are all for show — because an initiative will be jettisoned when the first tough decision has to be made to support it. I’m also seeing more companies convene employee advisory boards, which help make decisions with varied perspectives.
What are the important elements of a good business story that matters?
First: Can people relate to it? Can they learn from it?
Also, is it genuine? Just writing a check or giving meaningless perks, or a manufactured or inauthentic story won’t work.
Is it exciting or emerging? We want to hear about innovation – that there is something new under the sun.
Does it make us push “pause” on cynicism? There really are people out there making the world a better place.
Any tips on finding and identifying these types of companies? So often, pitches are all about sales numbers or new products.
We have to get beyond the “great” company or businessperson façade. I ask about what’s underneath. So, when I get one of those pitches, I ignore the fluff and ask, “Tell me about the owner/founder.” Or tell me about one of your more interesting employees or executives.
Other ways to find them:
- Look at a problem that bothers you – gender bias, waste, etc. – and start asking questions.
- Look at what you need to do better. Organization? Dealing with difficult people? Then look at who’s got answers.
- Notice details about businesses or leaders you admire. What are they doing that’s different? Are others doing similar?
- Look for problems business owners face. What can be done about them?
Once you find a great story and it’s filed, circle back to the leader and ask what her/his favorite business or business leader is. Good leaders usually have others in their networks.
I tell people pitching me to ask, “So what?” Who will care? What will the takeaway be for others? If it’s unclear, dig deeper.
It’s worth it. Stories make a difference. A reader of a story on power mentors wrote to me that he improved his entire business model. A story I wrote about resilience resulted in a letter from a teen cancer survivor who said it inspired him. Themes are universal.
What are the biggest ways that businesses are trying to make a difference?
I think one of the most important challenges for businesses now is employee engagement. A 2013 Gallup report found that around 70 percent of workers are not engaged in their jobs. The disconnect between companies that need committed, productive employees and their inability to foster them is a problem.
We’re seeing all sorts of consulting and theory around how to bridge the gap. We need more attention paid to fostering diversity. Some are taking it seriously, but not nearly enough.
Finally, how can business writers leverage social media to find these important stories?
Ask people in your networks about businesses they love or business people who are doing interesting things.
Follow interesting businesses and leaders online and watch the activity on their social networks.
Watch the profiles of key figures at the organizations. What are their specializations? What do they do with time off?
Notice industry awards or community service awards announcements. Are businesses or people being recognized for their work? Look for the accomplishments that are listed at the end of announcement. Often, what’s important to that person is there.
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Maria Perez is Director of Online Community Relations and connects journalists with subject matter experts on ProfNet. To read more from Maria, check out her ProfNet Connect blog.