Activate Run-Ons with WIFM

red pen
Image by Mad African!

The best way to spruce up boring business writing? Activate verb tense, parse run-ons into multiple sentences, and add the what’s in it for me (WIFM) factor.

Yes, some colleagues focus on grammar, but when I edit business text these are the first three things my red pen seeks out.

Inevitably business text crams an overt amount amount of jargon and hyperbole into copy to ensure that it stays “on message” and achieves branding goals.

Business writing seeks to market and inform stakeholders. Over-focus on messaging and positioning hurts that goal, instead fulfilling an internal need to appease executives.

An editor should punch up copy to resonate with stakeholders.

The WIFM component of business copy needs to resonate right out of the gate. Make sure you communicate a WIFM in all business writing, from blog or social update to email or product sheet. If copy doesn’t offer value to the stakeholder quickly, they will stop reading it. Get to the business at hand, and do it quickly.

To be clear, stakeholders don’t want messaging. Features are not valuable. Resolve needs, entertain readers, address concerns. Communicate why stakeholders should care immediately. Empower them if at all possible.

You want readers/viewers/listeners to come back.

Boring stakeholders with difficult English doesn’t help. That means rework long sentences with multiple conjunctions.

If loaded with “necessary” messages, split run-ons into multiple sentences. Otherwise, cut whatever you can. Multiple adjectives, unnecessary phrases, anything that distracts the stakeholder from what matters to them, and how to take action.

Finally, look at verb tense. Activate past and presented tense verbs wherever possible. Look out for perfect verb usage – has walked, have walked, will have walked, etc. Instead try to use the present, past and future verb tense — walk, walked, will walk.

I just read Guy Kawasaki’s APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur (read my review here), and the book hammered home this last recommendation.

Activate your language. Active verbs make business writing more enjoyable. Activating verbs distinguishes professionals from amateurs.

How do you try to improve business writing?


  • I’ve been shortening my sentences, condensing my paragraphs, and TRYING to remember that my readers don’t share my context. It’s so easy to assume that people will get the message, when in fact the writing is ambiguous or unclear.

    • It’s really easy to fall into gobbledy gook. Plain English, I always remember what Ogilvy said about speaking in the vernacular. Speak on their terms.

  • I did a talk on the subject of simplifying business correspondence last spring. Too much industry jargon and buzz words, not enough english customers can understand and relate to.

    • It has to mean something to the reader. I am always catching myself using jargon when I speak, and I constantly have to ratchet it back. I worked with Jill Foster as a speaking coach last year, and she really helped me see this.

  • Thank you Geoff thank you thank you! “Yes, some colleagues focus on grammar, but when I edit business text these are the first three things that my red pen seeks out.” I just sent this article to my work colleagues as I think this is the best biz writing advice I’ve seen to date (that follows its own advice).

    • Hahahahaha, I just re-edited it, too, found a couple more unnecessary words. Cut, cut, cut! Thanks for the props.

  • Indeed. Grammar and punctuation are final elements to consider. The ideas and the logic have to be addressed first.

  • I’ve always been frustrated with business writing. It is stuffy and boring. It does a disservice to the intended purpose. I’ve done it myself and realized it probably turned potential leads away. Lawyers don’t care about lead generation like a marketer who wants conversational copy.

  • I have APE next in my reading queue: should I read your review before or after? Enquiring minds want to know. Cheers! Kaarina

  • It’s amazing what the active tense does once you turn the sentence around. Much better structure. So much nicer to read. I’d add: eliminate phrases like “I think” or “to me” and others I can’t think of now, but which serve no added purpose to the prose. :)

    • One of the difficulties I faced in making this blog more personal over the past year was reinserting the first person. People forget that you don’t have to add me, myself and I to every sentence to tell folks its you. They get it. Great point.

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