How to… pre-empt the killer question

Guest Post from Caroline Florence, The Insight Narrator,  03/8/2015

Unfortunately, with most traditional B2B (business-to-business) content, readers need to dedicate a significant amount of time before they can uncover the answer that addresses their business issue.

But as pressure on time increases, busy executives are looking for bottom-line, solution-focused messages, not volumes of data, information, text or graphs.

If you provide the answer upfront, you’ll help the audience to understand the real benefit of reading your content.

One of the main reasons for the need to rework B2B content is that content creators start with the detail first and not the question. This is typically because some of them are technical specialists rather than communication specialists. They tend to start with what they know and are comfortable with - the detail. They then work from the bottom up to reach the big picture, often failing to define the main message. 

When I carried out a poll of delegates, most said that they start with the body of the content first and leave the summary as an afterthought, expecting it to write itself when the content is finalised. At school, we’re typically taught to show all of our working out before drawing our conclusions. This approach is therefore ingrained in us as being the correct way to write.  

However, this assumes that the reader cares as much about the subject as the author - and that they want to invest the time needed to go through all of the detail.

In reality, your audience will be time-pressured, with a lot of different content vying for their attention. As a content producer, you have a responsibility to help your audience to learn more about a subject that’s important to them. But the first step is to teach them why they need to spend the time reading your content. The best way to do this is to avoid suspense and get straight to the answer.

“… within two minutes of your piece of work starting, whether you’re presenting it or sending it through for them to read, they should know that they’re in the right place reading this or listening to it... It’s just really clear upfront what they’re going to get from it” - Matt Baron, Global Insight Consultant, Kantar Worldpanel.

Things to consider

  • How do you read content on subjects of interest? What do you look for in the first instance?
  • How much time is your audience likely to have to read your content?
  • What’s the one thing your reader must understand if they only spend two minutes reading your content?
  • What’s the best way to get this message across in a short amount of time?

How to answer the killer question upfront

1). Assume that the reader will take a ‘layered’ approach, not a ‘serial’ approach to your content. A serial approach assumes that readers will read Page 1 in its entirety, then Page 2 etc. But in reality, time-challenged readers don’t approach content like this. They take a ‘layered’ approach to reading, looking at the content several times, in more depth each time as long as the content is engaging. The first look tends to be a skim-read, as they seek out specific information that might be of interest. In this quick search, they need to understand whether the content will provide an answer to a question they have and will be a good time investment of their time. This process can take less than two minutes. If you want your audience to engage with the content, you need to make sure that the answer can be found easily and quickly.

2). Use executive summaries. Executive summaries provide the ideal opportunity for answering the question upfront. Even if the audience only reads the summary, they should be able to take away the answer to the question and the recommendation you’re making. Contrary to popular opinion, executive summaries don’t discourage readers from reading the rest of the content. Instead, they provide a reason for investing further time in reading the main part of the document. But remember to keep them brief and concise – don’t try and cram in everything.

“So often you see even board reports which are just walls of numbers, which leave the reader of that report to do their own analysis. At best it’s a document of record rather than a document of action. And I think it insults the audience and expects them to do far too much work themselves… the people preparing it should actually take the time and trouble to actually do the analysis and draw out the insight.” - Andrew Moseley, Director, Metapraxis.

3). Use a structured approach, so that your answer stands out. A useful structural aid for ensuring that you’ve covered the crux of your question in your executive summary is the ‘SCQA tool’, devised by Barbara Minto, author of ‘The Pyramid Principle’:

  • Situation. Start by reminding the audience about something they already know, to establish relevance and context (e.g. “We set ourselves a target of...”, “We changed…”, “We need to…”).
  • Complication. Define the problem or issue to establish a potential conflict or tension (e.g. “We didn’t meet the target because…”, “We failed to…”).
  • Question. The question should logically arise from the conflict and form the basis of the content (e.g. “What should we do to…?”, “How do we implement...?”, “Why didn’t X work?”).
  • Answer. The answer should be the main message of your content - and a summary of the main points should be provided at this point. This is your chance to demonstrate your argument or point of view about what needs to be done (e.g. “We need to…”).

“We use SCQA a lot in order to establish the situation that we’re looking at and then the complexity which has led to the requirement to do the piece of work.  Then our answers to three or four critical business questions.  It is very message-led: we lead with the answer and enable people to scroll down as much detail as they require - which in our environment is less and less detail.” - James Wycherley, when Director of CVM Analysis at Barclays Bank.

Further reading

Do you want more hints and tips to help you create great content that clicks?

Would you like to hone your existing content skills by accessing high-impact tools and techniques that you can apply straight away?

Then try: ‘Content that CLICKS: How to create great content in 20 steps’.

This book has been written for business executives, managers and leaders who want to improve their cut-through and impact with their colleagues, stakeholders and clients.