A New York Times Lesson for Business Writers

As an online subscriber and recipient of Sunday delivery, I enjoy the excellent writing in The New York Times. The paper often uses a powerful technique to meet readers' needs: listing and answering the readers' questions. 

Measles article  NYT

For decades I've been recommending the answering-the-readers' questions approach for business writers–and not just for use in Q&A sections. The NYT illustrates it beautifully. 

Here are the questions the article "Measles Outbreak: Your Questions Answered" asks and answers:

  • What is measles?
  • How is measles transmitted?
  • What are the symptoms of measles?
  • Is there a cure for measles?
  • How safe and effective is the measles vaccine?
  • If I’m not vaccinated, is it too late to get the shot?
  • If most people are getting vaccinated, why does it matter if I don’t vaccinate my child?
  • Wait, didn’t we eliminate measles?
  • How many people haven’t been vaccinated?
  • Who are the people not getting vaccinated?
  • Don’t states have laws requiring parents to vaccinate their children?
  • Are the states with lax laws the ones with the most measles cases?
  • Does this mean mumps and rubella cases are re-emerging, too?

The NYT prints each question in bold, then answers it. Some answers are as short as two sentences:

How many people haven't been vaccinated?

A small number in scattered pockets. Measles immunization in the United States is stable and high — more than 90 percent — according to C.D.C. tracking [with a hyperlink from tracking]. 

And some answers–such as "How safe and effective is the measles vaccine?" and "Wait, didn’t we eliminate measles?"–run several paragraphs. 

I share this NYT technique with you because using it helps you give your audience the information they want and need–and avoid giving them information they don't need. Notice that the list of measles questions does not include "What is the history of measles?" or "When was the first measles case identified?" Most people reading "Measles Outbreak: Your Questions Answered" will not be seeking that information. (However, in a presentation, you could have such information in your back pocket, so to speak, and in a written document you could include it in an appendix.) 

If you have access to The NYT, you may be interested in another example, "Nine Key Questions About the Green New Deal."

Here's how to apply the technique to your own business communication project:

  1. Think about your audience and what you want them to do and think. 
  2. List the questions they would ask you if you were meeting with them for that purpose. For example:
    –What's this about?
    –What do you propose?
    –What's your proposal based on?
    –What will it cost?
    –What will happen if we don't take action?
    Etc. 
  3. Review the questions (perhaps with others on your team) and put them in the order you think your reader or audience would want or need them answered. 
  4. Answer the questions in a document or presentation. 

Your communication does not need to be written in a Q&A format. It can be written as an email, an announcement, a proposal, a policy, a newsletter article–whatever you are writing. It simply focuses on the information your readers want and need. 

Although answering your readers' questions doesn't guarantee communication success, it does guarantee that you are giving your audience what they want and need.

What type of business messages could you/do you use this technique in? 

In my online self-study course Business Writing Tune-Up, I offer a planning template you can fill in at your desktop to help you answer your readers' questions and meet their needs. Please preview the course–you may want to enroll in it or suggest it to a colleague. 

Have you learned other practical writing tips from great newspapers? Please share them. 

Lynn
Syntax Training

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Lynn,
    Thanks for this post. I am engaged in some “messaging” work with our organization and I will be sharing your ideas with some colleagues as part of our processes going forward. A very helpful piece!

  2. Hi David,

    I am glad you found this post helpful. Answering the readers’ questions has always been the key to successful writing for me. Of course, that’s not just in a Q&A but in any piece we write.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Lynn

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