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You Can Loosen Up

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Word count: 901
Estimated read time: About 4 minutes

Article: You Can Loosen Up

I read, or tried to read, the policy brief 3 times.  It was awash in jargon, confusing long sentences and broad empty statements.  The whole thing was putting me to sleep—and it was only 4 pages long! I had no idea what the author was trying to say and worse, I didn’t care anymore. 

Then, a few days later, I read a 50 page evaluation paper that was written in such a lively and conversational way that I was captivated throughout the entire report—and I remembered the writer’s key points. Maybe most important, she made me care about her topic.

When I work with evaluators and researchers, they all have something useful to say that could make a difference in people’s lives. But you often wouldn’t know it from reading their reports. It’s as if they think that in order to be “professional” they must write in the most staid, dry, and dense way possible.  Sometimes trained communicators fall into this trap too. But they don’t have to.  And you don’t either.

If you have something important to communicate, you must write in a way that connects with the people who will read it. You must get people to care about what you are saying.

Carolyn Needleman, Ph.D., is the author of the evaluation report that I loved reading. She is professor emeritus at Bryn Mawr College and has conducted evaluations for some of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s most complex programs. In other words, she is a big shot in her field and has credibility to spare.  And she writes as if she’s telling a fascinating story to a smart, interested friend. That ease draws you in.

Needleman’s evaluation was of Health Care for All, an organization that wanted to make sure consumers had a voice in implementing the Massachusetts health care reform law. Her report documents the twists and turns of the group’s efforts, including the frustrations and the triumphs that took place in carrying out this complex work. She tells the story of this project in such an engaging way that you feel like you are right there as it unfolds.

Here is just one of her vivid descriptions:  “The project now had to plunge further into the ‘weeds’ of implementation, monitoring more and more intricate rules and regulations to make sure that hard-won legislative victories on coverage, quality and e-health would actually result in real change. As cost containment became more urgent, the potential grew for interest-based disagreements between consumers and health care reform stakeholders in some of [Health Care for All’s] coalitions and some of the ‘weeds’ began to seem like downright thickets.”

Needleman does 3 things that anyone who needs to prepare a report  - no matter the purpose -  can emulate.  She:

  • Connects with her readers. You feel like you’re reading something written by a real person who deeply cares about what she’s describing. She draws you in with her informal and heartfelt writing.

When you are writing, picture one of your friends as your audience and write it for her. Think about what would interest her. Think about what captivated you when you first did your research or read about this topic. Get fired up. You have something important to communicate. The more you feel that and express it, the more your readers will connect with what you write.

  • Tells good stories. Throughout the report, Needleman tells stories that illustrate the work of the organization. Those tales bring to life the work of Health Care for All.  For example, Needleman tells the story of how a group of consumers took a decidedly different approach to a typical protest at a pivotal meeting to ensure that key policymakers heard their concerns.

In her story, Needleman told about how consumers needed to find a way to persuade policymakers that their proposed “affordable” premium rates were too expensive for many people who were now required to carry health insurance.

She walks readers through a fascinating account about a consumer organization and how it surveyed more than 600 community residents to find out much disposable income they actually had to pay for insurance. Armed with this data, consumers came to the meeting committed to behaving respectfully and wearing colorful t-shirts aimed at showing up dramatically in media coverage.They successfully argued their case using data rather than making an emotional appeal.

Think about good stories that illustrate your key findings and tell them.  Those stories will put a human face on the data that you want to drive home to them.

  • Underscores the most important points. Needleman makes it easy for readers to grasp the key points by putting them in bold throughout her report. That thoughtful touch helps busy readers scan the report and still come away with the key learnings.

In one example, Needleman highlights this sentence in the middle of a long paragraph: [Health Care for All] staff set about locating individual consumers who had personally suffered some kind of life-altering medical error.

By doing so, she draws attention to an important point that might otherwise be lost.

Make it easy for readers to grasp your key points by highlighting them so they can quickly scan a report and understand what you want them to know.

All of these approaches will make your reports stimulating, which will draw people in.

Loosen up when you write. When you do, your passion and commitment to your topic will shine through.


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