Unit 11: Choosing an Organizational Pattern

Learning Objectives

Target icon

After studying this unit, you will be able to recognize and apply standard patterns of message organization.

Introduction

The shape of your message depends on the purpose. As discussed previously, business communications can have three purposes: to inform, to persuade, or promote goodwill. Without a clear plan to achieve the intended purpose, readers can get lost and confused. That is why business writing has standard patterns of organization to structure thoughts and messages to make them understandable to the receiver.

Most business messages follow a three-part structure that accommodates the three-part division of our attention spans and memory:

Attention-grabbing opening: The opening hooks the reader in to keep reading by capturing their attention. In longer messages, the opening includes an introduction that establishes the framework in which the reader can understand everything that follows.

Detail-packed body: The message body supports the opening with further detail supporting the main point. Depending on the type of message and organizational structure that suits it best, the body may involve:

    • Evidence in support of the main point/idea
    • Background for better understanding
    • Detailed explanations or instructions
    • Convincing rationale in a persuasive message

This information is crucial to the audience’s understanding of and commitment to the message.  Our memory typically blurs these details, however, so having them written down for future reference is important. The message body is a collection of important subpoints in support of the main point, as well as transitional elements that keep the message coherent and plot a course towards its completion.

Wrap-up and closing: The closing completes the coverage of the topic and may also point to what’s next, such as cues to what action should follow the message (e.g., what the reader is supposed to do in response to a letter, such as a reply by a certain date).  Depending on the size, type, and organizational structure of the message, the closing may also offer a concluding summary of the major subpoints made in the body to ensure that the purpose of the message has been achieved. In a persuasive message, for instance, this summary helps prove the opening thesis by confirming that the body of evidence and argument supported it convincingly.

The effective writer loads the message with important points both at the opening and closing of a document because the reader will focus on and remember what they read first and last.

Organizing Patterns

Business communications use two main message patterns: Direct Messages,  Indirect Messages,  while bearing in mind to follow the general three-part structure discussed above. Learning these patterns is valuable to reduce confusing and disorganized messages.   Anyone can become a clearer and more coherent thinker by learning to organize messages consistently according to well-established patterns.

 

Direct Messages

The direct approach frontloads the main point, which means getting right to the point in the first or second sentence of the opening paragraph. The direct approach is used when you expect the audience to be pleased, mildly interested, or have a neutral response to the message.  Positive, day-to-day, and routine messages use the direct organizing pattern.  The explanation and details follow in the body paragraph.  Getting to the main idea saves the reader time by immediately clarifying the purpose of communication and thus reduces receive frustration.

Since most business messages have a positive or neutral effect, business writers should become very familiar with this organizing pattern.  Frontloading a message accommodates the reader’s capacity for remembering what they see first, as well as respects their time in achieving the goal of communication, which is understanding the writer’s point.

 

Indirect Messages

While the direct approach leads with the main point, the indirect approach strategically moves the main idea deeper in the message. The indirect approach is used for delivering bad, unwanted, or sensitive news.  When you expect the reader will be resistant, displeased, upset, shocked, or even hostile towards the message, the direct approach would come off as overly blunt, tactless, and even cruel.

: Choosing an organizational approach in the writing process infographic
Figure 11.1: The two main business writing organizing patterns and when they should be used. (Business Communications, 2019)

The goal of indirect messages is to use the opening paragraph and some of the body area to ease the reader towards an unwanted or upsetting message.  Thus, the indirect approach will first provide an explanation or justification, before delivering the main idea.  This organizing pattern allows the reader to become interested enough to read the whole message. This organizational pattern is ideal for two main types of messages: those delivering bad news or addressing a sensitive subject, and those requiring persuasion such as marketing messages pitching a product, service, or even an idea.

Persuasive Messages: All persuasive message follows the so-called AIDA approach:

  1. Attention-grabbing opener
  2. Interest-generating follow-up
  3. Desire-building details
  4. Action cue

Nearly every commercials follow this general structure, which is designed to keep you interested while enticing you towards a certain action such as buying a product or service. Marketing relies on this structure because it effectively accommodates our attention spans’ need to be hooked in with a strong first impression and told what to do at the end so that we remember those details best, while working on our desires—even subconsciously—in the body paragraphs.

Negative Messages: Likewise, a bad-news message starts by presenting the bad news after an explanation or justification of the bad news is presented.  The typical organization of a bad-news message is:

  1. Buffer offering some good news, positives, goodwill, or any other reason to keep reading
  2. Reasons for the bad news about to come
  3. Bad news buried and quickly deflected towards further positives or alternatives
  4. Action cue

Delaying the bad news softens the blow by surrounding it with positive or agreeable information that keeps the audience reading so that they miss neither the bad news nor the rest of the information they need to understand it. If a doctor opened by saying “You’ve got cancer and probably have six months to live,” the patient would probably be reeling so much in hopelessness from the death-sentence blow that they wouldn’t be in the proper frame of mind to hear important follow-up information about life-extending treatment options. If an explanation of those options preceded the bad news, however, the patient would probably walk away with a more hopeful feeling of being able to beat the cancer and survive. Framing is everything when delivering bad news.

Consider these two concise statements of the same information taking both the direct and indirect approach:

Table 11.1.: Comparison of Direct and Indirect Messages

Direct Message Indirect Message
Global Media is cutting costs in its print division by shutting down several local newspapers. Global Media is seeking to improve its profitability across its various divisions. To this end, it is streamlining its local newspaper holdings by strengthening those in robust markets while redirecting resources away from those that have suffered in the economic downturn and trend towards fully online content.

Here we can see at first glance that the indirect message is longer because it takes more care to frame and justify the bad news, starting with an opening that attempts to win over the reader’s agreement by appealing to their sense of reason. In the direct approach, the bad news is delivered concisely in blunt words such as “cutting” and “shutting,” which get the point across economically but suggest cruel aggression with violent imagery. The indirect approach, however, makes the bad news sound quite good—at least to shareholders—with positive words like “improve,” “streamlining,” and “strengthening.” The good news that frames the bad news makes the action sound more like an angelic act of mercy than an aggressive attack. The combination of careful word choices and the order in which the message unfolds determines how well it is received, understood, and remembered as we shall see when we consider further examples of persuasive and bad-news messages later in the textbook.

 

Organizing Principles

Several message patterns are available to suit your purposes for writing both direct and indirect-approach messages, so choosing one before writing is essential for staying on track. Their formulaic structures make the job of writing as easy and routine as filling out a form.  By using such organizing principles as chronology (a linear narrative from past to present to future), comparison-contrast, or problem-solution, you arrange your content in a logical order that makes it easy for the reader to follow your message.

These organizing principles are identified, explained, and exemplified in Table 11.2 below. Checking out a variety of websites to see how they use these principles effectively will provide a helpful guide for how to write them. These basic structures can provide readers with a recognizable form that will enable them to find the information they need.

Table 11.2: Ten Common Organizing Principles

Organizing Principle Structure & Use Example
1. Chronology & 5W+H
  • Linear narrative from beginning to end, including past, present, and possibly future, as well as the who, what, where, when, and how of the story
  • For historical accounts, incident reports, and biographies
Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing began when founder Robert Wolfe realized in 1993 that there was a huge demand for reliable summer lawncare and winter snow removal when it seemed that the few other available services were letting their customers down. Wolfe began operations with three snow-blowing vehicles in the Bridlewood community of Kanata and expanded to include the rest of Kanata and Stittsville throughout the 1990s.

WLS continued its eastward expansion throughout the 2000s and now covers the entire capital region as far east as Orleans, plus Barrhaven in the south, with 64 snow-blowing vehicles out on the road at any one time. WLS recently added real-time GPS tracking to its app service and plans to continue expanding its service area to the rural west, south, and east of Ottawa throughout the 2020s.

2. Comparison & Contrast
  • Point-by-point account of the similarities between two or more things, followed by a similarly structured account of their differences
  • For descriptive analysis of two or more related things
Wolfe Snowblowing goes above and beyond what its competitors offer. While all snow blowing services will send a loader-mount snowblower (LMSB) to your house to clear your driveway after a big snowfall, Wolfe’s LMSBs closely follow the city plow to clear your driveway and the snowbank made by the city plow in front of it, as well as the curbside area in front of your house so you still have street parking.

If you go with the “Don’t Lift a Finger This Winter” deluxe package, Wolfe will additionally clear and salt your walkway, stairs, and doorstep. With base service pricing 10% cheaper than other companies, going with Wolfe for your snow-removal needs is a no-brainer.

3. Pros & Cons
  • Account of advantages followed by disadvantages
  • For an analysis of something’s value as a basis for a recommendation to either adopt it or not
Why would you want a snow-removal service?

Advantages include:

  • Worry-free driveway clearing following the city plow
  • Round-the-clock service clearing your driveway before you leave for work and before you return
  • Time saved from shoveling your driveway yourself
  • Avoiding the injuries incurred from shoveling yourself

The disadvantages of other snow-removal services include:

    • 10% more expensive than our base price
    • Potential damage to your driveway or adjoining lawn (WLS will fix any damage free of charge)

As you can see, the advantages of WLS outweigh the disadvantages for any busy household.

4. Problem & Solution
  • Description of a problem scenario followed by a solution that directly solves that problem
  • For marketing products or services and scientific reporting of breakthroughs
Are you fed up with getting all geared up in -40 degree weather at 6 a.m. to shovel your driveway before leaving for work? Fed up with finishing shoveling the driveway in a hurry, late for work in the morning, and then the city plow comes by and snow-banks you in just as you’re about to leave? Fed up with coming home after a long, hard day at work only to find that the city plow snow-banked you out?

Well, worry no more! Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing has got you covered with its 24-hour snow removal service that follows the city plow to ensure that you always have driveway access throughout the winter months.

5. Cause & Effect
  • Detailed description of the connection between two or more events, actions, or things to show how they relate
  • For an analysis of the causal connection between things
As soon as snow appears in the weather forecast, Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing reserves its crew of dedicated snow blowers for 24-hour snow removal. When accumulation reaches 5 cm in your area, our fleet deploys to remove snow from the driveways of all registered customers before the city plows get there. Once the city plow clears your street, a WLS snowblower returns shortly after to clear the snowbank formed by the city plow at the end of your driveway.
6. Process & Procedure
  • Numbered list describing steps in a chronological sequence of actions towards a goal
  • For an analysis of how something works, or instructions for performing a certain task
Ordering our snow removal service is as easy as 1 2 3:

  1. Call 1-800-555-SNOW or email us at info@wolfelandscaping&snow
  2. Let us know your address and driveway size (can it fit only one parked car, two end-to-end or side-by-side, four, etc.?)
  3. Pay by credit card over the phone or via our secure website, and we will come by to plant driveway markers within the week. That way, our snow blowers will be able to respect your driveway boundaries throughout the winter clearing season.
7. General to Specific
  • Starts with the bigger picture as context before narrowing the focus to something very specific
  • For an in-depth analysis or explanation of a topic
Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing provides a reliable snow-removal service throughout the winter. We got you covered for any snowfall of 5 cm or more between November 1st and April 15th. Once accumulation reaches 5 cm at any time day or night, weekday or weekend, holiday or not, we send out our fleet of snow blowers to cover neighbourhood routes, going house-by-house to service registered customers. At each house, a loader-mount snowblower scrapes your driveway and redistributes the snow evenly across your front yard in less than five minutes.
8. Definition & Example
  • Starts with a definition and provides specific examples for illustration
  • For explaining concepts to people coming to the topic for the first time
A loader-mount snowblower (LMSB) is a heavy-equipment vehicle that removes snow from a surface by pulling it into a front-mounted impeller with an auger and propelling it out of a top-mounted discharge chute. Our fleet consists of green John Deere SB21 Series and red M-B HD-SNB LMSBs.
9. Point Pattern
  • A bullet-point listing of various connected but unprioritized points supporting the main point preceding them
  • For breaking down an explanation in a reader-friendly point-by-point presentation such as an FAQ page
Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing’s “Don’t Lift a Finger This Winter” deluxe package ensures that you will always find your walkway and driveway clear when you exit your home after a snowfall this winter! It includes:

  • Clearing and salting your driveway with every 3 cm or more of snow accumulation
  • Clearing the snowbank at the end of your driveway within minutes of it being formed by the city plow
  • Shoveling and salting your walkway all the way to your front door after a 3 cm+ snowfall or freezing rain
  • Shoveling by request any other walkways on your property
10. Testimonial
  • First-person account of an experience
  • For offering a perspective that the reader can relate to as if they were to experience it themselves
According to Linda Sinclair in the Katimavik neighbourhood, “Wolfe did a great job clearing our snow this past winter. We didn’t see them much because they were always there and gone in a flash, but the laneway was always scraped clear by the time we left for work in the morning if it snowed in the night. We never had a problem when we got home either, unlike when we used Sherman Snowblowing the year before and we always had to stop, park on the street, and shovel the snowbank made by the city plow whenever it snowed while we were at work. Wolfe was the better service by far.”

Though shorter documents may contain only one such organizing principle, longer ones typically involve a mix of different organizational patterns used as necessary to support the document’s overall purpose.

 

Key Takeaways

key iconBefore beginning to draft a document, let your purpose for writing and anticipated audience reaction determine whether to take a direct or indirect approach and choose an appropriate organizing principle to help structure your message.

Exercises

1. Consider some good news you’ve received recently (or would like to receive if you haven’t). Assuming the role of the one who delivered it (or who you would like to deliver it), write a three-part direct-approach message explaining it to yourself in as much detail as necessary.
2. Consider some bad news you’ve received recently (or fear receiving if you haven’t). Write a four-part indirect-approach message explaining it to yourself as if you were the one delivering it.
3. Draft a three-paragraph email to your boss (actual or imagined) where you recommend purchasing a new piece of equipment or tool. Use the following organizational structure:

i. Frontload your message by stating your purpose for writing directly in the first sentence or two.
ii. Describe the problem that the tool is meant to address in the follow-up paragraph.
iii. Provide a detailed solution describing the equipment/tool and its action in the third paragraph.

4. Picture yourself a few years from now as a professional in your chosen field. You’ve been employed and are getting to know how things work in this industry when an opportunity to branch out on your own presents itself. To minimize start-up costs, you do as much of the work as you can manage yourself, including the marketing and promotion. To this end, you figure out how to put together a website and write the content yourself. For this exercise, write a piece for each of the ten organizing principles explained and exemplified in Table 11.2 above and about the same length as each, but tailored to suit the products and/or services you will be offering in your chosen profession.

   

References

Baddeley, A. (2000). Short-term and working memory. In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Memory (pp. 77-92). New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=DOYJCAAAQBAJ

Houng, D. (2019). Direct and indirect approaches [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-uB33AfqMo

 

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Communication @ Work by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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