You’re Writing for the C-Suite. Now What?

For some communicators, it's difficult enough to write copy aimed at consumers. For most of us, there's a different vibe in your writing when you're sending an email or a report to the boss. What happens when you're asked to write something for those at the top of your company? Should you adjust your style, word choice and other elements when you know the content is headed to the C-Suite?

We asked this and other questions about writing up to the C-Suite of Jenna Hilzenrath, VP, communications, at the beauty company Birchbox. She will be one of the speakers at a session about writing for the C-Suite during PR News' Writing Boot Camp, Nov. 7 at New York's Yale Club.

Jenna Hilzenrath, VP, Communications, Birchbox

Formal or Informal?

As with nearly any PR initiative, it's critical to know your audience. Her advice for content headed to the C-Suite conforms to that maxim. Your writing style should "depend on the company," says Hilzenrath, who's worked at firms with formal corporate cultures and those with more casual atmospheres. In general, PR firms are more buttoned-up than brands, some of which encourage spirited and even playful writing, she says.

Sometimes the culture is a mix. "You can be professional and fun at the same time," Hilzenrath believes. A good rule when writing is "to mirror the communications style you've seen from C-Suite executives."

In general, "the C-Suite usually is looking for bold, edgy, big-picture concepts...[it also likes] forward-looking ideas as opposed to [material about] day-to-day execution." Consider that advice when composing and editing.

The Good and The Bad

Certainly mention what's working well, but include items that are not. It's preferable, she says, to offer a solution instead of presenting a problem only. This can raise a communicator's credibility.

Knowing the audience also dictates the sort of language you should use. The C-Suite "likes using buzzwords...  writing and speaking the language of the C-Suite will resonate better." In addition, "Frame your plans in terms of the goals and priorities they've set and the strategies they use."

Regardless of the culture, avoid being long-winded. "In general, simplify, simplify, simplify." Hilzenrath uses the rule that just about anything a communicator sends upstairs "should be short enough so [the reader] can glance at it on a mobile phone."

Beyond those general considerations, Hilzenrath urges communicators to step back before beginning work on C-Suite-bound content and consider who the audience is and what the most effective channel will be. "Am I communicating with one person or the full C-Suite?"

Sometimes writing isn't the best avenue. Consider a one-on-one session. If graphics or charts are the preferred medium for a particular C-Suite member, use them, she says, but make sure they are as clear and concise as your writing should be. Always think, "What's the headline here? What's the main takeaway?"

Back to Basics

Having the knowledge to make such choices requires communicators to know in advance what C-Suite executives expect. "Don't guess. Ask what they'd like to see...what resonates with them...and after you've sent material, solicit feedback" she says.

Again, depending on the culture, storytelling can be appropriate for communications with the C-Suite. Storytelling, she says, can be helpful when "putting things into context...and recommending a strategy."

When communicating up "it should not just be about presenting a plan or communicating a result, it's also about education...and every communication with the C-Suite is an opportunity to gently remind them how PR works. That's where storytelling also comes into play."

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News.  Follow him: @skarenstein

Follow Jenna Hilzenrath at: @jennamhilzy