Using Theater Techniques in Business Writing

February 2024
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It is the rare or non-existent professional business writer who has not tried their hand at more “creative” forms of content. Novels, screenplays, short stories, operas, plays — you name it, we’ve probably started it, made it about a third of the way through it, became discouraged and put it aside for “more pressing matters.” 

In fact, for most of us, our first love was writing creatively. We “fell into” business writing until we could finish our personal masterpieces. As Joseph Heller wryly asked in “Closing Time,” “Whoever starts out with a dream to succeed in public relations?”

But succeed we must — and do. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t use the tips and techniques from our more creative endeavors in our livelihoods.

For decades, I tried to keep these two worlds apart. I would “bang out” my “work,” and “hone” my “art.” I was being ridiculous. Once I got past this ignorance, I realized that using my creative brain at the office not only produced better copy, but it also made it more fun. 

And I started putting more and more of what I learned and observed in the office into my creative work (which, sadly, led to my writing too many comedy sketches about TV interviews, but I digress).

The trick is — which tips and techniques from which creative endeavor. I’ve found the theater to have the most relevance in my work, albeit with one caveat. In theater, we build from a beginning to an end. 

In business, we value getting to the point quickly. Despite this, there are ways to use theatrical flair in business writing. To wit…


We are told early in English class that all writing is based on conflict. Man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. machine — this is the basis of storytelling that predates Aristophanes. Conflict is essential in theater — "Hamlet" would not have lasted five centuries if the Prince simply came home, said hi to his mom and uncle, and married Ophelia. 

Conflict is also helpful in business writing. While you should get to the bottom line quickly, you can explain the conflict that led to any decision you are explaining. Don’t just tell your reader: “We’re opening a new factory in Switzerland.” Explain how your team overcame challenges setting up a facility so far from your current operations, and then why you believe that this is your best decision.

Character arc

In the best traditional plays, all the main characters are on a journey. They start the play in one situation or mindset and find themselves in a different one by the end. The best writers show that journey throughout the work. In business writing, this can be very effective, especially in a speech.

Start your speech with an announcement. Then, explain how you got to this point, especially if it represents a 180-degree turn from where you were. 

Of course, you don’t want this to be the bulk of your talk — I have spent much of my career advising corporate speakers not to tell me the process but, instead, tell me the result. You can include some of the process, as long as it is interesting and relevant to your audience.


In every play, in every scene, in every line on a stage, an actor must know what they want in that line, scene and play. They must know what they hope to gain from saying that line or doing the action in the stage directions. All business writing should work the same way. 

When you write, whether for yourself or someone else, you must know what you want that writing to make an audience do, say, think or feel. Do you want the listeners of this talk to change how they are working? Do you want your readers to call their member of Congress and demand action? Until you know what you want them to do, you cannot write your best copy.

What’s my motivation?

Ah, the cliched actor question. In every scene, an actor must know why they are doing what they are doing. Obviously, this is related to objective — most likely they are taking a specific action because they believe it will help get closer to their objective. But why do they want that objective? 

Similarly, in our professional writing, we need to know why we, or more likely the person we are writing for, want the audience to do what this piece will get them to do. 

Most often in business, the reason is simple — the bottom line. As “Monday Night Football” producer Don Ohlmeyer said, “the answer to all your questions is money.” But there are other motivations, including greater efficiency, improved staff morale, and dealing with a situation before it becomes a problem or a crisis.


One of the most pernicious and self-defeating tendencies in corporate America and government is revising things right up to the deadline. We seem to think if someone is giving a speech at 4 p.m. on Friday we should be rewriting it until 3:55 p.m. that day. 

While revisions right before the talk can and will be necessary based on changing circumstances, 90% of the time these last-minute edits could have been, and should have been, done much earlier. In theater, the term “Birdseye” means the show is “frozen.” 

The script is what it is, the blocking is what it is, the sets, lights and sound are done — now it’s time to perfect the delivery of it. You should do the same with your business writing. And the way to do that is…


Almost everyone “practices” their speeches. Hardly anyone “rehearses” them. What’s the difference? Rehearsing is a deeper dive into the delivery. It’s not just standing where you’re going to stand, reading the words and then saying, “OK, we’re good.”

It’s figuring out the best way to deliver the talk. It’s trying different ways and hearing which works best. It’s asking questions about the script: “Should I sound concerned in this part, or confident?” This is only possible if you get enough time to rehearse, which means finalizing the content earlier and only changing things that absolutely must be changed.

It is highly unlikely that your intro to an annual report will be performed by Viola Davis and Sir Ian McKellen at the Old Vic Theatre. That doesn’t mean you can’t use some of the same style and structure you used in your dramatic exploration of three generations of Italian families living on the Lower East Side in that report.  

The goal, as always, is to keep your audience engaged so they feel what you want them to feel — the same goal as every playwright. Use these techniques and then take your bow. Exeunt. 

Return to Current Issue Writing & Storytelling | February 2024
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