Two Keys to Writing Great Research Reports
A truly effective research report is both parsimonious and richly nuanced. In other words, (1) it is short and to the point, and (2) it captures the complexity of reality. But how do you do both?
The importance of the first was highlighted in Sunday’s “Corner Office” interview in the New York Times business section. Guy Kawasaki, co-founder of the Alltop news aggregation site, noted the importance of brief and pithy reports:
Q. What should business schools teach more of, or less of?
A. They should teach students how to communicate in five-sentence e-mails and with 10-slide PowerPoint presentations. If they just taught every student that, American business would be much better off.
A. Because no one wants to read “War and Peace” e-mails. Who has the time? Ditto with 60 PowerPoint slides for a one-hour meeting. What you learn in school is the opposite of what happens in the real world. In school, you’re always worried about minimums. You have to reach 20 pages or you have to have so many slides or whatever. Then you get out in the real world and you think, “I have to have a minimum of 20 pages and 50 slides.”
However, the importance of complexity was highlighted the next day in an article about Edward Tufte, a contemporary champion of presenting rich data via simple and compelling graphics. Over-simplification can lead to bad decisions:
Mr. Tufte devotes a section of one of his books to explaining how clearer graphics could have persuaded NASA officials to postpone the takeoff [that resulted in the space shuttle Challenger disaster] because of cold weather. One of his conclusions is that presentations before the explosion, and even after, were too simplified. For simplicity, information was left out about the many missions during warmer weather that were uneventful. But the absence of that information meant that it was easy to overlook the larger pattern, that cold weather was dangerous to the O-ring.
In an interview, Mr. Tufte emphasized the need to enlist “the clarity of intense information.”
That’s the thing about transparency: you know it when you don’t see it. It some cases, it can mean more information. But other times, the reader can be overwhelmed by too much irrelevant information or, in one of Mr. Tufte’s favorite terms, “chartjunk.”
The goal in writing and presenting research should be to keep it brief and concise, but at the same time, communicate “intense” and relevant information. A clear story will do this for you because good research stories are laden with meaning, complexity, and nuance, but they can be communicated succinctly, clearly, and with unambiguous implications. Need help? Versta Research specializes in rigorous research and communicating intense information (without all the chartjunk) to internal and external audiences. We help you turn data into stories, and would be pleased to assist on your next research project.
—Joe Hopper, Ph.D.