Writing for outcomes – how to structure a business document Part 1

Shelly Davies writing training writing ninja

People are always asking me for templates. Have you got a report template, Shelly? A business case template, Shelly? A template that will save all the woes of the world, Shelly?

I’ll spare you the clichés about length of string and teaching men how to fish: I DON’T DO TEMPLATES.

Templates are only good if they’re designed for a specific purpose. There is no such thing as ONE magical template for any kind of document.

But we do have some really clear insights into reader behaviour. And from that, we can build a strong, successful, fit-for-purpose document structure.

What readers want

As humans, when we interact with text, we’re subconsciously looking for 3 things.

  1. What’s this about?
  2. Is it relevant to me?
  3. What’s the bottom line?

The importance of the executive summary or up-front framing

If you can answer those 3 questions before you do anything else in a business document, you’ve got your reader in the palm of your hand. They’re hooked. They’re engaged. And they’ll keep reading (or at least scanning through). It’s like mad-genius-evil-mastermind-writing-ninja material – so use your powers for good.

Answering those 3 questions is the basic formula for an executive summary. Of course, you can add more – but those are the bare minimum. If you don’t want to use an executive summary, make sure those 3 questions are answered in your introduction (or background, or scope, or whatever heading your douchebag template tells you is the starting point for saving the planet).

Let’s test this concept – what do you want as a reader?

Picture yourself going to your car and finding a piece of paper under the windscreen wiper.

(Note: Your version may contain less profanity. Whatever floats your boat.)

  1. What the f*ck is this? You wonder.

(You pick it up and see a company logo – it’s a flyer, not a ticket, thank f*ck)

  1. What are they selling? You wonder.

(There are pictures of food. It’s a restaurant. You’ve been known to eat occasionally. There’s potential here.)

  1. So are the prices any good? You wonder.

(That’s the bottom line – now that I know what they have to offer and that I’m interested, this is the deciding factor. Let’s say they’re cheap AF and sound worth trying so we have a happy ending to our scenario. You’re welcome.)

The rest of the document structure depends on content and purpose.

In a nutshell: the rest of your document needs to be structured in terms of what is most relevant to your reader, and then what they need to know so that you can achieve your purpose. Note the difference here – it’s not about what you want them to know – it’s about what they need to know from where they sit. Those can be vastly different things.

In fact, that warrants more discussion. Here’s Part 2!

By |2018-11-19T09:03:46+00:00February 20th, 2017|Uncategorized|6 Comments

About the Author:

Shelly Davies, managing director of Hamilton-based Shelly Davies Writing & Training, bounced unconventionally and entertainingly into the New Zealand communications landscape in 2012. With a brand that’s exploded across a surprising mix of sectors and industries she’s now leading the pack.“Brand Shelly” is out of the box, bubbly, pretty damn irresistible, more than a little sassy, and rapidly giving fewer and fewer f*cks what anyone thinks. And it’s working. Her writing is sharp, sought after, and highly paid. Her trainings are high energy, instantly impactful, and booked up to 2 years in advance.She did her time in the classroom torturing teenagers and indoctrinating university students with academic conventions. She killed off one husband, kicked out another one, and popped out 3 money-sucking vampires. And then she discovered something amazing: good writing PAYS. And like common sense, it ain’t common.Want more? Talk to Shelly.


  1. Simon Guillemin February 21, 2017 at 7:18 pm

    Good point Shelly, thanks. So often we want our reader to know how much we’ve done and how well when we write a report – and end up burying what they need to know in the dross of “how great we are” stuff.

    • Shelly Davies February 21, 2017 at 7:48 pm

      Hey Simon! It takes courage, I think, to announce things up front. But if we put ourselves in the reader’s shoes – it’s the ONLY way to go!

  2. PIp February 21, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Interesting! Of course the devil lies in identifying what the reader actually wants to know. In the example above I might not care about the cost, but I might be really interested in whether they offer vegetarian food. Interested in reading more – how do we deal with multiple readers and multiple requirements and interests?!

    • Shelly Davies February 21, 2017 at 8:54 pm

      Ah Pip – how astute of you! You’re right, of course. The bottom line and the upfront framing has to align completely with the purpose, and the purpose depends on the reader – or multiple readers as is usually the case! Watch this space 🙂

  3. Christine February 22, 2017 at 11:29 pm

    Haha…wot the….Is a great way to begin any conversation and if this helps us chuck out tired and disconnected writing conventions to be UPFRONT then I’m a fan!

    • Shelly Davies February 22, 2017 at 11:39 pm

      Heya kare! Damn straight. No mucking around – life’s too short! Mauri ora!

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