Most people now flip through reports searching for useful information, stopping to read only if something seems interesting. Blame it on the information age or social media. But if skimming is too daunting, your document is unlikely to achieve its purpose. These are five writing tips to make it easier for business readers to skim your report.
1. Use Subheadings That Tell Your Story
Use meaningful subheadings that tell a story rather than descriptive labels. Descriptive labels are a product of traditional writing that provides little useful information. Each subsection of your report should have a heading that summarizes its contents. Descriptive subheadings allow readers to understand your basic messages without reading every word.
Here are two examples of descriptive subheadings that are more effective than a label:
Label: Descriptive Subheadings
Descriptive: Use Subheadings That Tell Your Story
Headline: Reliability Saves Resources over the Long-term
2. Use Brief, Bulleted Lists for Readability
Remember, lists are a useful tool for:
Making details easier to read
Drawing attention to certain information
Breaking up the flow of text on the page
These are three basic tips for creating good lists:
Construct each item on a list using parallel language.
Use either sentences or phrases, but not both.
Start all items with the same kind of language, such as an active verb.
Numbered lists work well when there is a natural order to the information.
3. Consistent Text Formatting Provides Ease, Accessibility
Uniform fonts, colors, and styles decrease the subconscious strain of reading your report. Plus, picking the right fonts, colors, and styles is essential for people with hearing, reading, or learning impairments. Consistent styles, especially when it comes to using headings and subheadings, are necessary for accessibility devices.
4. Short Paragraphs and Sentences Improves Mobile Reading
I now do an initial review of my reports on my mobile phone. I know - only a few technical readers will do a review on their phone. However, the exercise is highly effective for spotting initial clutter and wordiness. Aim for clarity and brevity in your writing.
5. Whitespace is a Top Goal
White space is the friend of making your document easy to skim. There are some technical aspects related to fonts, margins, line spacing, and spacing between sections that collectively contribute to readability. However, Microsoft, Google, and Adobe generally do a good job with their defaults. Just remember that white space is the friend of making documents easy to skim.
Writing Tips with FINESSE
FINESSE is a cause-and-effect approach for effective communication when complexity and uncertainty are high. The I in FINESSE stands for Illustrate, which addresses the visuals to use (and not to use). The N is all about Noise reduction. And the first S (Structure) is about making your reports and presentations easy for decision makers to understand. This article provides five writing tips that make your reports easy to skim and fit into the FINESSE approach.
Communicating with FINESSE is a not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.
JD Solomon is the author of Communicating Reliability, Risk & Resiliency to Decision Makers: How to Get Your Boss’s Boss to Understand and Facilitating with FINESSE: A Guide to Successful Business Solutions.