Nonprofit e-reports: Writing for time-challenged readers

flickr/i hate spelling

flickr/i hate spelling


One important role of foundations and nonprofits is to share knowledge. Often, they do this by publishing reports. . . most of which end up on shelves.

Typically, nonprofit reports are long, strewn with data and jargon, and produced without much thought about the reader. Often, the task is simply to get information out into the public domain.

It doesn’t matter whether reports are printed or online as PDFs—their traditional linear structure doesn’t work well online. (For proof, study Jakob Nielsen’s research about online readers.) Many reports almost defy readers to find the needles of information they’re after in a haystack of pages. Let’s face it, few people will (or need to) read the entirety of any report. Executive summaries don’t quite do the trick either.

Why do people even look at reports? Because they have questions and think they might get answers. In fact, most of our research is based on particular questions, so why not structure reports that way? (Socrates just entered the room.)

Here’s an inspirational example—the free ebook Tribes: Q & A that’s a companion to Seth Godin’s print book Tribes. It’s a PDF, yes—but instead of a table of contents it has a table of questions—each linked to an answer in the body of the book. The entire book is a flow of questions and answers that readers can enter at any point. There is no linear beginning and end—they can jump to the bottom of the list then jump back to the top. They aren’t forced to eat a 27-course meal to get to the dessert. Notice how scannable the answers are: the basic answer is in the first line, paragraphs are only 3-4 sentences long, and bulleted lists organize ideas.

To use a report format like this, you need to think about information in a different way when you’re writing. Think about the questions the report answers and the questions your readers might be seeking to answer. Think about the relationships among those questions. Think about what you really need to include to answer those questions—and what you don’t. Online, cutting copy by as much as 40% can actually help readers grasp your information quicker and better.

Using a format like this forces you to get to the point, which can require more time in the beginning. But, what a payoff for time-challenged readers who can quickly scan, dive, and get the information they were after. Sure, along the way they may explore other questions—but it will be a choice not a requirement.

CC photo credit: i hate spelling


One Response to “Nonprofit e-reports: Writing for time-challenged readers”

  1. Lorne Fade Says:

    Great post, definitely look forward to reading some more quality articles in the future. I myself am involved heavily in SEO and search marketing and am always looking for new ways to branch out.

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