Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Writer's Logic

Another week of finals has come and gone at Stern, and with it, a pile of papers to grade in negotiations. As I worked through this pile last week and over the weekend, I finally understood the daunting challenge that faces most VC's. I was grading 50 papers that were all on the same topic, and I knew what information I was looking for. Nevertheless, after the first couple of papers, it became difficult to read the papers, and finding the concepts I was looking for became harder and harder.

Compare this with a VC that gets dozens of business plans every week. Unlike my papers, each one of these is on a different topic, although presumably still within the VC's area of expertise. How much harder must it be to read through all of these plans (actually just the executive summaries), and come away with some sense of what is worth pursuing. No wonder most VC's send cold-call plans to the inbox in the corner!

This realization helped me finally internalize the difference between writer's logic and reader's logic. This was a concept that I first encountered in my business communication class. An engineer by training, I had always had it drilled in to me that you never put forth an unsupported assertion in your writing. Good papers were those that allowed the reader to follow the writer's path, and eventually, after all the evidence had been presented, would draw a conclusion. This had always been, and to a large extent, still is, my primary writing style.

To a large extent, I write in this style on this blog. I believe that writer's logic engages the reader more at a deeper level, and is more in synch with the idea of a blog being a conversation rather than a sales pitch or a news source. However, this style is a luxury that one can only afford if the reader has the time and energy to devote to the reading.

In cases where the reader doesn't have those resources, a more direct approach, or reader's logic, is required. This method, which presents the biggest idea up front, is used extensively in journalism. In fact, one of the best known admonitions to new writers is "Don't bury the lede!" This style allows the reader to get the main gist immediately, and only continue on to the supporting logic if they are interested. Its a lot like seeing pictures of a beach before deciding whether or not to drive there - is the destination worth the journey.

When trying to reach busy readers - executives, customers, or investors - this approach works best (provided of course, that you have a destination worth visiting). It can't make someone interested in a bad idea, but it makes sure that you have a shot of being listened to, before you are consigned to the trash heap.

In practical terms, what does this mean? Too many of the executive summaries I've seen on business plans start out with a comprehensive industry overview, and descriptions of all the trends currently leading to their idea. All of this is important information, but if your idea and the problem it fixes comes halfway down the first page (or worse, on the second page) because of it, you've greatly reduced your chances of reaching your audience. So make sure you lead off with your biggest idea, and let the reader decide if he wants to visit.

For those of you who made it to the end of this post - yes, I realize that even this post is written in writer's logic - thus the heading. I'm going to try and write substantively the same post tomorrow in reader's logic, just to show the difference.