Report Writing: You Don't Have to Be a Desktop Publishing Guru to Illustrate Facts and Figures Effectively. Jon Moon Offers His Guide to Providing Information with Impact

By Moon, Jon | Financial Management (UK), November 2008 | Go to article overview

Report Writing: You Don't Have to Be a Desktop Publishing Guru to Illustrate Facts and Figures Effectively. Jon Moon Offers His Guide to Providing Information with Impact


Moon, Jon, Financial Management (UK)


Imagine that you produce information packs and reports that people praise and envy--documents that influence, impress and set the benchmark for all others in your organisation. Imagine the impact of this on your working life.

The reality is different for most of us. We churn out documents that don't seem to hit the mark and we aren't too sure why. But we say to ourselves that this is simply the way things are, and we comfort ourselves with the thought that they are as close to being as good as they can be.

In most cases, though, they aren't. Rather, they're like the early maps of the London Underground. Before Harry Beck produced his iconic design in 1932, the Tube map was a literal representation of where the trains ran and everyone thought it was fine. Beck's brilliant new map straightened things up and opened people's eyes to how much better it could be. And so it is with most business information: most people don't realise how much more effectively it can be displayed.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Let's look at some common ways in which people show information and see how much better it can be done. To help you put the tips into practice, some of the following "redos" are free downloads from www.jmoon.co.uk that you can adopt and adapt.

Top of the charts

The graphs in figures 1 and 2 plot the same numbers over time. Figure 1 is awful, but figure 2 is much clearer. Admittedly, I fixed the numbers so that the line graph wouldn't look like the crossing railway lines at Clapham Junction. In the real world, seven years of data rarely conspire to produce such a tidy graph. Usually it's a mess (albeit still less of a mess than the equivalent column chart). In which case, don't show a mess. Show less data--eg, a table that shows each division's total movement over the seven years. Or maybe produce a series of mini-graphs.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

In figure 3 the graph compares the results of a survey of clients' views about the reports, CD-Roms, e-mails and slides produced by four companies. A high score means that clients like them; a low score means they don't. Figure 3 leaves readers to stare at a jungle of anonymous blocks. Instead, try figure 4, which plots the companies' logos. People are familiar with logos and you don't have to put in a legend (which should always be avoided, because readers need to decode it).

Resetting the table

Figure 5 is too spaced out, which means that your gaze has to travel big distances to compare numbers. Figure 6 shows the same numbers but is much more compact and easier to read. Another common mistake is to leave your tables covered with gridlines. These are ugly and they create barriers over which the reader's eyes have to leap. Remove them where possible and, for those lines that you keep, make them finer.

Figure 9 Review of our retail store

The finding from a review of our retail store is as follows:

* We got a market research company to survey 100 people in
the local area. Two-thirds of people said our products are "out
of touch" and "poor value for money".

* As for the location, two years ago a large new retail centre
opened nearby and is attracting many new shoppers to the
town. Unfortunately, our store doesn't see them--the new
centre is on the other side of the train and bus station from
us. We're now in a poor location: footfall through our side of
town is down 35 per cent.

* Also, the new retail centre provoked campaigns from local
environmental activists. The council has bowed to this
pressure and designated previously available sites as "green
belt". There is nowhere else to develop, which means we
can't relocate because of planning restrictions.

* Given all this, we recommend that we close our retail store.

WiT and wisdom

Figure 9 is the typical way to show the findings from a review of a retail store.

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