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.
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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.
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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. Figure 10 shows the findings as words in tables (WIT)--a better alternative to bullet points. Tests show that WiT triples the impact of the information shown. In figure 10 the key points are "lifted" from the page. Among other things, using WiT also sharpens your prose, increases its readability and helps to ensure that your analysis is complete and consistent. Readers of figure 9 have to wait until the end for the recommendation. In figure 10 it's at the start, which means that readers can judge each comment more easily against this conclusion as they go through the findings. The first finding is "locals prefer other shops' products". That spells it out.
We've even helped readers with a decent heading. Figure 9 says "Review of our retail store", while figure 10 cuts to the chase with "Why we should close our retail store". Do the same with slides, too: if showing the results of the European operations, don't head the slide with "Our European results". Be explicit and say "A record year in Europe" or whatever it is. Highlight the message you wish your audience to remember.
Spinning with charts
Here is one of the many techniques that people use with graphs to deceive the reader. Don't try them yourself, though: if people catch you trying to pull a fast one, you'll have undermined their faith in all your work. For more, Daryll Huff's How to Lie with Statistics (Penguin Books, 1991) is a concise and thought-provoking read.
Graph 1 shows income in 2004-07. Income has seemingly increased eightfold, but that's because the y-axis starts at 50, not zero. Graph 2 shows the situation more fairly. Of course, it sometimes helps to start the y-axis at a number other than zero, because it shows more detail. Graph 3 shows share price movements and its y-axis starts at 700 so that readers can clearly see the detail. Graph 4 shows the same information, but its y-axis starts at zero. It isn't as effective. But scoundrels will abuse this. There's the CEO who quickly shows graph 1 on screen during a presentation and fails to mention that the y-axis starts at 50, but does point out the huge growth. In which case, the intention is obvious: the CEO is trying to deceive.
Jon Moon is a consultant on showing information clearly and with impact, and the author of How to Make an Impact (FT/Prentice Hall, 2007). He is presenting CIMA Mastercourses entitled "Information that influences" in London on November 5 and in Birmingham on November 20. Visit www.cimamastercourses.com for details.
Figure 5 Office 2007 2006 Diff Bristol 132 117 15 Bridgwater 112 102 10 Stroud 112 102 (5) Gloucester 43 49 (6) Bridport 35 44 (9) Total 373 368 5 Figure 6 Office 2007 2006 Diff Bristol 132 117 15 Bridgwater 112 102 10 Stroud 112 102 (5) Gloucester 43 49 (6) Bridport 35 44 (9) Total 373 368 5 Figure 10 Why we should close our retail store First, locals prefers other shops' products. Even if they didn't, we are in a poor location. And, because of planning restrictions, we can't relocate. Below are the details. Locals prefer other We got a market research company to survey 100 shops' products people in the local area. Two-thirds of people said our products are "out of touch" and "poor value for money". Even if they didn't, Two years ago a large new retail centre opened we are in a nearby and is attracting many new shoppers to poor location 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. Footfall through our side of town is down 35 per cent. We can't relocate, The new retail centre provoked campaigns because of against it from local environmental activists. planning The council has bowed to this pressure and restrictions designated previously available sites as "green belt". There is nowhere else to develop.…
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Publication information: Article title: 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. Contributors: Moon, Jon - Author. Magazine title: Financial Management (UK). Publication date: November 2008. Page number: 49+. © 2009 Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.