Write clear, complete, relevant explanations

Write clear, complete, relevant explanations

Write a report that has clear, complete, relevant explanations. State the conclusions and present carefully selected evidence, analysis, and insights that led you to the conclusions. Explain the support so clearly that the reader understands how you arrived at the conclusions and can decide whether to agree. If you provide too little, the reader will not have enough to be convinced of your conclusions to justify going forward into decision-making, problem-solving, and action. If you provide too much, the reader may never finish it, may misunderstand because the explanation is too complicated, or may just become irritated that he or she has to wade through all the detail to get to what matters.

This unit will show you how to develop explanations of your conclusions in ways that the reader will appreciate and will help the reader agree with you so you accomplish your mutual goals.

Specify the reader's needs and your goals.

The depth of the explanation depends on the reader. A reader who already understands the concept may need only the generalization to be reminded of it.

Example

Using Jung's terminology, the sensing supervisor may be more attuned to details.

The reader who knows Jung's vocabulary will understand this statement immediately because the writer uses the reference to Jung and the word "sensing."

However, a reader who knows Jung's theories but might not understand that the sensing person is more attuned to detail may need more explanation:

Example

Using Jung's terminology, the sensing supervisor may be more attuned to details. The reason is that a person with a strong sensing style focuses on the senses, remembers details that come to the senses, and prefers to work with the sensed detail.

Finally, a reader who does not know Jung's typology at all may need even more detail.

Example

Using Jung's terminology, the sensing supervisor may be more attuned to details. Jung explained his conception of personality styles in his book, Psychological Types. The types describe tendencies people have to act in predictable ways. One of the types is the sensing type, and the style this person uses regularly is called the sensing style. The sensing type prefers to work with sensed detail: sights, sounds, and so on. This person is very good with details because he or she focuses on the senses and likes working with the details that come from them.

As a result, a supervisor who uses the sensing style more often may be more attuned to details.

This explanation begins with the general statement, "the sensing supervisor may be more attuned to details," and ends with it: "As a result, a supervisor who uses the sensing style more often may be more attuned to details." Between the statements, the writer explains that part of Jung's typology in detail. The profile of this explanation is "conclusion . . . support . . . conclusion."

Your report writing should be heavily influenced by your judgments about the type and depth of detail the reader needs to accomplish your goals. If you have too much detail for a knowledgeable reader, you may end up insulting him or her by appearing to be patronizing. If you have too little detail for the reader who doesn't understand the concepts, you may confuse the reader. If you don't have enough of the persuasive details to convince a reader you're trying to persuade, or enough of the rationales and evidence to provide a convincing case for the reader you're hoping will agree with your generalization, then your writing may fail to have the impact you want to have.

Your success will depend upon whether you judged accurately the amount and depth of detail the reader needs.

The table that follows will help you identify the level of readers for whom you are writing.

The reader is an executive or the general public who will not work with the details and just wants the conclusions. The goal is for this person to know the conclusions, risks, and consequences of the action or inaction, but the evidence for the conclusions is not necessary. Write a letter report stating the conclusions for this person without the evidence.

The reader is an executive or other person who will not work with the details, but who has an interest in an overview of the rationales evidence or who must be persuaded by the rationales and evidence. The goal is for this person to know the conclusions and see enough of the evidence to agree with the conclusions or be persuaded, but without great detail.

For this reader and goal, state the conclusions, risks, and consequences of the action or inaction, and each point of evidence that brought you to each conclusion and to your assessment of the risks and consequences. That's all you need. Write your report using them.

This person doesn't want the detail, so adding detail will be counterproductive. Your report may not be read, and if it is read, the reader may be frustrated with the amount of detail. Simply write the conclusions, risks, and consequences of the action or inaction, and a sentence or two about each rationale and each point of evidence. Ensure that your rationales and evidence are sufficient to convince the reader that your conclusions, assessment of risk, and description of consequences are valid.

The reader is involved in the design, fulfillment, and maintenance of the project and must make decisions based on your report, but doesn't carry out the work. The goals are for this person to know the conclusions, see the evidence in detail so he or she can make decisions about actions to take based on your report or be persuaded to act, but he or she doesn't need detailed designs or recommendations for the engineering changes that must occur.

For a person at this level, provide the conclusions, rationales, points of evidence, and enough details about the points of evidence to justify them, but no design or structure details, recommendations, or specifications. The person at this level has to be persuaded that the conclusions are justified and the consequences compel his or her organization to action; he or she makes decisions, but will not carry out the work.

However, you may be in a position in which you need to persuade the reader to believe your conclusions are valid or to act based on your recommendations with the conclusions. If so, provide all the supporting rationales and evidence necessary for this person to be persuaded that your conclusions are valid. Do not add further detail. This person is not interested in the additional detail. However, ensure that your rationales and evidence are sufficient to convince the reader that your conclusions are valid.

The reader is the engineer or other professional who must actually carry through with recommendations in the report. The goal is for this person to know the desirable end state and the design or structure details that will enable him or her to carry out the work. This person requires the greatest level of detail, but may need little or no explanation of the evidence for the conclusions.

Combinations of these readers. You may be writing the report for a reader who performs at all of these levels or the last two levels. You may also be writing a report for a variety of readers, representing every level.

State your central idea(s).

State your central idea in a sentence or two. When the reader finishes your report, he or she must understand that central idea.

For a report such as an audit report or a report presenting results of a study, you may have several conclusions, findings, or recommendations. Each of them is a central idea, so state each in a list of central ideas. The reader must understand all of them.

Avoid rambling.

This explanation starts with a caveat. Reports ramble when the author writes as ideas bubble up into thoughts, in a flow of consciousness. That style of developing the writing will work if the writer has the ability to go back through the resulting mass of text and reorganize, delete, and add as necessary to make a coherent whole. However, most writers aren't very good at doing that. They become attached to what they've written and want to include it all. They are distracted by the resulting mass of text so they can't discover what has been left out that the reader needs. And they are less able to reorganize because once the information is in text, it is more difficult to rethink the way it is presented. It's much like hard-boiling an egg, then trying to make it into an omelet.

Prepare the framework before writing the report. That is more than just a suggestion; it is almost imperative to developing a clear, cohesive report that will accomplish your objectives.

State the supporting rationales and supporting evidence for each conclusion.

Then use all of your insight, creativity, and intelligence to decide what explanations, evidence, rationales, or other details this reader must have to understand each of the central ideas. If your judgment is wrong, you may not succeed. Successful businesspeople are very good at judging what the readers or listeners need to know to be able to accomplish the business goals; they're also very good at giving it to them. Unsuccessful communicators give their readers either too little so the readers don't succeed and are frustrated or too much so the readers end up not reading the communication or misunderstanding it because it is too lengthy.

If you write these types of reports often, solicit feedback from your readers to find out whether the level of detail in the explanation and components of the explanations were valuable to the reader. Use that insight to help you become more adept at presenting explanations in the future.

After you have made your decisions about the amount and depth of detail to use, write the main points you will include under each central idea. Don't start writing the explanations until you have prepared this outline of the details. Use brief statements that will guide you when you write.

For each of the conclusions, state the supporting rationales in one sentence each. The rationales are separate findings that have led to your conclusion. Normally, you will have a small number of rationales, perhaps one, two, or three. Each rationale will have evidence to support it. If the conclusion is supported by evidence only, not separate rationales, state the evidence in a sentence.

If you do have rationales for the conclusion, you will have evidence to support each rationale. State each point of evidence in a sentence.

Don't provide the detail yet. This activity will help you identify the supporting evidence or rationales and evaluate them before starting to focus on the details.

You have just created the framework for your report. Evaluate it based on your understanding of the reader and your goals to make sure you have enough to be compelling for the reader and provide convincing evidence leading to your conclusions. Evaluate whether you have too much. Add or delete until the balance is ideal for the reader and your goals.

Make your point.

Now, judge how much detail to provide with the supporting evidence. Decide how much detail to include based on your objectives and the readers. That means you must know your readers well enough to assess what they want and need, and you must make judgments based on that knowledge about what to provide.

Insufficient evidence or poorly explained evidence will weaken your case. Provide enough for the reader to understand the objection and the rationales behind it, even if the reader does not agree with it.

Provide what the reader wants and needs.

Most importantly, you must provide all the reader expects and needs, but not more than the reader expects and needs.

  1. The evidence must be complete, factual, and verifiable.

  2. Present the strongest evidence first. Provide sources and data as necessary to make the case that brought you to your conclusion. The reader may not agree, but should understand how you arrived at your conclusion.

  3. Anticipate questions and rebuttals to the evidence. Provide your clear explanation of why those are not relevant or persuasive. Be careful to limit these rebuttals made in anticipation; you can overdo it by raising rebuttals that are inconsequential and refuting straw men that would not occur to the reader.

  4. Avoid being redundant. State the point once and then go on to the next point. Repetition of the evidence or point is not persuasive.

  5. Avoid padding the evidence.

    Some evidence may seem to add to your conclusion, but only weakly. If you have a sufficient amount of evidence other than the weak evidence, avoid including it to pad your case. Using weak evidence weakens your conclusion. The reader can seize upon the weak points, refuting them or trivializing your point, and thereby disregard the stronger evidence.

    However, if you have weaker points that are nonetheless meaningful or compelling to the reader, include them.

  6. Avoid expounding about the subject.

    You may feel strongly about the subject or be greatly engrossed in it, but the reader should receive only the information that he or she needs and wants. You must stay focused on the reader as you write.

  7. Avoid teaching and preaching.

    You may feel the reader needs to understand certain principles about your field or the project. Business readers are easily put off by teaching and preaching; it is patronizing and puts you in the position of the missionary with them as unwashed pagans. The readers don't want that and may turn off your message. They want to accomplish their goals in reading your report, not become experts in the field.

  8. Avoid patronizing, insinuating, castigating, and lecturing.

    You may feel the reader's position or plans are short sighted, na´ve, or outright wrong. However, you should reserve judgment and stay with the conclusions you have drawn and evidence for them. Present them objectively, without inflaming adverbs and adjectives such as "ridiculous," "absurd," "thoughtless," "reckless," or other insulting modifiers. Using them does not strengthen your case and may create a defensive reader unwilling to listen to anything you write.

    Present your conclusions and the evidence for them objectively. If they are valid, the reader must at least acknowledge their validity and answer them. Browbeating the reader will not make the points more persuasive or increase the likelihood that the reader will follow through with the decisions or actions you want.

Guide the reader carefully from one concept to another.

Guide the reader carefully from one concept to another. An explanation develops in this way:

  1. You present the explanation of a concept in a sentence or two. We'll call this the "main concept."
  2. You may expand on the main concept with

    • the point that follows logically
    • more detail about the main concept
    • an example of the main concept

    You will use words signaling your choice to the reader. For example, you might write "For example . . ."

  3. You may also follow the explanation of the main concept with a slightly different view of it. "Another way of looking at . . ."
  4. Finally, you may follow any of these parts of the explanation with a change in directions to go on to another concept relevant to the central idea.

At each change, make sure the reader is with you. Try to include transition words such as "for example," "on the other hand," "that means," and so on. Conversely, avoid jumping from one concept to another without signaling to the reader where you're going.

If you can't explain the transition clearly, the new idea may not fit in the explanation. Decide whether you can delete it without detracting from the explanation.

This text jumps from one concept to another without taking the reader along and includes extraneous information:

Permalabs is a joint venture with the State of Toladaga. This differentiated it from the start as this was the only instance of a state government participating in the equity of a stock broking firm. Permalabs today, has completed 17 years of excellence in retail financial services. What really fueled its growth from just another brokerage firm to becoming a well-known financial and commodity markets intermediary?

The many scams, the relatively unstructured exchanges, the sub-brokers who looked only to make a quick buck, etc. all contributed to investors who burned their fingers and have become wary of brokers. In this scenario, Permalabs understood the strategic significance of innovative technology application and direct customer contact through an extended branch network. Today, the national stock exchanges are well structured and technology driven. Setting up and expanding its private V-SAT network to reach even remote traders complements this operation. Our innovative technology application and domain expertise have led to our offering many national firsts in the industry such as Internet trading, electronic securities settlement on the Web, integrated trading screen on the net for securities and derivatives in the Capital Market and automated software for index futures trading and risk management.

This is the revised text with guidelines that help the reader follow and some text deleted. The guidelines and text deleted are in red:

Permalabs is a joint venture with the State of Toladaga. This differentiated it from the start as this was the only instance of a state government participating in the equity of a stock broking firm. Permalabs today has completed 17 years of excellence in retail financial services. What really fueled its growth from just another brokerage firm to becoming a well-known financial and commodity markets intermediary? The reason for its growth is that it has kept regular contact with its customers.

The many scams, the relatively unstructured exchanges, the sub-brokers who looked only to make a quick buck, etc. all contributed to investors who burned their fingers and have become wary of brokers. In this scenario, Permalabs understood the strategic significance of innovative technology application and direct regular customer contact through an extended branch network.

Permalabs used technology to enhance that regular contact. Today, the national stock exchanges are well structured and technology driven. Setting up and expanding its private electronic satellite network to reach even remote traders complements this operation so regular contact is possible.

Permalabs also used the new technology to enhance customer service that enhanced the regular contact. Our innovative technology application and domain expertise have led to our offering many national firsts in the industry, such as Internet trading, electronic securities settlement on the Web, integrated trading screen on the net for securities and derivatives in the Capital Market and automated software for index futures trading and risk management.

The deleted words are not relevant to the explanation or are deadwood. The added words guide the reader through the explanation. The last paragraph, beginning "Permalabs also used . . ." contains concepts sufficiently different from the previous to require a new paragraph. Paragraph breaks help readers see the change in concepts; a new paragraph signals a change in concepts.

Readers must never have to figure out how the concepts fit together. You must guide them along throughout the explanation.

Present your conclusions using a clear format.

The framework for your conclusions produces a clear outline format that will make your points understandable and explicit.

Headings

Use headings for the major divisions. The areas of the investigation will be the first-level headings (Roman numerals I, II, and so on in an outline). Prefer bolded, capitalized, larger headings (14 point) to make this level strong and apparent. If you do have separate sections for approvals and objections, those will use second-level headings that are a little weaker than the first-level headings. For the second-level headings, use a bold, capitalized, flush left, 12-point heading, with blank lines before and after for this level.

For the third level, use a bold, non-capitalized, numbered heading. State the conclusion in a complete sentence and skip one blank line below it.

Identify the rationales if they are longer using a fourth level heading that is not bold, not capitalized, flush left, underlined. If they are not longer, break for a paragraph at the beginning of each rationale and open with a generalization describing the rationale.

The evidence does not require a heading unless the descriptions are lengthy. If you do need a fifth level heading, use italics, not bolded, not underlined, flush left. Devote one paragraph to each point of evidence.

Break out the evidence into clear, numbered lists. Use one number for each point of evidence.

This creates a clear outline with the parts corresponding to the parts of the outline. Following is an outline for an audit report. The headings you would use for it follow the outline.

 

The Outline

 
I. FIRST AREA INVESTIGATED
     A. APPROVALS
          1. Conclusion 1
               a. Rationale
                    (1) Evidence
                    (2) Evidence
               b. Rationale
                    (1) Evidence
                    (2) Evidence
          2. Conclusion 2
               a. Rationale
                    (1) Evidence
                    (2) Evidence
               b. Rationale
                    (1) Evidence
                    (2) Evidence

B. OBJECTIONS
          1. Conclusion 1
               a. Rationale
                    (1) Evidence
                    (2) Evidence
               b. Rationale
                    (1) Evidence
                    (2) Evidence
          2. Conclusion 2
               a. Rationale
                    (1) Evidence
                    (2) Evidence
               b. Rationale
                    (1) Evidence
                    (2) Evidence

 

The Headings

 
FIRST AREA INVESTIGATED

APPROVALS

Conclusion 1

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Conclusion 2

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

 

OBJECTIONS

Conclusion 1

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Conclusion 2

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

 

The Headings with Indentations

A report is clearer when the writer indents the sections. You will see how much more like an outline the headings are when the writer indents them in the illustration below:

 
FIRST AREA INVESTIGATED

APPROVALS

Conclusion 1

Rationale
  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Conclusion 2

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

 

OBJECTIONS

Conclusion 1

Rationale
  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Conclusion 2

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

Rationale

  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence

 


 

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