More benefits to this great 'Summary' layout

This is the third 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 embedded within its paragraphs. I’ve seen a Marketing one-pager with 47 numbers in its text, then two weeks later, a Finance one with 61 numbers.

Previously, we saw Figure 1 – a table (its labels and numbers are illustrative). We saw how its so much better than its text-based equivalent. We saw how the table avoids repetition and errors, plus it’s far easier to see bad news. Today we see more benefits.

We spot missing numbers: every time I take numbers embedded in text and put them in a table, I find stuff is missing. The text says: “ABC is £Xm, up 10% on £Ym budget, and DEF is currently £Zm”. But what was DEF’s budget? Is DEF up or down on budget? The text fails to say. But put the numbers in a table, and the missing budget number is obvious – the table has an empty cell.

And don’t delude yourself… “Surely such omissions are obvious even with the text”, you surmise. No. OK, yes, in the above example, it’s easy to spot that DEF’s budget figure is missing. But it’s just one sentence. If you’ve a page of such stuff to plough through, it’s far tougher… especially when the phraseology changes constantly: “ABC is £Pm, 10% unfavourable on £Qm budget; the £Rm actual for KLM is 5% down on budget £Sm – plus we’re 4% adverse to-date on SPT’s £Tm budget.” The text has different words for the same thing (unfavourable, adverse, down), and has different sentence-structures too. Now, it’s not so easy to spot missing numbers.

Variety isn’t always the spice of life: why do report-writers write this way? Why do they choose different words and sentence-structures to describe similar things? Answer: to avoid it all being too darned repetitive. Too boring.

And you know what? They’re right. If every sentence read the same way – with the same words, the same structure - jeez, it would be brutal to read. So yes, maybe we need to do something. But many of us then do the wrong thing – we add variety. Different words and structures. Result: it’s still boring (you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear… if you describe a table in words, it'll be boring, no matter how much variety you add). But it’s also really tough to follow, as we saw above.

The answer is, of course: don’t do text. Do a table.
So far, so good. Yes, with the table, we spot errors – and often, such errors are accidental. But not always. Time for the next benefit.

We spot deceit and duplicity: “ABC is £Sm, up 5% on budget, and DEF is £Tm, 4% favourable on £Um forecast. And GHI is 3% above last year - £Vm versus £Wm”. Different comparatives - budget, forecast, last year. I see this happen a lot – and often it’s done deliberately to paint a misleadingly positive picture.

I’ve even seen a more egregious example. Yes, comparatives changed - but indicators were very selectively chosen too. "Product C is up, business unit P is up, the number of clients in country Z is up"... but what about products A and B, and countries X and Y? The commentary didn't say. Six times the one-page summary said stuff was up, favourable, etc. But turn to the detailed pages and readers found a different story - overall, stuff was down. Things weren't going well. Shockingly dodgy. And dangerous too, for it undermines trust – and trust is a fragile commodity that’s easy to break and difficult to mend.

How to spot such deceit? You can guess the answer: do a table. Its empty cells instantly reveal selective indicators and missing comparatives. 

There are two common questions I’ve been asked over the years:

Why not do Red-Amber-Green blobs? I covered this in this email years ago.

How to add insight? We look at that later in the series. Before then, the next email is a slight digression: I ponder a conundrum: given that many one-page summaries lack insight (for they do), why don't bosses complain? Why do bosses accept one-pagers that are almost insight-free zones? I explain why. 

Time for this month’s fun stuff.

"When you read, you begin with A-B-C": recently I've been sent a truly bizarre graph that shows imports of Russian natural gas by country. Study its x-axis... A, B, C, etc. And yes, Armenia is on the left side of the graph, whilst UK and US are on the right. Weird. 

Which reminds me of an inspired spoof infographic done about 8 years ago (see below) - it showed how we'd convey information by the time 2019 arrived.

The spoof infographic is truly an embarrassment of riches - its top graph has an arrow to help readers see that the line is... well, going up (who'd have thought it, eh!) There's a pie chart. Icons. Venns. Funky fonts. But for me, the best bit is the graph at the bottom. I adore what it plots: for each letter in the word 'FORMAT', the graph plots its position in the alphabet (A is 1, for instance). Sheer genius. 

With thanks to Sam Spencer for sending me the Russian Gas chart. 

Til next month


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