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The Value of Giving Examples

I was on a United Airlines flight from Seattle to San Francisco this week, when a flight attendant said something I had never heard before.

Usually at the end of a flight, passengers hear an announcement about checking around them for any belongings. "Any belongings" is a colorless expression–something passengers pay little attention to.

But when we touched down in San Francisco, our flight attendant said something like this:

"Please check around to be sure you don't leave anything behind. Passengers often forget glasses, glass cases, cell phones, crayons, coloring books, paperbacks, gloves, and other things they miss later."

I immediately thought about my glasses, cell phone, and the book I had been reading. None of those would have come to mind if she had said, "Check around you for any belongings."

Her statement reminded me of the value of giving examples in business writing. Examples paint pictures for readers the way vague words cannot. (I could stop here, but instead I will give examples!)

For instance, if you are complimenting someone on an effective proposal, writing "Great proposal!" is positive but not meaningful. Details–that is, specific examples–that illustrate why the proposal was great make the compliment meaningful and memorable.

Or let's say you are writing an email to the office manager asking her to buy an up-to-date dictionary and one or two respected writing style guides for the office. What does "up to date" mean when thinking about dictionaries? And what is a respected style guide? Examples such as "published within the last five years" and The Associated Press Stylebook 2010 will point the office manager in the right direction.

When you write, remember the flight attendant's list of specific examples. Then include your own. 

I am traveling again for a few days–this time from Seattle to New York City–but I hope to write again soon.  

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “The Value of Giving Examples”

  • This is so true and its why visual links or hooks work far more effectively than written lists. This was highlighted in a pervious post about the value of signs and graphics.
    In business too many documents are far too wordy, lack clear direction, instruction, guidance or information. 90% of text is not necessary, always keep that as your bench mark when writing for business and customer use.
    Graphics convey information accurately and more effectively than words in many cases.

  • Tim, thanks for sharing your expertise. I agree that graphics can be more effective than words at times. I have to admit, though, that I frequently prefer printed words, and it is difficult for me to imagine that 90 percent of text is unnecessary. Where would I be without words?


  • I´ve just finished reading part of this amazing blog and recommend it to my students. Brazilian has always been looking for something like it.

  • Great post–I would expand “examples” to all forms of evidence that clarify and support your writing: expert testimony, quotes from customers or clients and references to surveys or new studies. These all provide corroborating evidence for whatever point you’re trying to make or help to make the information you’re presenting more relevant.

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