Nancy Duarte, the celebrated presentations expert who put together a slide show for Al Gore that inspired his award-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, says one of the most important arguments we write is the executive summary of a report. After all, it’s the very first interaction with our readers and whether they will continue depends upon the quality of that summary.
To make it engaging and memorable, she advises you to borrow from the traditional three-act dramatic story structure – situation, complication and resolution – only in this case she labels it a “Data Story” because you will be deftly combining data and story.
You begin with a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue. Then you move to Act Two, which reveals the central conflict. She calls it “the messy middle” and at that point asks you to think of Frodo Baggins, from The Lord of the Rings.
“He has the treachery of Orcs, Gollum, a poisonous spider, impossible landscapes, and, of course, Sauron himself. And that’s only part of it! The audience is rooting for him, learning from him, inspired by him, and relieved that it all works out in the end,” she writes in her new book, Data Story.
It seems a long way from the office and reports you write but she argues organizations are messy as well, hotbeds of flawed processes, oppressive regulations, unhappy customers, and aggressive competitors. Data helps to shed light on those messes.
Specifically, in Act Two of your executive summary, you are focusing on the data points that need to change. “What’s the measurement that will be reversed if your recommendation is approved? Or, what are the numbers that will increase with the new opportunity?” she asks.
The end is your point of view for how to create a positive outcome – how the story will end if people are wise enough to follow your recommendations. “Everyone loves stories in which the protagonist slays the enemy, fall in love, finds the golden goblet and is honoured as the hero in the end,” she says. It may have been difficult to reach that end point, but it’s satisfying. You are tapping into those unconscious warm feelings when you use the time-honoured framework for your executive summary.
Digging deeper, you want to fill those three acts with a blend of argumentative and persuasive writing. Those formats sound the same but she says argumentative writing is the logical side of your marshalling of the evidence and persuasive the emotional appeal. Your story should be supported by evidence and also include counter-arguments your audience might have so they feel their perspective has been considered.
Argumentative writing is professional, tactful and logical in tone. Persuasive writing leans toward the personal, passionate and emotional. Keep that in mind as you craft an appropriate tone based on the audience.
The recommendation – and your supporting slides – needs a logical structure, like a tree, with a key theme or recommendation and branches of supporting information. Just as three acts works well, our conditioning since youth, she says, has been for three supporting points for every argument.
When making recommendations, she warns a common mistake is to jump right to what needs to be done and how, skipping why it is needed. But to be persuaded, people need the why. Keep in mind who you are presenting the report to and what they need to hear – the why they need to be persuaded. She also advises you to share the ideas you have abandoned as well as reasons.
Think story – three acts, with argument, persuasion and a recommendation tree – the next time you are presenting to your boss.
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