Style for writing targeted at executives (CEOs, CIOs)?

Subject: Style for writing targeted at executives (CEOs, CIOs)?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L Writing <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, T K <tvk_tw -at- yahoo -dot- ie>
Date: Thu, 27 Aug 2009 15:40:41 -0400

T K wondered: <<I am working on a project that involves writing
content from an industrial/academic collaboration project, the
findings and outcome of which will be targeted mainly at executives,
i.e. the target audience for the content is Chief Executive Officers
(CEOs), Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and other senior decision-
making executives in large companies. The content should also exhibit
its academic and research merit, i.e. it should be evident that it is
content of substance and not marketing or sales-like. I would like
advice on the best writing style to use...>>

<Fe>Executives, huh? Use words of no more than three syllables,
preferably only ones that are found in "Baby's First Dictionary". Be
sure to define any words with more than two syllables, and read the
resulting writing to your dog just to be sure it will be
comprehensible to your target audience. (If your dog is Dogbert, find
another dog -- or ask him to do the writing for you.) Try to stay away
from controversial topics, avoid abbreviations, and use large,
colorful drawings instead of words wherever possible.</Fe>

Okay, I'm done now. On to the serious advice:

<<Tone of voice - should this be casual, business formal, academic?>>

Definitely "business formal", with an emphasis on simple,
straightforward, to-the-point writing. Executives aren't stupid (so
don't patronize them), but they have limited patience for informality
and won't tolerate academic language. That's probably good advice in
general, but doubly so for senior managers. Where possible, focus on
"what's in it for me and my company", and support your statements with
facts (from the project) to make it clear that you're not just
presenting opinions. Executives want to know what you believe, but
they also want to know why.

<<Type of language - very project- and industry-specific, or more
general in nature?>>

Depends strongly on whether these are people who participated in the
project, or non-participants you're trying to persuade about the
merits of the project. Participants should already know most of the
jargon, and while you don't want to write use too many buzzwords, you
also want to show that you know and understand their industry, their
concerns, and the language they use to talk about both. Non-
participants will be less familiar with industry-specific terms if
they're not part of the same industry, so you'll have to be more
general, or else define all your terms to ensure they understand them.
"Project-specific" is only good if you're reporting on the project to
participants familiar with the project, but even then, you shouldn't
get too academic.

<<First person, second person, or third person?>>

I suspect that part of what you're asking here is actually related to
voice rather than person (particularly active versus passive voice,
since "third person" is often shorthand for passive voice). Certainly,
you should avoid passive voice wherever you need to clarify the actor;
imperative is a good choice for things like procedural information, as
in phrases such as "to improve your bottom line, [imperative verb: do

A bit of an exaggeration to clarify the differences between "persons":
First person is best if you have the kind of relationship to your
audience that you can treat them as equals without seeming
presumptuous. It creates a sense of collaboration: I'm one of you, you
can trust me, and here's what I think you should believe. Second is
most appropriate if you're trying to lecture them about what to do,
particularly from a position of power or influence: "you do this" or
"you need this". Third would be indicating that you're describing
someone else's results, and not sufficiently confident in those
results to report them in first person. Also note that you'll need to
decide whether first person is singular (I the author believe) or
plural (we collectively believe).

As I noted, that's simplistic and exaggerated. The better choice is to
decide based on what you're trying to say and how you want it to be
perceived. That's not clear from your description of the problem. For
example, if your goal is to report the project's results without
editorializing, third person is a good choice ("the project found");
if your goal is to advocate for a position, second person is good
("you should do this!"); if your goal is to establish a rapport and
communicate your opinion, first person is good ("based on this result,
we believe..."). A mixture of the three may be appropriate, as in the
following example:

The researchers involved in the project found that ROI always
increased with increasing staff training. We believe that this
experience is common throughout the industry based on other studies.
For this reason, you should consider increasing your training budget.

Geoff Hart (
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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Style for writing targeted at executives (CEOs, CIOs): From: T K

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