Jack Appleman on Business Writing - The Ideas on Stage Podcast

by Andrea Pacini

Andrea Pacini and Jack Appleman

In this episode of the Ideas on Stage podcast we spoke with Jack Appleman. 

Jack Appleman, prominent business writing coach, professor and author of 10 Steps to Successful Business Writing—2nd edition (2018, ATD Press), is driven by the belief that working professionals can dramatically improve their writing by following straightforward techniques. His writing training for organizations including Bayer, Wells Fargo and HBO have helped thousands of individuals achieve better results from their writing.

As president of Successful Business Writing, Jack has been a frequent speaker and has published many articles on the importance of good writing and communication. A professor for more than 20 years, he teaches Business Communications at New York University. Jack is also a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Albany, exploring the link between employee-manager communication and workplace engagement in pursuit of his Ph.D. in Organizational Communication.

In this episode we talked about persuasive business writing. 


Can you share your thoughts on the importance of clear and effective business writing in an age dominated by artificial intelligence (AI)?

AI tools are super handy and getting more common. But, they have their limits. While they help us set up our writing, the real deal comes from our own understanding and how we connect with the people we’re writing to. So, it’s about finding the right balance and knowing when AI can help and when our human touch is needed.

What do most people find difficult about writing well?

A lot of us think too much and write too much. We often believe more words are better, which leads to adding too much fluff. The trick is to keep it short and sweet, straight to the point.

How can we make sure our writing clicks with our readers?

It’s all about showing the reader what’s in it for them. Good writing makes sure the reader knows how they benefit or learn from what we’re saying. It’s like answering their silent question, “Why should I care?”

Any tips for writing emails that get noticed?

Definitely! Use clear, to-the-point subject lines that tell the reader exactly what action you need from them or what they’ll get from opening your email. Try to keep your subject lines short – around six or seven words is a sweet spot.

What are some common mistakes in everyday writing?

Not taking a second look at what we write is a big one. It’s rare to nail it on the first go, so revising is key. Another issue is not writing the way we talk, which can make our writing less clear or relatable. If you’re stuck, think about how you’d explain your point in a conversation and start from there.

How can we make our writing more conversational and less formal while still maintaining professionalism?

Conversational doesn’t mean unprofessional. You can maintain a high level of professionalism while being conversational. The shift towards more informal business writing doesn’t compromise the quality of the communication; in fact, it can improve clarity and engagement by making the content more relatable to the reader.

What role does simplicity play in effective writing?

Simple writing is powerful. It’s about getting your point across without making your reader stumble through complex words or sentences. It’s not about dumbing things down; it’s about making your message accessible and easy to grasp.

How important is the use of active verbs in writing?

Active verbs make your writing more lively and direct. For example, instead of saying “perform an analysis,” just say “analyse.” In the former sentence, the verb is hidden in a noun (analysis). The latter is stronger and cuts down on wordiness.

Any advice for giving bad news in writing?

When it’s time to deliver not-so-great news, be direct but respectful. No need for long apologies – just state the facts and, if possible, offer some kind of next step or solution.

How can we contain our frustration in professional communication, especially when responding to offensive or frustrating messages?

Draft your response but don’t send it right away. Give it some time, then come back to it. This helps to make sure we’re responding thoughtfully and keeping things professional, no matter how annoyed we might be.

How can we empathise with the reader, especially when delivering sensitive information or feedback?

Start with something positive or something they’ve done well to show you’re on their side. Then, you can gently suggest improvements, framing it as opportunities for them, not just critiques.

You recommend that we write in a way that feels like we’re talking to just one person.

Yes, speaking one-on-one with your reader is key. Even if your audience is broad, personalising your message as if speaking to an individual makes it more engaging. This approach helps the reader connect with your message on a personal level, making it more impactful.

Books recommended by Jack: 

  • Leading in English by D. Vincent Varallo, Joerg Schmitz, Stephan M. Mardyks 
  • Smart Brevity by Roy Schwartz, Mike Allen, Jim VandeHei 

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I hope you enjoy it!

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