The (sub)genre of the executive summary. [Version 2.0]

[updated from the original post on March 16, 2016]

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 five 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.

I would add: Supporting important points with visual displays whenever possible. Compared to words alone, the image below is far more efficient in making Florence Nightingale’s point that most soldiers in the Crimean War died of preventable diseases (displayed in gray). data viz Nightingale-mortality

5. Edit carefully

Your content should be front and center. But it won’t be if your writing style or mechanics are not what your audience expects. If your style is too formal (or informal) or your subjects and verbs don’t agree in number, readers may focus on your writing instead of your content. Because not all readers have the same expectations, it’s easier to edit for readers you know well. For instance, while most readers don’t notice passive voice at all, a few are downright offended by it. If you know your readers well, edit your word choices with them in mind.

At a minimum, make sure you, or a qualified colleague, remove all non-standard spelling/typos and inconsistencies in your document. They reduce your authority. And that’s not going to help you persuade your readers to do anything not obviously beneficial to them.

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.

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.

Does essay writing help you succeed as a writer at work?

Today’s post is in honor of the National Day on Writing. U.S. students spend years writing essays. They believe they know how to write. (And also often believe that writing is meaningless.) What they do not know is that different rhetorical contexts (different goals, audiences, content) give rise to different ways of organizing and presenting information in effective written messages. That’s called genre awareness.

The situation means you shouldn’t be surprised that workplace novices write workplace documents as if they were some version of a five-paragraph essay. Many non-academics complain. Loudly. Here’s a small selection of such complaints. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

There is definitely evidence that such complaints should be interpreted carefully. (See The myth of job readiness? Written communication, employability, and the ‘skills gap’ in higher education.) That doesn’t mean students gain genre awareness before they enter the work force.

Let me share a story that makes my point. [A version appeared on Pros Write a couple of years ago.] Through some odd luck, Pat was enrolled in a university writing course at the same time she was working as an intern at a food manufacturing company. As part of her internship experience, Pat shadowed her manager-mentor on a safety inspection of the company’s Atlanta manufacturing facility. (I have to thank Ron Dulek for part of this story.) The day before her trip to the plant, Pat’s writing teacher asked the class to write a narrative essay. At the end of the trip, Pat’s mentor asked her to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo.  Poor Pat!

Pat decided her plant visit could supply the content for her essay assignment. She wrote the essay first because she was more confident about her ability to please her teacher than her mentor. At this point in her life, Pat had written dozens of essays but not one compliance report or memo. In fact, she had never even seen such documents. She began her essay like this:

On June 3, 2012, I conducted an audit at the Atlanta branch of Allgood, Inc., in regards to safety handling and compliance rules. I was escorted on a tour of the facility by B. A. McCoy, who has served as the Assistant Plant Manager for 17 years.

Once Pat finished her essay, she used it as the first draft of her compliance report. While she revised some of the essay’s content, she left the first few sentences the same.

Pat’s writing teacher assigned her a “B” on her essay. However, Pat’s mentor told her she would have to rewrite the report because it was not acceptable–especially the beginning, which should have stated clearly whether or not the plant was in compliance. Pat’s head almost exploded!  Imagine putting the conclusion first. (If you recognize this story, it’s because I’ve told it in many lectures and wrote about it in my co-authored workbook, Revising Professional Writing.)

Imagine how different Pat’s experience would have been if she had been asked to read even one brief workplace report during her 14 years of formal schooling. And what if a teacher had not only assigned the report as reading but had guided Pat in analyzing the difference in rhetorical contexts among the report, a narrative essay, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? And what if a teacher pointed out that the differences in content, organization, style, and mechanics among those three documents were the result of differences in genre? If all of that happened, Pat would have developed genre awareness. She would have received a rhetorical education that would lead to better workplace success!

Of course, when teachers spend time on genre awareness, they are not aiding students in their quest to ace the essay writing required for academic purposes. I mean the high stakes writing “tests” used to determine college or grad school admissions or scholarship offers. Shame on higher ed!

I salute all of those teachers who promote genre awareness just because it’s best for their students in the long run. Keep fighting the good fight. I’ll be standing beside you.

Plain language requires attention to the audience

In Part One of my attempt to explain how I understand plain language, I focused on the elements of a text that must be managed to create a plain language document. Anyone who has known me for long, however, could have predicted that I would talk about the rhetorical context of a high quality document in Part Two.  Here come my two cents on understanding plain language as an outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text.

Allow me to give a little background first. Following Aristotle, I like to use the rhetorical triangle.

  • rhetorical triangle preziThe corner with text refers to the elements of content, organization, style, and mechanics that appear in writing and make up the document itself.
  • The corner with purpose refers to the goal or intent of the writer of the document
  • The corner with audience refers to the recipients of the document.

As I remind my students constantly, all three aspects of the rhetorical context must be considered in order to make judgments about communication quality. In other words, a document is successful only when it fulfills the writer’s purpose for the document’s readers. There’s no such thing as a successful document considered in isolation. Researchers interested in workplace document quality have recognized the limitations of text-focused definitions since at least 1989, when Karen Schriver published Evaluating text quality: The continuum from text-focused to reader-focused methods. (If you want to continue exploring research in this area, start with Dutch researchers like Leo Lentz, Henk Pander Maat, or Michael Steehouder.)

I used the revised email announcement shown below in Part One on defining plain language. And I claimed it was a move toward plain language compared with the original version.

However, the text is likely to fail for any of the following readers:

  • One who is not fluent in English.
  • One with visual impairment.
  • One who doesn’t care about pension plans.

Not surprisingly then, one way to define plain language is to focus on the effect or outcome a text has on its readers — rather than on the text itself.  As PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) states, “Plain language is language understood by its audience.” And some folks prefer not to use the term “plain language” at all because of it implies the focus is on the language or text rather than on the reader.

So what are the desired outcomes of a plain language document on its audience? I suppose the most often mentioned is comprehension. It follows that a common prescription from those interested in better workplace writing is to address an audience as if they have less education than the writer or less expertise in the document topic.  Sometimes this is explained by referring to reading levels. In a 2004 report, William DuBay recommended writing to an general audience at the 7th grade level and lowering this to the 5th grade level when communicating about health, medicine, or safety.

Similarly, in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook, Warren Buffett disclosed

When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.

By the way, that handbook is a terrific, concise guide for implementing plain language within the workplace.

While comprehension may be the king of audience outcomes, it is not the only desirable one. First off, the purpose of some documents requires more than understanding. This is true of any document that includes instructions. In my video tutorial based on Chapter 2: Analyzing Audience of Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I explain that the rhetorical context determines whether writers must address audience ability to understand a message or audience willingness to accept a message — or both. Audience outcomes related to willingness include:

  • usability: whether the audience can use the document to perform a task accurately
  • efficiency: whether the audience can get content quickly and easily
  • credibility: whether the audience believes the content of the document
  • selection: whether the audience selects the document to read

The bottom line: I understand plain language as the outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text, and the outcome includes but is not limited to comprehension. You may have noticed that I have said next to nothing about the third point of the rhetorical triangle. That means you can expect Part Three to address document writers and their purposes for writing.

Plain language requires attention to the text

To celebrate International Plain Language Day, I’m republishing a four-part series in which I defined “plain language” a couple of years ago. Part three was accidentally published last night. [sigh] Here’s part one.

Perhaps the most obvious way to define plain language is to focus on the words a writer chooses. For instance, a common proscription from those interested in better workplace writing is for writers to avoid jargon. Jargon is a word with a highly specialized or technical meaning. Like 401(k), an investment plan established by employers to which eligible employees may make salary contributions on a pre- or post-tax basis. (Read more on investopedia.) There are other aspects of style that might be implicated in plain language as described in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part IV of Revising Professional Writing (RPW):

But style alone cannot explain why the email announcement about employees’ pension plan I’ve included below fails as a plain language document.

Software tools can identify many aspects of style that might be revised to achieve more plain language in a document. However, revising to achieve more conciseness in the first sentence and to eliminate unneeded passive verb voice in the second sentence won’t be enough to convert the email announcement into plain language.  (I don’t think the original includes any jargon.)

Other textual elements like organization have to be considered in creating plain language documents.  For many documents, the bottom line message may be presented in effective style but be placed in the middle or at the end of the document, which means it’s buried. I’m not going to categorize any document with a buried bottom line as achieving plain language no matter how plain the style is!  The areas of organization that contribute most to the lack of plain language in the original email announcement are paragraph unity and format. The initial paragraph is quite long and is not tightly constrained to a single, manageable topic identified with a topic sentence at the beginning. In addition, the format of that initial paragraph in one big block of text does nothing to make it easy for readers to get the document’s message.

All of the aspects of organization that might be implicated in plain language appear in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part III of RPW:

While I haven’t reviewed StyleWriter yet, in general, editing software tools are more effective at identifying style issues (which operate at the word- and sentence-level of text) than organization problems (which operate beyond the level of individual sentences).

Consider the revised email announcement, which exemplifies a move toward plain language.

One of the primary differences between this revised and the original versions of the document relate to content development, specifically to the use of a table to display the  example of how the new pension plan works. All of the aspects of content development that might be implicated in plain language appear in my three video tutorials based on chapters in Part II of RPW:

I could continue by talking about the influence of mechanics (e.g., Part V of RPW on punctuation, pronoun reference, etc.) on how plain the meaning of a document is. But the point is that a pro manages all elements of text, including organization and content, to achieve plain language — not just style. Many experts on plain language understand it as the result of all elements of the text: Joseph Kimble does so in his most recent book; Cheryl Stephens does on her website; and Beth Mazur did in her STC article more than a decade ago. Beware of those who understand plain language as writing style. They make pronouncements based on only a fraction of the elephant!

Remember. This is only part one of my definition. More on the importance of the rhetorical context beyond the text when defining plain language . . .

Plain language requires attention to the writer’s organization

[This post should have appeared on October 13 to acknowledge International Plain Language Day.  More important, it should have appeared AFTER parts one and two.]

In the first two posts defining what I mean by “plain language,” I have focused on two points of the rhetorical triangle: textual elements like style and organization (Part One) and reader outcomes like comprehension and usability (Part Two). Now it’s time to tackle the third, the writer’s purpose.

rhetorical triangle preziThis is arguably the aspect of rhetorical context that gets the least attention when it comes to workplace documents. This is logical. For academic writing — you know, the kind of writing done throughout nearly all formal education — the writer has often been promoted as the most important aspect of the rhetorical context.  Take, for instance, the concept of “writing to discover” from Peter Elbow. (Here’s a 2007 interview which will help you understand this perspective on writing.) I’ve written several posts about the unhappy consequences of students learning to write only for teachers (see this early one or this more recent one or my About page). One of the things teachers have in common as an audience of student documents is that they must support this writer-centered view. At least to some extent. I mean the student writer is the focus of a teacher’s professional responsibility.

The emphasis on the audience in workplace writing is critical for helping workplace amateurs focus on the rest of the rhetorical context and become pros. However, as a representative of his or her organization, the workplace writer and his or her purpose for a document is also critical.  Unlike academic writers, whose writing is self-centered, workplace writers must focus on both their audience and the organization they represent.

In my video-tutorial on purpose based on Chapter 1 in Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I categorize a professional’s reasons for writing based on the intended effect on the audience:

  • informing emphasizes tasks and the status quo
  • directing emphasizes tasks and action
  • consulting emphasizes relationships and action
  • valuing emphasizes relationships and the status quo

While these do a good job of describing the immediate aims of the writer’s document, they don’t adequately connect to the overarching organizational goals to which the document contributes.  I’m talking about THE bottom line — money. Whether for-profit or not, every successful organization seeks to maximize revenue and minimize costs. When workplace writers create documents, they affect their organization’s bottom line.

Not long ago, I wrote about selling plain language to your manager. (In fact, a comment on that post is why I started this series on defining plain language.) I argued that a business case for creating quality documents might be the key. Making a business case includes analysis of costs, including risks, and benefits.  Let’s consider a simple, hypothetical business case for creating the email announcement to employees about changes in pension plan contributions — the one referred to in Part One and Part Two. In the table below, I’ve calculated costs for creating both a lower quality and higher quality announcement based on the salary of those involved.

 

Low Quality Document

High Quality Document

1.       Reading time (100 employees’ 50K salary)

$4,200

(10 minutes)

$2,100

(5 minutes)

2.       Writing time (HR writer’s 50K salary)

$12

(30 minutes)

$50

(120 minutes)

3.       Reviewing time before delivery (HR manager salary 90K) (5 employees’ 50K salary)

$0

(0 minutes)

$0

(0 minutes)

$22

(30 minutes)

$60

(30 minutes)

4.       Answering questions after delivery (HR employees’ 50K salary)

$600

(1440 minutes)

$200

(480 minutes)

TOTAL COST

$4,812

$2,432

The lower quality announcement costs less before delivery but results in higher overall cost to the organization due to the greater time required for employees to read the email and for HR employees to answer questions about the email content after delivery. Note that I haven’t tried to calculate benefits related to things like employee satisfaction or compliance with federal requirements. Risk assessment is not my specialty. Nevertheless, those benefits could be converted into dollars for the writer’s organization.

My point with this simple example is that plain language is not only about the text and the audience. Or even the about the writer’s purpose for writing. It’s also about the organization’s goals. While I’ve talked about all three corners of the rhetorical context, there’s one more post coming on understanding plain language. I need to deal with the process involved in creating plain language documents.

Read. Then write.

One of the most important things any teacher or manager can do to help novices become pro writers is to discuss sample messages with them. Reading thoughtfully precedes writing successfully! The key to thoughtful reading is discussing the sample message in sufficient, relevant detail and connecting those details to future messages the writer will create.**

Here are the guidelines I’ve provided to those introducing novices to writing for workplace readers. They are more exhaustive than exemplary because I created them for an academic context. But you can adapt them for a discussion with any writer who is a novice with the message genre of interest. [Note: This is an updated post from a few years back.]

Goals

  • To read a workplace message critically (i.e., assess and explain its quality)
  • To practice analyzing the rhetorical context of workplace messages (i.e., relationship among message, writer, and audience)
  • To apply concepts from the workbook, Revising Professional Writing, and connect them to the grading rubrics we use

These goals are important to student success because the vast majority have little experience with workplace messages—especially with assessing their quality as a function of the rhetorical context.

For many decades now, nearly all language education in the US (from preschool through undergraduate) has focused on one text genre for reading (literature) and one text genre for writing (academic essays). The result is generations of adults who think reading is a puzzle-solving activity because the meaning is supposed to be “hidden,” while writing is supposed to impress an already knowledgeable audience (e.g., teachers). Adults, including our students, do not understand they have studied limited genres and that those genres didn’t teach them most of what they need to know about information development, organization, and style/tone for workplace messages.

Choosing a Sample Message

You must choose a message representing the genre of interest (i.e., sensitive letter, proposal, email announcement, etc.).  Students learn from discussion of any quality level of message samples (i.e., not mailable, mailable, or proud to mail). However, you must clearly identify the quality level of the message sample either before or after the activity.

Introducing the Activity

  1. Begin by announcing the discussion activity and the amount of time you have allotted for it. (It can be done in as little as 10 minutes.)
  2. Give directions for completing the activity. (This will be more important early in the semester or if you decide to use small group discussions.)
  3. Provide visuals as needed (the sample message, the relevant grading rubric, etc.) either as hard copy or as projections on the screen.

Asking the Right Questions (with video suggestions)

About the rhetorical context (Purpose; Audience):

  • Who is the writer? What is his/her organizational role?
  • What’s the bottom-line message?
  • Which of the four purposes (informing, directing, consulting, valuing) does the writer have for creating this message?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the writer (power difference, value difference, social distance)?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the message (knowledge level, sensitivity)?

About the effectiveness of the content of the message for this rhetorical context (Informative Prose; Persuasive Prose; Graphics):

  • Does the writer provide enough and the right kind of information (defining, describing, giving examples, comparing/contrasting, classifying, using outside sources)?
  • Does the writer provide evidence and interpretation for any claims?
  • Does the writer use graphics to enhance comprehension, usability, or feelings?
  • Does the writer use graphics that meet the audience’s need (to see surface detail = photograph; to see percentages of a whole = pie chart; to see steps in a process = flow chart, etc.)?
  • Do graphics use accurate and consistent proportions? Do they include labels, titles, and captions? Does the writer integrate the graphic into the text?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization of content for this rhetorical context (Bottom Line; Paragraph Unity; Cohesion; Transitions):

  • Where is the bottom-line? Is this placement effective for the audience? Why?
  • What order is the content presented in? Is that order effective for the audience?
  • Do paragraphs have effective topic sentences? Are all sentences in each paragraph clearly related? Are paragraphs relatively short?
  • Do sentences or sections of the message have explicit transitions that guide the audience through the writer’s logic?
  • Does the writer organize to enhance efficiency for reading?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the style for this rhetorical context (Conciseness; Voice; Parallelism; Word Choice; Tone):

  • Is the style appropriately concise?
  • Does the writer present parallel items in parallel form?
  • Is the style appropriately active or passive?
  • Is the word choice appropriate?
  • Is the level of formality appropriate?
  • Does the writer’s style achieve reader-orientation?
  • Is the level of directness appropriate?
  • Are presuppositions used only when the audience will agree with the writer?

About the visual impression of the message for this rhetorical context (Format):

  • Is the page layout (margins & other white space, line spacing, justification, color, etc.) effective?
  • Is typography (typeface, size, position, boldface, etc.) used consistently and for emphasis?
  • Are any groups of items presented in a list with characters or numbers to enumerate them?
  • Does the writer create a visual text that enhances efficiency for reading?

About the mechanics of the message for this rhetorical context (Punctuation; Agreement):

  • Is a written message effective and efficient or should the writer choose another medium?
  • Are there misspellings or typos that will distract the reader from the content of the message?
  • Are there sentence fragments, comma splices, or any other punctuation issues that are likely to distract the reader?
  • Are there any subject-verb disagreement issues that will be distracting?

Leading Discussion

When leading discussion, prompt students to provide answers to these questions and to link those answers to specific places in the sample message. This will not come naturally to most undergraduate students. For example, you may not be successful in getting good discussion about style by asking something general like “How effective is the style in this message?” Instead, students are likely to need more specific questions, such as “Do you think the style is concise?” Or even “Is the style of the first paragraph concise? Give me a specific example.” Obviously, you can lead the discussion most effectively when you have already analyzed the message on your own before the class meeting.

Providing the Take-away

  1. Summarize the main points, especially as the discussion applies to future writing assignments. (You can ask different groups to keep a list of main points for a specific area during the discussion.)
  2. Clearly tie these main points to the overall quality level of the message sample.

Footnote

** My approach could be classified as genre-based writing pedagogy.  Ken Hyland used the following table to show that even elementary students can be taught to read — and then write — a range of genres. I dream of such a world–where students learn to communicate with an audience in writing. And where the five-paragraph essay is just a blurred memory. Sigh . . .

Related Research

Hyland, K. (2007). Genre pedagogy: Language, literacy and L2 writing instruction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16, pp. 148-63.

Check out the 4th Edition of Revising Professional Writing

rpw4_coverThe 4th edition of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences is now available It’s an affordable workbook at $39.95 USD, with over 400 revision and editing problems. Instructors get an answer key plus supplements here on Pros Write (e.g., sample documents, videos, etc.) supporting the principles in the book.

Each of the 21 chapters explains research-backed principles for revising or editing a single element (e.g., informative graphics, bottom line placement, conciseness, pronoun reference, etc.). The succinct explanatory text is followed by revision and editing problems that require increasing levels of expertise within each chapter.

Details:

  • Over 400 revision and editing problems covering rhetorical context, development, organization, style and tone, and mechanics.
  • Problems range from sentences and paragraphs to 11 full-length texts.
  • Examples from a variety of texts: memos, letters, résumés, proposals, instructions, definitions, and reports.
  • All revising and editing problems drawn from the actual writing of college students.
  • Self-contained chapters, allowing flexible use with other textbooks.
  • ISBN 978-0-9767180-6-2

Parlay Press provides exam copies:

Email: mail(at)parlaypress(dot)com
Toll-free fax: 888.301.3116

Your feedback is valued!

Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader ebook released today

e978-0-9767180-7-9The 2nd edition of Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader: The TILL System for Leadership Communication is now available as an ebook on Google Play. The book is a concise guide to help current and future managers become better leaders by building their personal power.

In a nutshell, the TILL system teaches you to manage tone when you manage people. Its focus is deliberately not media specific. But I plan to create a few relevant posts about writing here on Pros Write this fall while using the TILL ebook in my course on leadership communication. (Yes, I do have a day job.) There have been a few guest posts here by terrific former students in that course. In fact, the material in the ebook grew out of my experiences teaching them about the role of language in leadership.

Details for instructors/coaches:

  • 12 chapters with two in-depth application exercises per chapter––one analyzed for students, the other for practice, homework, or quizzes
  • extensive analysis of memos, emails, letters, performance evaluations, and leader-member conversations
  • answers to selected exercises
  • annotated bibliography and suggested readings at the end of each chapter
  • equivalent to ~200 pages
  • $29.99 list price (currently $16.19 USD at Google Play)
  • ISBN 978-0-9767180-7-9

One of the great things about ebooks is that you can read a sample without buying. The 1st two chapters of TILL are available free on Google Play. Thanks to Frank and Kathy at Parlay Press for making it happen.

Comments welcomed!

 

Choose active vs. passive voice strategically

schoolmarmNo grammatical construction raises the ire of writing “experts” like the passive. Geoff Pullum (a regular contributor to Lingua Franca at the Chronicle of Higher Education) provided two marvelous examples in a research paper titled “Fear and loathing of the English passive.”

The passive voice liquidates and buries the active individual, along with most of the awful truth. Our massed, scientific, and bureaucratic society is so addicted to it that you must constantly alert yourself against its drowsy, impersonal pomp.

and

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

Take a second to let those sink in. We are talking about sentence structure, aren’t we?

Pullum’s research article concluded by noting that advice to avoid passives is “bogus” and often provided by people who are “commonly hopeless at distinguishing passives from actives.” As I’ve written here before, any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices should be ignored.  Real experts have many tools to accomplish their goals. It’s the same with expert writers. Language allows us multiple ways of saying the same thing for a reason. Every style is appropriate in some context–otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

Now that I’ve acknowledged the vitriol surrounding passive voice, let’s move on to some guidance backed by research. Here are two versions of the same fictional news story from the Stroppy Editor:

  1. Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a drug that cures AIDS. Clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS have shown it to work. Just three injections completely cured all 900 of them. The healthcare regulator is likely to approve the drug for clinical use within months.
  2. A drug that cures AIDS has been discovered by scientists at the University of Birmingham. It has been shown to work by clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS. All 900 of them were completely cured by just three injections. The drug is likely to be approved by the healthcare regulator for clinical use within months.

Version 2 is superior if the writer’s goal is to convey a message to readers clearly and efficiently. Yet each of its four sentences is constructed in passive voice (i.e., …been discovered…been shown…were…cured…be approved…). Readers of Version 2 can’t miss the focus of the passage: a new drug.  Not so in Version 1, where all four sentences use active voice but focus on different things.

It turns out that passive voice is useful in some situations–like maintaining thematic flow. Active voice is useful in others–like establishing a personal style or tone. Your choice should be strategic. That means based on the rhetorical context: your purpose, your reader’s needs, and the content of your message.

Active/passive voice is explained in Chapter 13 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to distinguish between active and passive voice and then choose between them for strategic reasons. Here are some additional resources to help you master the choice:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with other resources.

Sample Document

Review the document below. It is based on one from Susan M. Heathfield for About.com on Human Resources, but it has been adapted specifically to show how pros use active and passive voice in workplace documents.

  • Writer: a hiring manager at a publishing company
  • Readers: an applicant for a sales manager position
  • Bottom line message: while the applicant was rejected for the management position, the company would like to interview her for a different position

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with strategically chosen active/passive voice.

Video Tutorial

The letter is included in this ~13-minute video about voice in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with passive vs. active voice. Just enter “passive” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might begin with the following sources.

Kies, D. (1985). Some stylistic features of business and technical writing: The functions of passive voice, nominalization, and agency. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 15, 299-308.

Millar, N., Budgell, B. & Fuller, K. (2013) ‘Use the active voice whenever possible’: The impact of style guidelines in medical journals. Applied Linguistics, 34(4), 393–414.

Pullum, G.K. (2014). Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language and Communication, 37, 60-74.

Riley, K. (1991). Passive voice and the rhetorical role in scientific writing. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21, 239-257.