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The Science of Strong Business Writing

Strong writing skills are essential for anyone in business. You need them to effectively communicate with colleagues, employees, and bosses and to sell any ideas, products, or services you’re offering.

Many people, especially in the corporate world, think good writing is an art—and that those who do it well have an innate talent they’ve nurtured through experience, intuition, and a habit of reading often and widely. But every day we’re learning more about the science of good writing. Advances in neurobiology and psychology show, with data and in images, exactly how the brain responds to words, phrases, and stories. And the criteria for making better writing choices are more objective than you might think.

Good writing gets the reader’s dopa­mine flowing in the area of the brain known as the reward circuit. Great writing releases opioids that turn on reward hot spots. Just like good food, a sooth­ing bath, or an enveloping hug, well-­executed prose makes us feel pleasure, which makes us want to keep reading.

Most of the rules you learned in school—“Show, don’t tell” or “Use the active voice”—still hold. But the reasons they do are now clearer. Scientists using MRI and PET machines can literally see how reward regions clustered in the mid­brain light up when people read certain types of writing or hear it spoken aloud. Each word, phrase, or idea acts as a stimulus, causing the brain to instantly answer a stream of questions: Does this promise value? Will I like it? Can I learn from it?

Kent Berridge, a pioneering University of Michigan psychologist and neuroscientist, notes that researchers originally believed that the reward circuit largely handled sensory cues. But, he explains, “it’s become clear in the past 50 years from neuroimaging studies that all kinds of social and cultural rewards can also activate this system.”

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