Good business communication depends on knowing your goals and connecting with your audience. Natalie Canavor explains
I think you'll agree with the truism (above) that guides professional communicators. So how can it usefully be applied to writing an actuarial report? You want your readers to:
? read and understand it;
? use it as a basis for good decision-making;
? respect the authority, professionalism and expertise it embodies.
If you agree with these assumptions, taking them into account enables you to avoid the mistakes that many professionals with highly sophisticated technical skills fall into. Such pitfalls typically range from under-supplying clear perspectives and burying readers in detail; using language that is hard for readers to understand; and most risky - delivering the message in a non-engaging manner.
To start with the last point: I realise actuarial reports are not meant to entertain. But in today's high-pressure environment there are no captive audiences. We all choose what we read, and how much of it to read. This certainly applies to business leaders. The fact that they ask (and pay) for information doesn't mean they will happily slog through a ton of lifeless material to find what they need and interpret it productively. I am sure the substance of actuarial reports isn't boring to the actuaries who write them. Nor should it bore their audiences. Fortunately, some techniques borrowed mostly from journalism and a smidgeon from psychology can make your reports at once more interesting, clear, readable, useful - and valued.
Especially when massive amounts of data are involved, it is easy for readers to get lost in the maze. People today don't want more information - we all feel overburdened already. We want to know what it means. It's the writer's job to predigest the information and develop a clear perspective based on what matters to that audience.
Journalists, who are also information gatherers, always ask themselves 'What's the story?' It can be far from obvious, especially when a lot of research is involved. And often the original idea or expectation evolved into something quite different.
Reporters have a maxim for reminding themselves how critical it is to find the focus: 'Don't bury the lead'. That means know what's important, interesting and valuable about your message to the reader, begin with it, and organise the rest of your report to support it.
To find the lead for an actuarial report, try telling your 'story' to someone else, or imagine doing so. You might ask yourself 'What is this really about?', 'What did I find?' or ask and then answer the question that your readers hired you to answer, such as 'What does the evidence indicate to be the best decision?' or 'What are the alternative courses of action and what are the risks and benefits for each?'.
It can work magically to hear yourself explain the basic story line to someone who is not a technical professional - either a partner, or a bright 18-year-old. There's actually a neuroscientific reason for this strategy: we use different parts of the brain for writing and oral communication. When we write, we express things in very complicated ways - and the more so with more education. Saying something gives you access to a communication system much older than writing. It helps you drill to the core of your message and also state it in more direct, simple language.
Once you know your story, tell it in the executive summary. This crucial part of your report should offer a complete perspective on what's in the report, what's important, and your recommendations or conclusions. Your readers want a rational basis for decision-making. Your goal is to deliver that. This makes giving them the bottom line your most captivating lead. Even more important, realistically, many readers will make decisions after reading only the executive summary. Make sure it gives them a solid foundation to act upon.
View the rest of the report as evidence and backup. You can cross-reference sections within the executive summary, so people can find that detail according to their own interests. That doesn't mean bogging those sections down with all your research and analysis. A report works best when relatively non-technical readers can move through it quickly without becoming embroiled in too much data they probably won't understand or care about.
The bottom-line-on-top strategy works for all a report's sections, as well as the executive summary. For each one, begin by figuring out the main import of the material and put it in a clear perspective. Don't slow down or interrupt the narrative flow with too many calculations, charts, graphs or other 'evidence'. Most readers do not care how you arrived at conclusions or the process you used. They care about what it means to them.
Here's a quick formula for an effective report: present it as three stages - executive summary/overview, main body spelling out major findings and implications, and a set of appendices with all the data you - and fellow actuaries - could want.
Using writing to engage
It might surprise you to know that while writing is generally seen as a 'soft skill', helpful guidelines exist based on how well audiences can understand it. Here are a few 'shoulds':
? sentences: between 10 and 18 words
? paragraphs: one to four sentences each;
? words: as many one-syllable ones as possible.
Easy to use readability predictors are found on your Microsoft Word programme. Just check 'show readability statistics' under preferences/spelling and grammar, and the Flesch index, or readability index, shows up after you use spellcheck. The box tells you what percentage of people will understand a piece of writing, the percentage of passive voice sentences and more. Many professional writers routinely check their work against these stats, and rewrite when the passive count, sentence length and so on are too high.
You may take these guidelines with as many grains of salt as you like, but they are audience-focused and thus illuminating. No one today likes to read material that needs to be deciphered. The most effective business writing today reads easy and fast. The easier and faster a report reads, the more of it will be read and absorbed as you would like.
Using a high percentage of one and two-syllable words is best because we human beings like short, concrete words. Perhaps because they derive from Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to the French and Latin imposed by conquerors, they promote credibility and trust. They resonate with us. Think of Winston Churchill's speeches or poetry like Emily Dickinson's.
A sprinkling of longer words is all the more effective when the base consists of short ones.
Using heads and subheads
To dip into the journalist's bag of tricks again, use 'action' headlines and subheads that say something, rather than labels.
Instead of writing, for example, 'Pension fund forecast', try 'Pension funding inches up'.Or, use the label and add a headline: 'Pension fund forecast: 14% rise seen for first quarter'.
This technique automatically makes the material more interesting and does a better job of capturing reader attention. Being more specific helps people identify the must-read pieces, too - and this is good.
Today's reader, trained by the internet, is active rather than passive. We are selective about what to read and specific subheads help us make good decisions about what is relevant to our interests.
Apply this idea to headlines as well. Rather than just writing 'Executive summary,' base a headline on the actual content. For example, 'Executive summary: three routes to funding pensions to meet new legal guidelines.' Good headlines and subheads set up your reader to receive the information, and make organising your own thinking much easier.
In summary, remember who your audiences are: busy, practical, pressured, bottom-line-focused specialists of different kinds, with varying degrees of technical proficiency and interest. Give them reports that reflect the value of your information with clear writing that doesn't get in the way of understanding. Put the data in perspective for them. You will find grateful clients who use your results to achieve their goals.