How my 5th-grade self made my report writing easier

In elementary/primary school, most of us are taught the wonderful lesson about how to write a five-paragraph essay. Here are the basic steps:

  • Decide on a theme; write your thesis statement.
  • Gather data related to your theme.
  • Filter the data gathered to identify topics related to your theme.
  • Create your outline for the essay.
  • Based on the outline, write your three main points.
  • Fill in the rest of the essay in the order:
    1. Introduction (includes thesis statement)
    2. Point 1 with supporting evidence and transition to…
    3. Point 2 with supporting evidence and transition to…
    4. Point 3 with supporting evidence
    5. Conclusion, revisiting the thesis statement

I don’t know about you, but I’ve realized over the past few months that this is not how I write my market research reports. Instead, my process has been looking something like this.

  • Run survey with a general idea of what to expect from the survey.
  • Get data back, realize it’s a lot of data.
  • Look for something (anything) that might be interesting. End up with too many questions you’re trying to answer.
  • Put together slides with tons of data points about the things that seemed interesting to me.
  • Present the slides.
  • Create follow-up presentations to address the questions that the audience actually wanted me to answer in the course of the presentation I’d delivered.

Okay, okay, it’s not that bad, but it can certainly feel like it, can’t it? For the past few days, I’ve been combing through data from a survey that recently closed, just poring over all the many data points and trying to find what looks interesting and worth telling a story.

Then, I was in a meeting with a group of my peers to combine our learnings together, and they had taken a very different approach, which looked a lot more like the five-paragraph essay approach. On big, white sheets of paper posted on walls around the room were statements that our stakeholders wanted to get answers to, and which we were testing against our data sources. In starting with the “thesis statement,” I found myself suddenly staring at the story that was in my data. What was previously taking weeks suddenly turned into an effort that took a few hours.

I think when we’re tackling reports and tackling storytelling, what trips us up more often than not is the approach we’re taking to finding the story, not the data itself. We don’t necessarily approach the data with theories (aka business questions) in mind. Instead, we approach the data like we’re hoping it’s going to throw the stories at us with reckless abandon, if we just spend enough time and run enough data tables.

I’m now creating an actual outline (which, for some reason, I’m calling the “report skeleton”) and finding this process to be much, much easier. As part of that outline, I’m reviewing the questions that I have already heard from my stakeholders, and using those as my theories and thesis statements. Instead of trying to cram five stories into one presentation, I’m focusing a lot of effort into one main story, testing the theories based on my findings against the findings from peers’ research, and the result is a more robust, more relevant-to-my-stakeholders view of the analysis, not to mention a much more focused analysis path.

Here’s my challenge to you: go back to basics for your next report and try the approach used in primary school for that five-paragraph essay. Use your stakeholders’ or clients’ business questions to create your thesis statement and then go to your data to look for the supporting (or contradictory) evidence for the statement. Then fill in the rest of the story. I’d love to know if you use the outline for your reports generally, or if you try this approach and find it makes your lives easier. Leave me a comment below, or connect with me on Twitter or Facebook.

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