Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Putting the five fundamental questions to work

When you ask the five fundamental questions -- who, what, where, when and why -- you have the elements of a story.

This works whether you're on deadline in a newsroom or trying to get a child to sleep. But will it work in the sophisticated idea journalism of business?

As an experiment, I went to the strategy+business website. This is the journal of stragegy&, formerly Booz & Co., which created the term "thought leadership" in the early 90s. I contributed to the journal some years ago.

I selected an article at random. The title "Cut Your Company’s Fat but Keep Some Slack" caught my eye, and I knew what it would be about -- a company can be too lean. Would these experts in thought leadership use the five fundamental questions in constructing the article?

The article begins with an anecdote about a hospital in Missouri. Anecdotes are little stories, so I'm feeling confident. Who: doctors and administrators. What: chaos. Where: surgical suite. When: all day. Why: no spare operating rooms.

Whew! I was right. But there's more.

The anecdote uses three paragraphs. The fourth graf is what we called "the fat graf" in The Associated Press Newsfeatures department, where I camped out for four years. It's fat because it takes extra space to explain to the reader what the article is about and why he should read it. Jack Capon, our brilliant editor back then, demanded that the fat graf come no later than third.

The strategy-business editors use one sentence to explain what's up: "Many systems require slack in order to run smoothly."

Got it. Then they're back into telling stories. Some words about crowded highways, which we all understand. Then, shifting to the second person, a discussion of you and your assistant and your calendar.

Note that the editors wait til the 10th graf to use the buzzword "lean and mean." Up til then, they label the concept "slack." I'd say this are okay jargon, because ordinary people use these terms.

Instead of abstract concepts, the writer has been telling stories. Just answering the five fundamental questions in different ways. We're having fun reading, and we're getting the idea.

You won't go wrong copying this approach.

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