David Housman

Composition Tips for Researchers


Communication and reporting is the single most important part of research project. Don’t get me wrong- I’m as big a fan of 30 pages of raw statistics and 11 point text as the next guy. But as proud as I am of a successful study, I realize that it’s not worth a dime if they don’t result in action. Some things are just too important to not be heard. In that respect, once the project has concluded and the findings are found, good researchers will transition from find-er to show-er. That’s when you need to start thinking seriously about marketing and communications strategy. As researchers, if we haven’t got our message into the hands of the people that can benefit from it, then we’re not doing our job.

A common misconception among researchers is that people want to see your work.

Your primary stakeholder probably does, and your manager probably does. Beyond that, researchers may be under the impression that just because we think it’s interesting, and we’ve studied the issue, other people will find it interesting as well and try to absorb it. The fact is that your coworkers and stakeholders have a limited amount of time that they can use to absorb what you’re trying to tell them. They’re not going to put off their other responsibilities or skip meetings so they can read your report. Use their attention wisely.
The first principle of reporting is “match your message to your audience”. The second principle (derived from the first principle) is “be concise”. Think about these when you’re composing a deliverable for the consumption of others. Being a good analyst is not enough- good researchers will do whatever it takes to infuse your knowledge into the organization. I’ll try anything I can think of- to the point where I was once scolded for what I thought to be the brilliant step of placing copies of a particularly lengthy report in an office bathroom.

The following are some techniques that you can use to help improve the reception to your written communications

  • Cut the excess baggage. If a sentence isn’t helping to make a point or describe an issue, remove it. Summarize where possible. If you’re taking a page to say something obvious, like “firemen should hurry when people need their help”, just say it. You don’t need to prove that fish swim in water. Before I begin polishing a paper, I read through it again and delete as much as I can without hurting the document. No kidding. The worst possible outcome, if your report becomes too long and formidable, is that your audience is going to put it aside until they have more time to read it (in other words, not read it at all)
  • Don’t talk about how much work you did. The hard fact is that no one but you and your manager care how much work you did to produce the report. The only thing that matters to your stakeholders is results. People care about your message- not how hard you worked to say it.  I recall one occasion where I summarized four days of effort in only two pages of text and tables. Those two pages were fantastic. Even if your stakeholders are jumping for joy, be cool about it- play it off as “that’s just what I do” and not “OMG I had to work so hard for that” you’ll look cooler if you play it off like it’s no big deal.
  • Tell the story. Narration is the “voice” of your paper, that leads them from fact to fact, and eventually to a conclusion. Use your narrative voice wisely to describe the data- to help your reader understand what he is reading. If you’re showing a graphic or table, tell the reader what to look for. Your audience isn’t going to take the time to realize why the graphic is interesting. Another approach takes after children’s illustrated books. Describe the issue, and then use the graph or table to punctuate/demonstrate:

    “I do not like them in a box.
    I do not like them with a fox
    I do not like them in a house
    I do mot like them with a mouse
    I do not like them here or there.
    I do not like them anywhere”
    <bar chart of location vs. satisfaction>

  • Be objective. Your audience will be more likely to see your point if you take yourself out of the picture. When describing the data you have collected, divorce yourself from your emotions and opinions. It’s fairly easy to spot when a researcher appears to have an axe to grind, or overstates his findings. If you’re challenged and you can’t back up your conclusions, your credibility will take a hit, and the rest of your conclusions will have less weight. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t connect the dots or draw conclusions- that’s why people hire researchers in the first place. Just try not to connect factual dots to your own emotional dots. 🙂
  • Use bullet points. They’re simpler, easier to read, and they give you an opportunity to focus on facts. If you can say it with a bullet point, don’t use a sentence. However if you’ve ever gone to a website that has a giant tract of text on the front page, you know that it can be fairly formidable. Bullets are there to help readers navigate your content. But if you find yourself getting more than two or three levels of bullet point hierarchy, or you create a long list of bullets (>10 items), think about splitting them up for the sake of readability.
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