What Can a Murder Mystery Teach You About Business Writing?

I grew up reading lots of murder mysteries. Agatha Christie was one of my favorites, and one of my enduring childhood memories is that of Hercule Poirot in the movie “Murder on the Orient Express”.


When I started teaching business writing, with the top down pyramid approach as the cornerstone, I realized that the murder mystery is a great model to understand how to keep a reader engaged through your writing.

For business writing to be effective, the writer must keep the reader engaged until the message has been delivered clearly. And one major reason why the top down approach¬†for business writing and presentation is effective is that it carries on a continuous question/answer dialogue with the reader. A question/answer dialogue serves the purpose of keeping the reader’s mind engaged and interested.

Consider this scenario. A large company is struggling with low morale and poor employee performance. The COO has been asked by the board to recommend measures to improve employee morale and productivity. Instead of beginning bottom up, the COO starts the memo thus:

In order to improve employee morale and performance, we need to completely revamp our performance management system, and drastically increase the compensation differentiation between the top and average performers.

A statement like this immediately raises a question in the mind of the reader. How would this action fix the current problem? The reader is curious about how you reached this conclusion, and whether your logic is sound. If you follow this plan through to the end of the document, presenting new information to answer the question that has been raised, and raising a new question in the process, there is a great chance that you will have the reader’s attention continuously.

A murder mystery follows a similar approach. A murder is committed and a few facts are presented that raise questions in the mind of the reader. Could it be the butler? Or perhaps the wife? As the story unfolds, the questions change, but the silent dialogue with the reader continues, all the way to the “aha” moment.

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