It goes without saying that organisations seek competitive advantage through timely, actionable information and decision making. Advances in technology allow organisations to communicate and operate globally, but communication systems are only as valuable as the quality of their content. Clear communication of ideas in management reports is fundamental to their effectiveness…but just how clear are they?
Why do managers find clear communication difficult?
Reviewing numerous reports from managers to their executives or boards demonstrates to me that the capacity to clearly articulate explanations and arguments to support recommendations for action is not a widely held strength of corporate managers. They obviously are highly intelligent and have many great ideas. Why is it then that these ideas don’t resonate with the same vibrancy through the pages of their reports?
Some of the causes include:
- Over reliance on others such as legal advisers and technical staff to provide the content for reports;
- lack of experience and training in written communication; and
- lack of adequate development in personal expression.
Many organisations provide template formats for managers to simply populate in an attempt to provide uniformity in presentation and to assist the authors in developing a logical and informative narrative leading toward cogent conclusions.
Typical report templates include:
- Background – what is the issue, how did it arise and why is it important to the organisation and its objectives?
- Impact and risk assessment – what are the implications for the organisation of doing something or nothing?
- Response – what are the options for the organisation in responding to the issue, what are the pros and cons of the options or the business case supporting particular actions, including costs and benefits?
- Evaluating the best option – analysis of likely outcomes for the cost benefit cases and reaching a conclusion as to best option.
- Implementation plan – what action is required to implement the best option, what resources are required and who is to be assigned responsibility for carrying it out?
Some rules about clear communication
Structuring the report is not everything and may be of little use unless the content of the structure is clear to those to whom it is directed. Achieving clarity of content requires:
- understanding the audience and framing the content around their understanding of the topic;
- avoiding complex sentences and paragraphs exploring multiple ideas;
- developing the narrative and the arguments in a logical progression;
- avoiding unnecessary technical detail; and
- aligning the issues and solutions to the organisation’s goals.
In particular report authors should concentrate on using terms familiar to the readers and avoid highly technical language or business jargon. Language does not need to be complex in order to explain complex concepts. The audience to which a management report is addressed may not be, and often isn’t, as technically oriented as the author. They need to know enough about the subject to make an informed decision but often are at the mercy of inarticulate managers who lack clear communication skills.
Melissa Marshall has an entertaining way of explaining this in her TEDtalk “Talk Nerdy to Me”.
Typically it will be necessary for the author of a management report to be prepared to speak to it and clarify any aspects under discussion. Authors therefore need to be articulate in the sense of:
- clear oral expression of the thoughts and ideas represented in the report;
- full understanding of the issues portrayed in the report and any important related issues;
- being capable of substantiating the arguments in the report and discussing the evidence on which they are based; and
- where necessary illustrate concepts using simple examples.
Consequently managers should aspire to develop well rounded skills in both writing and speaking to their reports.