Warren Buffett published his much-celebrated annual Letter to Shareholders yesterday. I noticed it was out while I was on a flight home from LA, just as JetBlue and I were 30,000 feet over Nebraska.
Nebraska. Buffett. Me. Coincidence? I. THINK. NOT. (To quote The Incredibles‘ Bernie Kropp.)
By the time I landed in Boston, analysts and commentators and journalists were all over it.
Here’s a hilarious thing: Yahoo can’t seem to get its email client right. But even before the letter’s official release, Yahoo had produced a video highlight reel with Warren’s letter’s best quotes. And by “hilarious” I mean funny-eyeroll. Not funny-ha-ha.
Let that sink in for a minute: A letter gets its own trailer. Yes, the letter is written by the world’s most famous investor. But still.
He writes his annual letter as if writing to one person: His sister, Doris—a Berkshire-Hathaway investor. She isn’t stupid. But like most of us, she can do without the financial jargon that usually makes shareholder communications insufferable.
I know I know I know… you’ve heard this before. I’ve mentioned Writing to Doris to you already.
But Warren’s new letter has writing tips that go beyond Writing to Doris. Let’s talk about a few passages from yesterday’s letter that all of us writers should love and be inspired by.
Four writing tips inspired by Warren Buffett
✍️ “Now let’s take a look at what you own.”
Warren’s dives in with some specifics on the assets Berkshire Hathaway owns (or owns pieces of). See how he frames that? Not “what I manage” or “what I control.” But: What YOU own.
Takeaway: Pull your audience right into what you’re writing. Make sure they see themselves in it. Don’t hold back. Don’t expect them to connect the dots. If dots need connecting… get out your Sharpie. And CONNECT. ALL. DOTS. IMMEDIATELY.
✍️ “At Berkshire, our audience is neither analysts nor commentators…. The numbers that flow up to us will be the ones we send on to you.”
Warren makes it super-clear early on who he serves. And who he is not writing to.
Warren knows the analysts and commentators will flock to this annual report like kids to Santa’s lap. He knows they’ll read it—but he seems to say: So what? That’s not who he writes to.
Takeaway: Doris. Doris. Doris. Always Doris. Write to Doris. Ignore the analysts, pundits, critics, the Not-Your-Doris.
✍️ “Before moving on, I want to give you some good news—really good news—that is not reflected in our financial statements.”
This insider-y tone is threaded throughout the letter. But what I love most in this throwaway, unremarkable phrase tucked in that sentence: “good news—really good news.”
That repeat of “really good news” for emphasis is the kind of phrasing that an editor would probably strike out, because it’s not really necessary to the meaning. It doesn’t add anything, either.
Last week we talked about the need to Marie Kondo your writing to toss out that excess stuff weighing it down. And some of you wrote back with a vote to eject “really.”So why is it okay now? Because in Warren’s case, the “really” works. It amps up his emotion, and it reminds us (again) that we are reading a letter from Warren. From him. To us.
But sometimes those casual, conversational asides can loosen up the things, especially in a letter or a blog post or a social media post. (Less so in a news article, press release, or whitepaper.)
Takeaway: It’s also a good reminder to not blindly follow best-practices and must-heed advice for writing. Learn the rules so you can break them when you need to.
✍️ “Investors who evaluate Berkshire sometimes obsess on the details of our many and diverse businesses—our economic ‘trees,’ so to speak. Analysis of that type can be mind-numbing, given that we own a vast array of specimens, ranging from twigs to redwoods. A few of our trees are diseased and unlikely to be around a decade from now. Many others, though, are destined to grow in size and beauty.”
Warren extends the forest vs. trees metaphor by breaking his business “forest” into five “groves” of importance.
The forest vs. trees metaphor isn’t exactly original. But it doesn’t need to be, because here it’s better to use a familiar metaphor to (1) break down the complexities of the business and (2) assert the Berkshire Hathaway investing view of the world: Don’t obsess about trees. Focus on the forest.
There’s a lot more to love in Warren’s letter: I haven’t even had a chance to dive into his snark and the Abe Lincoln quotes. But I’ll stop here.
Go deeper 👉 👉 👉 See Warren’s new letter here.