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  • Julian Talbot

Ten Tips for Presenting Great Documents

“Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.”

- Hunter S. Thompson

A lot of people spend a lot of time in life preparing corporate documents that never get read. Sad but true. Don't be one of them. If you are going to put a lot of time into creating a report, proposal, contract or business case, don't just staple something together or email a pdf. Your time is worth something son you want to give it the best chance of a good life. Here are some of my suggestions to make any document more likely to achieve it's purpose.

  1. Bind it. Just this tip alone will probably improve your acceptance rate. A stapled document looks like a draft. When you’re happy with it and your boss, colleagues etc have had at least one review of it, bind it. It doesn’t matter whether it is spiral bound, comb bound, wire bound or whatever but put a clear plastic front sheet on it and a black plastic back cover on it then bind it. It’s all too easy to scribble comments on, or reject a document that is stapled together. Conversely, it’s easy to sign off on a professionally bound document. Even if it isn’t perfect, it looks finished. So the moral of the story is: If you want something signed and accepted – Bind it!

  2. Format it nicely. Make it look professional. If you don’t have the skills to do it, then find someone to help you with it. You’ve spent a lot of time on doing the analysis, interviews, and legwork but in the years to come, most people will judge all that effort purely by the quality of the report. Make it worth reading, but also put the odds in your favor – structure, format and present it in a way that will make people want to read it.

  3. Corporate templates. Use the corporate style sheets, templates or formats if they exist. People are more receptive to information that is presented in a familiar way.

  4. Structure it in the way that people want to read it. By all means do the analysis in the logical sequence but don’t present it that way. Assuming they even read past the Executive Summary, most people want to read the results of your analysis in something like the following order: Executive Summary, Context, Risk Register, Proposed Treatment Plan, Conclusion, Appendix A: Terms of Reference (Scope), Appendix B: Methodology and Analysis

  5. Back it up with a PowerPoint Presentation. Build a succinct presentation of the key points using supporting diagrams (only if they are relevant and aid communication). You may never need to present it but if you do, you’ll look like a true professional (Tip: If asked to do a presentation just say “Sure thing, give me 30 minutes and I’ll have it ready.”). Even if you never present it using a data projector, a 4-page printout based on a PowerPoint template will look professional (and you again come out looking like a legend).

  6. Take one last read of it before you submit it and ask yourself: what would my audience want to know/see/understand after reading it, and what action do I want them to take after reading it?

  7. Use diagrams, graphs and visuals wherever and whenever you can. Most of us are busy people – a picture paints a thousand words and if you want to get your message across to someone who is skimming your document (let’s face it, we all do it) then put a graphic in for each key point.

  8. Tell a story. The human mind is more attuned to learning and interpreting information through stories rather than facts or statistics. Equally importantly, we remember stories much more readily than we can recall facts. Find a way to link the key points in a narrative that speaks to emotion as much as it does to facts. It may be equally true to say that “Our Lost Time Injury Frequency (LTIF) rate was 0.04% last year” or that “Last year 43 out of our 1,200 employees suffered injuries severe enough that they were unable to work one or more rostered shifts” but the latter version gets the point across in a much more meaningful way. Use natural frequencies and real events where you can in order to illustrated key points.

  9. Back the story up with facts. Use statistics, references, incident reports or in-house data wherever you can reasonably and appropriately do so. If you don’t have the facts, don’t make promises by saying XYZ “…will create…”. If the message is important enough to included but you don’t have the data, use a phrase such as “is likely to create…” or “has potential to…”. Eg: “Failure to adequately train staff as part of the project roll-out is likely to create delays and budget overruns due to additional help-desk intervention.” You still get the key message across but your audience won’t get distracted by refuting your unsubstantiated claim.

  10. Show us that it’s not just something you made up on the weekend while watching the tennis. Include a list of all the persons you consulted. Reference the documents, databases and records that you reviewed and list the dates/places/attendees of all brainstorming workshops, etc. It adds credibility to the overall report and answers many of the questions that critics or budget holders will have regarding the analysis and recommendations.

Where your reports end up

Figure 1: Where your reports will end up if you do the job half-assed

Building any document can be complex if you want to do it well. These tips are from my Business Cases for Risk Management book. Business cases can be especially complex but the above simple tips can make any document more compelling. With business cases, getting the threats as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) and opportunities as high as reasonably practicable (AHARP) will always involve working out what sort of measures are going to provide a return on investment. But you'll make it a lot easier for people to actually support your proposal if it's easy to read and looks professional.

Bonus tips

Three bonus tips for large organizations. Over the years, I've made most of the mistakes that can possibly be made; I'm fairly creative and continually invent more. I do learn however, and have eliminated a few simple pitfalls.

  • Control the document. Who should have access and control of the document? Do a Stepback 5x5 by taking a metaphorical 5 paces back and spending 5 minutes thinking about: Who may/can/should/must see this? Could it be misinterpreted or misunderstood? Does it have the right classification, version control, author (take credit where it’s due), document sponsor, etc.

  • If it’s big enough and important enough, hire communications experts to get the message across, especially when you are presenting plans and recommendations across a large organization. Like any product, good marketing and advertising can repay itself many times over.

  • Last but not least, read my Disclaimer.

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