Emotional Markers in Business Writing


Think about a recent article you read, show you watched, or story you heard. Whether or not you realized it, you were carried along that journey through a progression of what I like to call emotional markers, or milestones that elicit feeling and offer an engaging bridge to the next level.

Using too few emotional markers in your content runs the risk of losing the audience’s attention. You’ve undoubtedly read this type of document before, where one thing runs into the next and nothing seems to stick. On the flip side, using too many emotional markers makes the reader feel like you’re trying too hard and detracts from your major points of impact.

There are certain moments that leave an emotional footprint on a reader – even in the driest of documents – and it’s worthwhile to map them out before you start writing. Placing the right markers in the appropriate places can make an incredible improvement to your documents, especially in a world where so many things are simultaneously competing for our reader’s attention.

Once you are able to identify emotional markers, it’s an easy transition to using them in your own work.  Luckily, they often have certain characteristics, such as the following:

  • They may be written with a slightly different sentence structure or tone than the rest of the document.

  • They bring out important information or data that you want your reader to remember.

  • They remind your reader what they are reading and why.

  • They either provide answers or summaries of what you have already stated, or hooks to draw your reader into what comes next.

  • They drive home a point quickly and with great impact.

A Shout Out to Cartographers

Map makers have been using this technique for thousands of years. Larger cities and roads are obviously larger or titled more clearly. This is because they are emotional markers – they give the viewer a sense of where they are (relativity) and why it matters (correlation). If the map showed everything in an area in the same way, it would be overwhelming and counter-productive.

When you create a document in the business world, it’s obviously not the same as when you sit down to write a short story or novel. Yes, you are bound to rules that can hinder creativity in the business world, but that is precisely why you need to find ways to sneak in the magic where you can if you want your readers to be emotionally invested….if our work was already doing that, we’d see folks lined up at Barnes & Noble to buy stacks of proposals and white papers!

A great way for you to channel the creativity is to think of yourself as a cartographer. Your mission is to provide a map to the reader that will tell them where to go, how to get there, and why they want to be there. More importantly, they should think they found their way all on their own.

Let’s look at a couple examples:

  • Proposals: Requests for Proposals usually provide a distinct order in which the reviewer wants information to be provided. It often includes submitter information, qualifications, similar experience, and experience of the proposed team. This information is the template they almost always go by because it’s clear – it takes them from high-level to specifics. It’s up to the submitter to emotionally charge each of these areas so the reviewers mentally earmark differentiators about the proposal as they move onto the next submission. They need to feel as they read rather than read about how you feel.

  • Case Studies: We’ve all read a boring case study, and they make me so sad! The whole purpose of a case study is to tell an awesome ‘before and after’ story – this is your time to shine! Make sure to use emotional checkpoints between sections so the reader can really feelthe change you brought about. Discussing how bad a situation was before you stepped in? Leave a hook at the end of the section so the reader thinks, “that’s not good! How did they ever fix that?”

Avoid Copying the Copycats

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Think for a moment about the people, places, books, movies, film, or art that have impacted you. There was something about that person or thing that stood out among the ringing cell phones and small talk of the world and left a change in you. I bet that there was something different that you saw or felt that gave you a bit of a jolt – maybe not everyone felt it, but youdid.

The something different – the ‘je ne sais quoi’ – doesn’t come from trying to be like the herd. There is something exceptional  in what you do, and it will be lost if you try to capitalize on what worked for someone else.

Now I’m not saying that you should be unprofessional or pretentious; rather, I’m encouraging you to choose new words, re-envision your stories, and create authentic emotional checkpoints that represent what you and your company truly have to offer. By all means, you need to familiarize yourself with what else is out there to keep your edge, but using that information in the right way is what can empower you to blaze your own trail.

Bring it Home

I wholeheartedly believe that the more you read, the better you write. I find it helpful to occasionally spend a few minutes flipping through passages from books or online articles, trying to find the emotional markers embedded within. Anything that draws you in, that makes you nod in agreement or epiphany, or enhances the way you engage with rest of the piece is an emotional marker.

I’ll leave you with some of my favorite quotes about writing with purpose and genuine intent….I guess in a way, a good quote is an emotional marker that is so on point, it stands alone.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
― Mark Twain

“We owe it to each other to tell stories.”
― Neil Gaiman

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
― Robert Frost


Until next time, happy communicating!


Proposal Show Versus Tell: Play to Win

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Writing proposals is an art form; there is infinite potential to improve, even if you consider yourself to be an expert. The challenge involved is one of the things I love about the process.

My experience writing proposals – whether for technology consulting, non-profit grant submittals, or multi-million dollar infrastructure projects – has taught me one massively important lesson:

You cannot “tell” your way into a win.

You might be the world’s most convincing writer. Or maybe you know beyond a doubt that your team can solve your client’s issue in a way that no other team can. Maybe these are both true AND you have the lowest price. None of it will truly translate to the reviewers if you tell them these things.

For example, have you ever written or read any of these phrases?

“Our team brings innovative solutions to the most complex problems.”

“Project Manager Joe Smith has experience on projects of similar size and scope.”

“Our solutions are developed outside of the box.” (more on this one later)

If you have, you’re not alone. The fact is that we all have. Work is busy, proposals are time consuming, and someone on the team always seems to throw these phrases into the mix. The problem with these phrases, and so many like them, is that you are telling your reader what to believe. After reading proposal after proposal, I bet reviewers get pretty tired of being told the same thing by every team.

I also bet that they don’t believe it.

Let the reviewer draw their own conclusion

Let’s say you visit a phenomenal new restaurant and have the best meal of your life. Are you going to recommend that restaurant to a friend because they told you how delicious their steak tartare is? Of course not! You concluded that the dish was delectable all on your own when you ate it. It means more to you because it is your thought.

The same can be said about your services. Let the reviewer experience a little of what you have to offer by allowing them to decide – on their own – that you are the one to beat.

For example:

Instead of: Our team brings innovative solutions to the most complex problems.
Try: On a recent residential, two-lane project with similar stormwater issues, our team developed a multi-phased drainage plan which allowed us to finish the project ahead of schedule and reduce costs by avoiding flooding.

If I’m the reader and stormwater runoff is one of my concerns, I’m going to appreciate that this firm has creatively dealt with the same problem, in the same area, on the same type of property as mine. Every detail that is put into a sentence should pertain specifically to that client, for that project. Every detail.

Instead of: Project Manager Joe Smith has experience on projects of similar size and scope.
Try: Joe Smith’s experience in customized firewalls was critical in protecting the data of over 150,000 of WidgetStore’s customers during the retail hacker epidemic of 2016.

Practice makes (nearly) perfect when it comes to showing versus telling. An easy way to get started is to make a few simple switches at a time –  consider the following:

  • Stories are good; Stories with metrics are better.

  • Words are like money – spend them wisely and get the most bang for your buck.

  • Call out boxes are billboards – a couple are impactful, too many are clutter.

  • Avoid the “out of the box” oxymoron like the plague.

  • Believe in your services! You are going after this contract because you know you can fulfill it. There are certainly ways in which you offer unique advantages to your clients, so give them something fresh to review! Even if you are not awarded the contract, you will have made a fantastic impression!

It won’t happen overnight

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There will always be a bit of content in a proposal which you won’t have time to “prove.” Every time you work on a response, however, you can build upon changes you made the last time around. It’s tough to think that you company’s content will never be completely done, however that is actually a good thing! It’s an ongoing process of refining and improving your message, because when we are learning and changing, we are on the right track.

To ensure that you don’t lose the important advances you make, organize your content using a content management system –  don’t have one? No need to worry, it will be the topic of our next Hints & Tips post.


Happy communicating,