Part 4: Ever read something, but can't answer questions on it after?

Ever read a page and thought: "OK... it makes sense", only for bosses to then ask you questions on it - reasonable questions - that you can't answer? You realise that nothing you'd read had sunk in. If that resonates, read on. This email is the fourth in a series on ‘communicating’ - here are the previous emails. 

Imagine we're writing a brief report that asks bosses for money for new IT. The report is uncontroversial - the new IT makes sense and won’t cost that much. So we don't really need to persuade. Rather, we merely need to convey.

But there's a problem: every boss has a boss. After our bosses read our report, they bump into their boss who asks: “That report… any good?”. Our bosses won’t say it is if they can't recall any specifics – they’d look foolish. “You say it’s good,” their bosses surmise, “but you can’t remember why?!?”.

This point – telling others – is key. Even if bosses like our report, they won’t say they like it if they can’t recall detail. In fact, it’s worse. Bosses will say they don’t like it even though they did when they read it. It’s a huge reversal of fortune. And this problem arises a lot… how often do you read a report, then an hour later think: “It seemed to make sense when I read it … but now I can recall hardly any of it”?

So strive to give reports - and talks – repeatability. A previous email explained how repeatability helps us persuade. That is, we should strive to find an arresting angle so that people want to tell others what they’ve just learnt. We start a chain reaction. We breathe life into our ideas - they soar and take flight.

This month, repeatability returns, albeit with a twist: how to ensure people can tell others what they’ve just learnt. The new IT… when our bosses read about it, they’ll hardly run down the corridor telling others about it. But strive to ensure they can tell others, just in case (and if you do, there’s a neat by-product, as I explain at the end).

So, here are two tips and one observation on repeatability:

Tip 1: be real, not abstract: don’t say that the new IT system “makes us more efficient and effective". OK, you've mentioned benefits, not features – so far, so good - but they’re rubbish benefits because they’re just a bit vague and abstract. Not specific enough. After all, imagine the conversation between bosses:

Boss 1: “That report you read – why do we need this new IT?”.
Boss 2: “It said we’ll be more efficient”.
Boss 1: “Nice… go on, explain more”.
Boss 2: “Dunno – that’s it…”.

Boss 2 will think Boss 1 is a bit dim.

Instead, be real, e.g. explain how the new IT means we get reports earlier after a month-end. Or how we save time re-keying and checking.

Better… but not enough. Again, imagine the conversation – the boss says: “We save time re-keying and checking”, and the boss’s boss asks further: “OK… how much time?”. “Dunno – the report didn’t say.”

Tip 2: also be specific. Give numbers, e.g. “We save 15 hours a month re-keying and checking”.

Giving numbers... it sounds obvious, but I constantly see stuff with no numbers, e.g. “this is up a bit, that is down significantly”. Which brings us to the one observation.

Many reports/ summaries are a number-free zone. Look out for it yourself, it's great fun when you spot it. Often though, we don't spot it. We read a summary... it looks smart, it's well written inasmuch as we breeze through it easily. Every sentence makes quick, instant sense. Neat.

But then someone asks us about it afterwards, and we realise how little we've actually learnt from it.

Example: I once read a sharp-looking one-page written note (not a slide for a talk) – it was to persuade people to invest in a company - and the comments were grouped into three sections: 'Progress', 'Initiatives', 'Outlook', each with five bullets. So far, so good.

But not a single number in any bullet. One bullet said: “Cost reduction”. Full stop. That was it. Another said: “DEF expected to produce tangible results”. And: “ABC to produce additional growth”.

Imagine reading that, then trying to answer your bosses’ questions.

But... not all numbers are equal. There are good numbers and bad numbers. Next month explains more. For now, next is the neat by-product to repeatability that I promised you.

The neat by-product, even if you merely wish to convey: you make your boss look good. Imagine your boss’s boss asks your boss about your report… you’ve helped your boss talk knowledgeably about the report. Your boss looks informed. On top of things. You’ve helped your boss impress their boss. And making your boss look good… it’s a good career move.

Finally, the fun bit: last month’s email had a dreadful column chart from the Times Education Supplement. This month, The Times has delivered again with its Red Amber Green (RAG) map of the UK. Study its legend - red means… red. Now you know. Actually, imagine if they’d done it so that red means green, and green means red. Now there’s an idea for your next RAG report (albeit a previous email explained why most RAG reports shouldn't be done, and what you should do instead). With thanks to Nick Sladden for sending me The Times RAG map.

Til next month.


PS: that one pager ('Progress', 'Initiatives', 'Outlook') - what exactly causes people to create something so bad?! Well, there's a very specific catalyst for such monstrosities - one which wreaks havoc on far too many business reports. I'll reveal all at the end of this series on 'communicating'.

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