Grades for content quality from federal agencies

Since 2010, the Center for Plain Language annually judges the quality of content produced by US government agencies. The results for 2017 are shown below.


I love these report cards for several reasons but chief among them is that they use an evidence-based approach. On a shoestring budget. Most complaints about content quality are vague. But the Center describes the methods used to evaluate quality. You can read the details in their white paper.

In the past, I’ve used their white papers to introduce the field of technical communication to college students. I encourage others to do the same. Thanks to the volunteers at the Center, who share their work with the world and keep our public servants accountable.

The (sub)genre of the executive summary

When a business professional needs to influence other people to do something not obviously beneficial to them, the individual often writes a persuasive document. That’s why we have proposals, business plans, recommendation reports, white papers, etc. Because such documents present complex information, they are usually lengthy. But readers are busy! So writers need to provide their audience with a way to decide if the entire document is worth reading. That’s why writers create introductions, abstracts, or executive summaries.

This post provides the basics for writing an executive summary. Sad to say I had to rely almost exclusively on prescriptive sources as there just isn’t any descriptive research on this (sub)genre of business reports (see below). I will note, however, that Lagerwerf and Bossers confirmed that decision makers were more likely to read the executive summary in business proposals than any other section of the document.

Creating an Executive Summary

I advocate following four steps to create an executive summary.

1. Clarify your bottom line

If you’re not clear about what your reader should do after reading your report, you can bet your reader won’t be either. The one idea you want your reader to get (or the one thing you want them to do) is the bottom line message.

Yeung’s research into business reports concluded that recommendations are critical. They represent solutions to existing business problems. They support decision-making. Often, the bottom line of your report is a recommendation.

Some folks talk about the bottom line as the “big ask.” Business writing consultants at Good Copy, Bad Copy provide some good examples:

  • Adopt my proposed compensation scheme across the firm
  • Agree to my suggested strategy for the operations team
  • Provide the budget for the comms plan I’m presenting in the report

So before you begin writing, clearly state your bottom line. I like to write it on a post-it and attach it to my computer monitor so I can constantly remind myself what it is. It’s easy to get off track. The post-it is my guidepost as I make choices about content, organization, etc. while I write.

2. Analyze your readers

See the system I recommend. In short, you must think as objectively as possible about  (1) your relationship with the audience and (2) the audience’s readiness–both ability and willingness–to accept your bottom line message.

3. Develop your content

This Inc. magazine piece offers a good explanation of the required content for an executive summary, as well as more and less effective examples. Here’s a further simplified approach.

  • Describe a problem, need or goal. The key is to describe something your reader is ready to hear with no additional explanation needed.
  • Describe the desired outcome. Again, the key is to BRIEFLY assure the readers you understand their wants and needs.
  • Describe your proposed solution. This is your bottom line: what should your reader know or do to get the desired outcome?
  • Support your proposed solution. You want to give your reader a limited number of specific highlights from the report. Choose those that directly support your bottom line. And choose only those that require little, if any, detailed explanation.

Let’s consider how content from two sample executive summaries matches up. Both were written for clients by a team of consultants demonstrating the value of data analytics for the clients’ organization.

Executive Summary for Report A Executive Summary for Report B
Describing the problem, need, or goal of the reader In the United States, Louisiana ranks highest in automobile insurance rates—this is due in part to insurance fraud. Some but not all fraud is detected. Previous direct mail campaigns to reach new customers at Magazine Z resulted in an estimated annual net loss of $7K.
Describing the reader’s desired outcome A technique for better detecting fraudulent claims would deter them and lower insurance rates. A strategy for better predicting new customer response would improve return on investment.
Stating the bottom line (proposed solution) To identify those with the highest odds of being fraudsters, drivers were ranked by modeling (1) the number of crashes, (2) the total number of not-at-fault crashes, and (3) the total number of rear-end, not-at-fault crashes. To determine the probability of positive customer response, three campaign strategies were developed based on modeling the characteristics of the different sources of new customers.
Supporting the bottom line with specific highlights from the report We developed our model using crash data from 1999 to 2012 from the Highway Safety Research Group. We analyzed crash characteristics of drivers involved in two-vehicle, rear-end crashes…

The model successfully detected one convicted fraudster with 69 crashes who is currently awaiting sentencing…

Each strategy involves modeling customer age and campaign month. The distribution of age showed three distinct groups. In addition, each campaign month varied wildly in success…

Using one of our model-based strategies (for hunting and fishing licenses as a source of new customers) should result in an estimated positive return of $25K annually…

In both executive summaries, the consultants began by describing an existing problem and desired outcome of interest to the client in language an executive can quickly grasp: better fraud detection in Report A and better prediction of customer response in Report B. Getting this information up front is how the consultants demonstrated they listened to their clients.

Describing a problem is critical for all executive summaries because it makes explicit the connection between the detailed information in the report and the reader’s needs. Note that a 2016 report from MIT Sloan Management Review and SAS used the graphic below to demonstrate that data analytics rarely results in insights actually used to guide decision-making in organizations. I’m betting that, if analysts paid more attention to the organization’s problem/desired outcome, more of their insights would be applied.

Lack of Insight

Back to the report content in the table above… Because the bottom line for readers in both reports is similar (e.g., clients will recognize the value of data analytics for addressing their existing problems), both executive summaries focus on models created through data analysis: identifying fraudsters in Report A and predicting customer conversion in Report B.

In the remainder of both executive summaries, consultants supported their bottom line with selected details. Both provided some high-level content about their models in executive friendly language. They wisely omitted any detailed modeling information. That detail appeared within the body of the report. An executive reader could assign an in-house expert to review it but didn’t have to slog through it him/herself!

Consultants in both cases also highlighted a “sexy” finding in the executive summary: identification of an extreme and convicted fraudster in Report A and a dollar amount– estimated but positive–for the client’s ROI in Report B.

4. Organize and format your content for maximum reading efficiency

If the bottom line is complex, you must carefully implement effective organization and formatting techniques in your executive summary. Good Copy, Bad Copy consultants recommend:

  • Creating sub-headings is useful if your bottom line has multiple parts.
  • Using bullet points helps readers scan a list of short content items.
  • Limiting yourself to one page is more likely to achieve reader commitment.

Evaluating a Complete Executive Summary

Let’s look at a complete executive summary. I’ve chosen one somewhat randomly titled “Economic Impacts of the Louisiana Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit” prepared in 2015.

  • Writer: consultants at HR&A Advisors, Inc. in New York, NY
  • Readers: clients who commissioned the report were Louisiana Film and Entertainment Association (LFEA) and Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. (MPAA)
  • Bottom line message: the Credit has had a positive economic and unclear fiscal impact on the state

As background, I should note the report is 69 pages long with five major sections:

  1. Introduction (pp. 7-11)
  2. The Louisiana Motion Picture and Television Industry (pp. 13-25)
  3. Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism in Louisiana (pp. 26-32)
  4. Economic Impact Analysis (pp. 33-41)
  5. Fiscal Impacts of Production Spending and Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism (pp. 42-43)

It also includes a technical (pp. 44-50) and a general (pp. 51-68) appendix, as well as disclaimers (p. 69). (If you’re interested, access the complete report.)

Clearly, the report’s length made an executive summary a requirement. As you can see below, the executive summary itself occupies roughly 1 and 1/3 pages (664 words).

If the writers had shared their draft with me before sending it to the intended readers (the clients who commissioned the report), I would offer the following observations.

My first point is that the content of most interest to readers is not at the beginning. Instead, it appears under the heading, “Summary of Findings.”  The heading is definitely helpful in pointing readers to what they want.  However, why place two full paragraphs of detail before the information of most interest to readers? To make matters worse, the first paragraph provides no information that would be new to the intended readers. Instead, it seems to be directed at a different audience. That’s a signal it doesn’t belong first in the executive summary.

The second paragraph may provide information that would be useful to some intended readers. But its primary value is as a means of organizing the bottom line about findings.

That brings me to my second point: the content of most interest is not organized for efficient comprehension.  You may object by noting the writers used bullet points. In this case, however, those bullets signify nothing more than a little white space at the beginning of a paragraph would. Readers have to read every word of every bullet in order to get the meaning.

Consider how much more impact the bottom line would have if it looked something like what I created below in a revised version of the original executive summary, which is half the length of the original (329 words).

In the revised version, I organized the bottom line findings to make them easier to scan. The second and third paragraphs now begin with the bottom line of the content that follows. (Think topic sentences.) Plus, I highlighted specific findings in a table with bullets and parallel content/form.

Note I also created some content at the beginning as my guidance above recommends. The document now describes a problem (i.e., impact of the Credit is undocumented) and a desired outcome (i.e., measurements of impact will determine the Credit’s value). I hope my readers agree that the revised version is more executive friendly.

As always, your comments are welcomed.

Research Sources

Here are some sources that support my guidance on writing executive summaries.

Clayton, J. (2003). Writing an executive summary that means business.Harvard Management Communication Letter, 6, 3-4.

Lagerwerf, L. and Bossers, E. (2002). Assessing business proposals: Genre conventions and audience response in document design. Journal of Business Communication, 39, 437-460.

Reave, L. (2002). Promoting innovation in the workplace: The internal proposal. Business Communication Quarterly, 65, 8-21.

Roach, J., Tracy, D., & Durden, K. (2007). Integrating business core knowledge through upper division report composition. Business Communication Quarterly, 70, 431-449.

Van Nus, M. (1999). Business genres and their corporate context. Document Design, 1, 187-197.

Yeung, L. (2007). In search of commonalities: Some linguistic and rhetorical features of business reports as a genre. English for Specific Purposes, 26, 156-179.

Feds make better grades in 2015

2015plainreportcardThe Center for Plain Language recently released final grades for US federal agencies. After completing a rigorous evaluation process, they concluded that

  • Participation by agencies in the Center for Plain Language Federal Plain Language Report Card reached an all-time high: 23 agencies submitted materials for review, including all 15 Cabinet-level departments.
  • Compliance scores increased overall: Eight agencies improved while four others dropped. All 23 agencies fulfilled the requirements of the Act…though some are doing so better than others.
  • In Writing & Information Design, 13 agencies improved while the grades of only five dropped.
  • We saw no Ds or Fs in either Compliance or Writing & Information Design, and overall, a record number of agencies scored B or higher.

It’s nice to see some progress. Read more details in the Center’s white paper. You might thank the volunteers who keep our public servants accountable, too!

Kudos to Google. And the Center for Plain Language.

Yesterday, reported that Google ranked #1 for their privacy policy. The Center for Plain Language judged how well 7 big tech firms followed plain-language guidelines.

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

The full report appears below.

I’m happy for Google. But I wish someone had evaluated their interface for adding an ebook to Google Play Books. I’ve spent several days trying to submit the 2nd edition of my leadership communication textbook, Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader!

Which federal agencies made the grade?

The Center for Plain Language just released their 2014 Federal Plain Language Report Card. Highest grades went to Homeland Security, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Social Security Administration.


In their white paper, they note that the quality of writing within the US federal government is improving.

• 16 out of 22 departments improved over last year’s grades.

• In 2014, compliance with the Plain Writing Act increased. 19 departments fulfilled the requirements of the Plain Writing Act, earning A’s for Compliance, compared with only 12 in 2013. Only 3 Departments— Education, Interior, and State—failed to fulfill the requirements of the Act.

• Many agencies also improved their Writing and Information Design scores, demonstrating commitment to the spirit of the Act, as well.

Perhaps the best sign of changing culture within these federal agencies is that many now test their documents.

Social Security, HUD and several other departments reported that they evaluate comprehension by observing and interviewing readers while they read and use plain language content. Other departments, such as VA, used remote methods, including comprehension surveys, to evaluate the documents they submitted. Still others described evaluated success by statistically contrasting peoples’ likelihood to respond appropriately before and after communications were written in plain language.

When writing is treated as a genuine attempt to communicate, we all win. Thanks to those at the Center for Plain Language who do the research required to complete these report cards.

Why do people write like zombies at work?

My colleague, Burcu, sent me the link to this recent Forbes piece by Liz Ryan on why people writing things like as per my message and it has come to my attention. It’s a good read so I tweeted about it.

Zombie language, Ryan wrote, is incompatible with what her HR consulting company calls the Human Workplace.

Our language is our culture. Business language cements the culture in an organization.

Exactly. The way you talk to your colleagues and customers demonstrates whether you view them as autonomous beings or objects for your own purposes. Plain language is connected to organizational culture. It takes courage to write like a human being when you’re surrounded by zombie


2014 at Pros Write

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for Pros Write. My sabbatical, which allowed me to concentrate on research projects, distracted me from posting as much as in past years. (Did you hear that, Will?)

Thanks for reading. Happy New Year!

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 92,000 times in 2014. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Are corporate values connected to plain language adoption?

I think so. At least this email from the lead writer at Pinterest to all company employees supports the connection. It is too good not to share. (See my series on what plain language is for background.)

Because of my current research on workplace writing quality, I’ve been thinking about how to capture the qualities of organizations who truly embrace quality writing — not just by their PR or marketing folks, but by all employees. I think we’ll be adapting the Competing Values Framework to do this. It’s the result of research by a group of folks at University of Michigan. I’ve used it to describe the purposes for which people write at work in our Revising Professional Writing workbook (RPW/3e) and for which managers interact with others in my textbook Thinking & Interacting Like a Leader.

Basically, organizations (or their leaders) are characterized in a matrix where one dimension displays flexibility vs. stability and the other dimension displays internal vs. external focus. You can see how to use these ideas in gauging the values of a leader by looking at the graph below, which represents the responses of six team members to the following questions:

(Q1) Rank order the following terms for describing your leader: __ Coordinator __ Producer __ Innovator __ Mentor
(Q2) Rank order the following terms for describing your leader’s style: __ Predictable __ Competitive __ Flexible __ Loyal

Slide03Overall this specific leader is more of a Coordinator, stable and internally focused. The labels used to describe organizations look like so:

  • Hierarchy (oriented toward control) = stable and internally focused where Coordinators feel at home
  • Market (oriented toward competition) = stable and externally focused where Producers fit in best
  • Adhocracy (oriented toward creation) = flexible and externally focused where Innovators reside comfortably
  • Clan (oriented toward collaboration) = flexible and internally focused where Mentors are most at home

So back to the point in this post. Which organizational culture is most likely to adopt plain language and truly value writing quality? I don’t know. But I’m gonna find out. . . (And I’ll bet the culture at the specific time of adoption is key, too.)

Related Research

Cameron & Quinn (2011). Diagnosing and changing organizational culture: Based on the competing values framework. John Wiley & Sons.

Campbell et al. (2003). Leader-member relations as a function of rapport management. Journal of Business Communication, 40(3), 170-194.

Rogers, P. S. (2000). CEO presentations in conjunction with earnings announcements extending the construct of organizational genre through competing values profiling and user-needs analysis. Management Communication Quarterly, 13(3), 426-485.

Quinn et al. (1991). A competing values framework for analyzing presentational communication in management contexts. Journal of Business Communication, 28(3), 213-232.

Friday fun with word frequencies

Calling all word nerds! For some Friday fun, try the Macmillan Red Words Game, which tests your awareness of English word frequency. It’s not as easy as you might think.  After a couple of tries, my highest score was 195. Can you beat it?

Along the same lines, Roberto Trotta has written an interesting book.

From the big bang to alien worlds, from dark matter to dark energy, from the origins of the universe to its destiny, The Edge of the Sky is a tale of the great discoveries and outstanding mysteries in modern cosmology — with a twist. Astrophysicist Roberto Trotta has used only the 1,000 most common words in the English language to talk about difficult concepts in cosmology in beautifully simple terms that everybody can understand.

I haven’t read the book yet. But the story on NPR is worth a listen. If you visit Trotta’s website, you can even use the 1000-word rules to try writing something yourself. 

For the TRUE nerds (researchers), there are word frequency tools galore at from the work of Mark Davies.