You're a brain. You know your stuff. When you write a report, you put your heart into it. When it's complete, you know it's chock full of valuable information. There's just one problem: Other people don't get it. They don't see what you see.
What's the problem? It just might be your writing style.
When you understand data and its implications, you want others to see what you see. How frustrating it can be when decision makers ignore or misunderstand the information you've developed for them. When your reports aren't taken seriously, it's more than frustrating -- it's career limiting. If the boss doesn't find your reports valuable, the boss doesn't find you valuable. Persuasive writing is a survival skill for data analysts.
Good writing depends on good structure. Reports, whether they're the length of a memo or an encyclopedia, need a strong overall structure to guide the reader to relevant information and clarify the relationships among the facts that you present. Good sentence structure helps readers understand details.
When you've been pouring your life into a project, you can become so familiar with it that it's easy to forget how much others don't know. Technical experts often leap into specifics without giving the reader enough guidance to appreciate the significance of their results.
You must provide readers with structure to help them understand what you write. They need to know what to expect and how the information will be organized. Since people aren't always perfect at understanding and remembering what they read and hear, they also need a bit of repetition. You may have heard that, when you write or speak, you should tell them what you're gonna tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. I find that people need a little more structure than that. Here's what I recommend.
- Opening: Get their attention.
- Introduction: Briefly explain the issue and the information that will follow.
- Thesis: Explain how the information will be presented.
- Body: Provide the information in a simple, orderly way.
- Conclusion: Summarize the main points you've made.
You won't end up with a well-structured document if you write everything off the top of your head. Get in the habit of outlining. Begin by making notes about the points you want the reader to understand. Then develop an outline that provides background and gets your points across. Outline the document as a whole, and then do the same for every topic you discuss -- each topic should have its own introduction, body, and conclusion.
Technical folks often write sentences like this: "The research phase investigated coupons as proposed by the research committee and redeemable by consumers at retail outlets." Vile, isn't it? But it's not your fault. They encouraged you to write that way in graduate school. Still, you have to move on now. Write simpler sentences. Keep them short. Write just one idea per sentence.
Give more thought to the structure of each report you write. Make outlines before you write. Simplify your sentences. These few things will make your reports easier to read and understand. And when the boss understands your message, you'll find your message has more impact.
Share your tips for writing good reports below.