Make your reports irresistibly interesting

MudskipperPeople who are extraordinarily knowledgeable unfortunately have an extraordinary capacity for being boring. So when you’re writing reports, how do you make sure they impart all the information they need to, without putting the reader to sleep? The chap in the picture knows a tip or two, and we’ll come back to him a bit later.

One thing that can make knowledgeable writers boring is an imbalance in information between writer and reader. If you know a lot, and your reader knows very little, there is a danger of factual overload. This can be very dull. (If the reader is polite, they will probably call it ‘dense’ or ‘technical’ – at least to your face.)

It’s context that’s the problem. Context is the medium within which facts make sense. You, having immersed yourself studiously in your subject for months or years, are positively dripping with context. Your reader, coming face to face with the subject for the first time, isn’t. As a result, what you may find interesting, they may find rather dry.

As a question-setter for the BBC quiz show Mastermind, I’m routinely confronted by this kind of imbalance. I stand by the principle that knowledge is never boring. To those who know all there is to know about their specialist subject, it’s all interesting: when you know that Joseph Gayetty is said to have invented the first commercial toilet paper in 1857, it’s interesting that Emperor Hongwu of China was ordering custom-made toilet paper for the imperial court back in the 14th century.

When you know that, in cricket, the googly is usually delivered out of the back of the bowler’s hand, it’s interesting that the Australian Jack Iverson found a way to deliver it from between his thumb and forefinger. Every field of endeavour and every sector of business is stuffed with this sort of arcana.

Not all facts are equally interesting

So how do you persuade your readers that they should find these things just as interesting as you do?

It’s not about compromising on accuracy. Without integrity, without a commitment to the facts, your reports won’t do the job you need them to do. Putting reader-appeal before accuracy might suit a tabloid newspaper, but it’s simply self-defeating when your primary goal is effective communication.

Instead, it’s about identifying the elements of your report or proposal that are able to flourish without a support network of life-giving context. We might call them ‘mudskippers’, after the fish that have the ability to breathe and move around on land as well as underwater.

How do you spot a mudskipper? Let’s say I have room in my report for 50 facts. Let’s say that the central, critical message of my report constitutes 20 of these. These are the facts that simply have to go in, ditchwater-dull or mudskipper-interesting, and that’s fine – this is a business report, after all.

What we’re discussing here are those other 30 facts, the information that comprises your supporting argument and turns a stark list of take-home statements into an effective and fully rounded report. This is where your mudskipper-spotting skills can make the difference.

As a knowledgeable person, you’re in the privileged position of being able to see the goings-on behind the green curtain. You’re the scuba diver who can see the vast, vibrant coral atoll that to the airline passenger flying overhead is just a bleak bollard in the middle of the ocean. This privileged position is hard-earned – but it’s one you have to relinquish if you want to do a good job of communicating your expertise. You have to swallow the unpalatable reality that, to your readers, not all facts are equally interesting.

You’ll soon understand how Charles Darwin felt when, after spending decades establishing himself as an all-time world expert on barnacles, all anyone ever wanted to ask him about was On The Origin Of Species. It’s frustrating, but it’s necessary.

How to spot a mudskipper

Mudskippers – those versatile ideas that don’t perish when taken out of context – needn’t be sensational. If they are, treat them with extreme caution. And they shouldn’t be trivial. They should help the reader understand your message, but, just as importantly, they should make the reader want to understand.

They’ll often jump out at you during the research process. They might be of a different category to the surrounding information (a name, rather than a number, say). They might have a hinterland (historical, geographical, cross-sectoral). They might introduce an element of humanity (a quotation might sometimes be a mudskipper).

Mudskippers are facts with flavour. They’re the information equivalent of umami – that fifth flavour of savoury hard-to-describe ‘meatiness’ – the quality that makes everything just that bit more moreish.

Knowledge is power. But only when you know how to use it.

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