(Digression: why do bosses accept bad summaries?)

This is the fourth in a series of emails on one-page summaries of bigger reports - and in particular, what to do if your one-pager has many numbers within its paragraphs. I've seen a Marketing report with 47 numbers in its Summary page of text, then two weeks later, a Finance one with 61 numbers. Today, we ponder these pages' insight. Note that this email differs from most others I've done, for it doesn't give tips (tips return big-time next month). Rather, I pontificate

On with today's topic. Above, I mentioned two one-page summaries - and in both cases:

(1) They should have conveyed their numbers not in text but in a table. Previous emails show how and explain why;

(2) They gave very little insight. Most of the text merely said if something was up or down, e.g. “AB is £Sm, up 4% on £Tm forecast; JK is 5% adverse on £Um etc”. Only about 5-10% of text was insight (“Due to £Zm refund"; or: “PQR rules now apply”).

Which is strange, given that both one-pagers were for the top bosses of big companies. How can their report-writers get away with writing text that's so insight-lite? 

Answer: they get away with it because it's text. Text can be beguiling. We see it and think: “My! Someone's distilled the data and drawn out its threads”.

They haven’t. Often they merely over-type last month’s text with this month's numbers – and unwittingly create errors. And they wrongly put the 'summary' comments in the same order as the rest of the report (a prior email explains why this is bad).

Result: confused readers. Yes, each sentence on its own makes sense... but collectively it's tough. Bosses reach the end of the page and think: "Hmmm... overall, is it good or bad?". To help them decide, they re-read it, but this time, they circle bad stuff with a highlighter pen. Then they look at the page and realise: “Look! Four highlights!! Four bad ‘uns!!!”.

Of course, they've no insight as to why stuff is bad nor what to do about it. But heck, they’ve spotted the bad 'uns, so job done, surely, no? Also, by this time, bosses are mentally spent. The page was a tough read, fatigue has set in. So they say to themselves: “I'll ask about the bad 'uns in tomorrow’s meeting”. 

Now imagine the one-pager is good. Its 'variance' table instantly reveals the bad 'uns - the four bracketed ones (previous emails showed the table). Easy. And bosses' mental fatigue hasn't yet set in. Rather, their minds are as clean as a whistle, they're still fresh as a daisy. Hence they'd be curious: “OK", they think, "I wonder what the report says about those four items”. They'd expect more. They want insight – and would be disgruntled if there isn't any.

So... write tough-to-grasp stuff and bosses will probably be happy even if we don't give insight – but write clear stuff, and bosses will be unhappy unless we give insight.

Hmmm. Clear writing seems a poisoned chalice - maybe we should strive to write unclear reports. No. Failing to give insight can be career-limiting. Firstly, maybe your boss's mental-fatigue threshold is higher than others'. Secondly, your boss might see a good report and realise just how much you short-change them with yours. Finally, if you merely repeat what's in a table, bosses might give your job to someone who costs less.  

Also, there’s a positive reason to add insight: your job is more interesting. More rewarding. 

Next month, we see how to add insight, but for now, here's a warning: when you make your reports clear, bosses move the goalposts. That’s because they no longer waste brain space deciphering numbers, but instead ponder them – and then realise they want different numbers. So you give them that – and they then realise they don't just want numbers. They want insight.  

When bosses move the goalposts like this, some people think it’s frustrating. I think it’s progress. For the company. For your career. At worst, it helps prevent you losing your job. At best, it helps you get promoted. You become known internally for your 'superpower' - you write reports that are fantastic

Next month we return to the 'variance' table and study it in more detail. You also see a small but great tweak to make it even better. But for now, the fun stuff.

"This could be heaven or this could be hell": here's another joke pie chart I've been sent - and yes, visually it's clever, but I struggle a bit with its Eagles connection. After all, it could be a Road to Nowhere Pie Chart (its legend would be: (1) Well, we know where we're goin'; (2) But we don't know where we've been; etc).

Or a Take Me Home, Country Roads Pie Chart (legend: (1) Almost heaven, West Virginia; (2) Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River; etc). You get the idea. 

Maybe I'm being too lyrically pedantic. After all, it's a great pie chart, and my thanks to Mike van de Water for sending it to me. 

Til next month.


P.S. Talking of music, a future email will look at how to convey the results of a quiz that's slightly consumed the wider Moon family in recent weeks: how many Beatles' songs can you name? (How many can you name?)

Clarity and Impact Ltd | +44 20 8840 4507 | jon@jmoon.co.uk | www.jmoon.co.uk

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