by Don Harris
The ability to write clear, concise reports is a mandatory skill for practitioners, not an option: ultimately, your report is a major part of what you are paid for. Your work is only as valuable as the clarity of your communication: if people can’t understand what you have done and what your conclusions are, then what was the point? Clear communication and engaging with your target audience will make it more likely that you will be engaged for follow-on work. Learning how to write effectively will save you time and effort.
“You will rarely go wrong when writing if you continually put yourself in the position of your reader. Remember that it is their report, not yours. And always ask yourself this question: “would I want to read what I have just written?”.”
“In a technical report the practical significance of your results are of paramount interest. But remember that your readers are human. By the time they start reading the Discussion it will be 5,000 words, half an hour, two ‘phone calls and a cup of coffee since the Introduction. Help them out – give them a gentle reminder of the project brief and how you addressed it.”
“A non-technical report… is written for a reader without a background in HF/E (or possibly even science or engineering). You must still assume that you are writing for an intelligent reader, though (and this report will probably also get a wider readership than any technical report).”
Practitioner reflections (scroll down to add your own reflection)
The most important attribute an author can have is empathy. As Harris says, “you are writing for your client.” The writer has to step outside of their world and try to see the world through the eyes of their reader(s). Just because something makes sense to you does not mean it will mean anything to the reader.
In the case of writing for clients, such as the technical and non-technical reports, I’ve found that you must consider that there are almost always various underlying and peripheral considerations that the client is keeping in mind (perhaps unconsciously). These could be concerns with looking bad, for example, if your report points out that a project they have worked hard on is not having the intended effect. Other issues could involve concerns with liability, such as in reports related to safety. Try to anticipate and be sensitive to these concerns and you will find your report is often better received.
The internet has brought forth other ways for communication, such as social media and blogging. Although HF/E practitioners are by no means required to join the melee of digital communication, there are some opportunities for the HF/E practitioner to enhance their writing skills online. Particularly for those HF/E practitioners who interact frequently with non-HF/E trained individuals, social media and blogging provide an opportunity to practice breaking down technical HF/E concepts in ways understandable for a larger audience. Obviously, one must be careful what they say and maintain at least a certain level of professionalism, as once something is online the whole world has access to it, and it is nearly impossible to erase. Confidential information should not be shared and inappropriate information should be avoided. But for essentially not cost the HF/E practitioner can practice their non-technical writing and explanatory skills. Add in the fact that this can provide free marketing for those HF/E practitioners in the consulting field and this seems like a pretty good deal.
As the old saying has it (Churchill is often referenced for this): ‘please accept my apologies for a long letter, I did not have enough time to write shorter one’. The point is simple – it takes time and effort to write concisely and it also exposes your own depth of understanding. Einstein is credited more reliably with saying that if someone does understand their subject then they should be able to explain it to a child. My own take on this is that the words and straight-talking you might use to describe something to a friend in the pub is often most of what you need to summarise an argument or a conclusion for a report for a client. What we can all be guilty of is just packing out our reports with formulaic and lengthy passive sentences and long words. It lets us off the hook sometimes (‘they can’t complain about the quantity at least and it sounds authoritative’) – but it leaves no real trace of understanding in the reader.
So do get the executive summary and report summaries, recommendations and conclusions a s simple and direct as you can. For me the Executive Summary is the non-technical element and it is worth spending a lot of tie on it. If you can say what you need to succinctly and clearly here it will force you to be clear in the rest of the report and to think through what you’ve done and found.
The bulk of the report is often never read – it’s your job to digest it for the client, not theirs. What I find helps is to summarise as I go along, section by section. So I am immersed in that detail and in the best place to dredge the nuggets out. That said, sometimes you need to leave a time gap and go back to it as well. Your brain can do some sieving for you offline. You do need to make sure it’s been an accurate sieving process though!
It is good to be direct in reports, and if you are actually offering your expert opinion then what is wrong with using ‘I’? Is it just me or do you also despair when reading many scientific papers where everything is expressed passively and at length, and leaves no trace. The latest device to try and at least force writers to state what their work is adding to the general pool of knowledge seems to have become degraded into formulaic and general statements, perhaps to avoid admitting that very little is really being added…
On the process of writing, I aim to get the text down first in whatever state. It is then much easier to edit it down afterwards. Stephen King, the horror novelist, captures the two stages nicely as ‘writing with the door closed’ (get it down however raw and rough, and without interruption for fact checking, conversations, Googling or anything else) and ‘writing with the door open’ (time to consult, check, edit and so on). A great boon for us all now is that you can dictate your initial thoughts fairly reliably even on your mobile phone. This has the dual benefit of elbowing out that irritating internal editor or critic who keep stopping you (‘that’s not right, that’s not good enough’, etc.) and also allows you to immediately be more direct. Of course you are not writing fiction but writing is writing, the process is very similar for all of us.