In business, it doesn’t matter how well you know your subject. If your good idea is buried in a maze of clumsy language, it’s lost. Your reader won’t even take time to search.
Analytic writing often gets a bad rap — dry research reports, meandering memos, perplexing tech notes — but concise and persuasive writing is more valuable than ever in business today. In a complex and fast-paced world, clear and quickly readable analytic writing is a powerful tool for distilling meaning out of data, so that competitive insights and critical recommendations emerge.
To deliver your message, use these three guidelines. Think of them as the ABCs for analytic writing.
In analytic writing, you’re laying out evidence and drawing a conclusion. Explain what your data is (both quantitative and qualitative) and what the implications are, but avoid giving an avalanche of numbers. Instead, aim for a concise explanation of “facts unique to this situation.” Connect the dots so that your reader understands exactly why you’re advocating for this particular choice over other options. Make sure your argument can be easily summarized and shared verbally in decision-making meetings. Disclose any important risks in the situations — the factors that might work against the course of action you’ve recommended. But don’t bog down the document with a laundry list of everything that could go awry.
B: Bullet Points (and Other Formatting)
If your company has a commonly used template for reports or memos, use it. Familiar formats are less distracting and easier to scan. If there is no such template, create a document with an easy-to-read font, headings in boldface, bullet points in lists and acronyms explained in first reference. Headings should serve as signposts so your reader can scan the document and get the gist before settling in for a deeper read. Winnow your visual aids — maps, tables, graphs — down to the clearest and most relevant.
C: Clear Conclusion
What’s the main takeaway? Don’t save it for the finale. It should be listed right off the bat, in the introductory paragraph, and again in the conclusion or executive summary section. Readers should be able to put down the document and immediately summarize what you want them to know and what you want them to do in a sentence or two. “If we allocate 5 percent more funding to R&D next year, we will be able to prototype and test both devices, which can improve our competitive position for the next two years.” It should be an elevator-pitch idea that’s easily shared verbally or summarized in an email by any colleague who will share out your report.
With your ABCs in place, you have a strong foundation. For bonus polish, here are a few more pointers:
Simplify numbers for scanability. For instance, instead of “inventory turnover increased from 16.35 to 18.99”, write: “inventory turnover increased from 16 to 19.”
Reference where more data and detail can be found for a reader who wants to dig deeper. For instance, “Prior to 2007, days receivable averaged about 16 days (see the Performance Analysis in Exhibit 3.)” Short data sets can be put into the body of the text, but lengthy charts, tables or data sets should be included in exhibits given at the end of the report.
Vary your sentences, interspersing short statements with longer explanations. Eliminate vague or emotion-laden language in favor of specifics. For instance, instead of “The R&D budget is terrible,” try, “The annual R&D budget is 15 percent less than that of our five closest competitors.”
The preceding is adapted from Darden Professor Marc L. Lipson’s technical note Clear, Complete and Concise: Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins of Analytic Writing (Darden Business Publishing).