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UpWrite Press understands the importance of writing skills in business: We're business people just like you. On this blog you'll find tips to improve your writing, along with topics of interest to our staff.

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How to Write About Big Data

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Big data is big business.

Major industries—from health care, to energy, to retail—shell out billions of dollars for data collection and analysis.

If information is the “new oil,” then reserves are booming. Amazingly, 80 percent of the world’s data was generated in the last two years alone.

Distilling such a massive volume of numbers into meaningful and actionable chunks is a formidable challenge, one that this humble blogger will leave to statisticians and data scientists.

But big data presents a unique challenge to communications professionals, too. For collecting and analyzing big data is one thing. Communicating what it means is an entirely different undertaking.

Data is the centerpiece of much workplace communication, including annual reports, market analyses, executive summaries, and other correspondence. All these forms share something in common: they will be read by a mostly non-technical audience. Yet this same audience may include stakeholders who have to make important decisions and take actions based on the data.

When reporting data, your goal is twofold: (1) Make the data “digestible” and (2) explain its significance. Your communications should focus less on the method of analysis and more on the big-picture results. Accuracy and clarity are paramount.

Organize for Clarity

Your data-based writing can achieve clarity by focusing on one main idea.  Following a three-part organizational pattern similar to SEA will help you develop this idea. This method states the main idea first, follows with details to support it, and ends by calling the reader to action.

When writing about data, use a similar three-part structure:

  • Opening: Introduce the main idea. The main idea is the “big idea,” or insight, that comes from the data. The idea could be an emerging trend, a data-based prediction, a meaningful comparison, a consequential outlier, or something else of value. You should be able to state the idea in a single sentence.
  • Middle: Support the main idea with data. You can do so by pointing out high and low points, changes over time, and other pertinent numbers. If you include tables or graphics, make sure to explain what they mean.
  • Closing: Restate the main idea to show how it impacts your audience. If appropriate, make recommendations based on the data.   

For more complex data analysis, secondary results may need reporting. Highlight these in the middle part with separate supporting paragraphs for each new insight. These paragraphs should follow a modified version of the three-part structure: 1) Begin by identifying the insight; 2) support the insight with data; and 3) close with a conclusion based on the insight.

The middle part is also where you should report and respond to any data that differs from or contradicts your main idea.

Simplify Word Choice

Another way to clarify your data-based writing to simplify your words. Do so by:

  • using plain language;
  • removing unnecessary jargon and complicated language; and
  • defining acronyms and technical terms.

Notice the difference in word choice in these two examples:

A)     By deconstructing numerical research of the wood flooring industry, one can conclude revenue does not necessarily flourish in connection with MBF. If you direct your attention to the MBF and revenue patterns in West Virginia in Table 1, you will infer that the region is a bullish market for sales ($94 million) and a bearish market for production (45 MBF). Meanwhile, Georgia produces 215 MBF annually, while generating less than $27 million in sales. The proposition of a regional production-to-sales correlation is a falsity.

B)      Our analysis of the wood flooring industry fails to show a geographic correlation between sales and production. Table 1 shows that West Virginia is the second leading market for wood flooring ($94 million annual sales) yet is home to only four manufacturers producing 45 million board feet (MBF) annually. Conversely, Georgia floor manufacturers produce upwards of 215 MBF but sold just $26.93 million within the state in 2013. This data suggests production does not drive revenue within geographic regions.

Can you see why the second example is clearer to a general reader? It uses plain language, defines acronyms, and cuts unnecessary jargon.

Adding Visualizations

In discussing how to communicate data, it would a foolish to neglect visualizations. A visualization is a graphic representation of data, such as a bar graph, time lines, or information maps.

Visualizations are powerful communication tools. They often reveal the “big idea” of a data set more clearly than words, helping the audience digest the information. Not surprisingly, visualizations are also more engaging than numbers and words. Some are downright beautiful.   

Thankfully, it doesn’t take a graphic design artist to create an engaging visualization. Many easy-to-use visualization tools are available for free online. Applications like Google Charts, Many Eyes, Tableau, and Visual.ly are a great place to start.

If you decide to build a data visualization for publication, keep in mind these helpful tips from the Data Journalism Handbook:

  1. Focus on one big idea. Your visualization should reflect the “big idea” of the data set. Think about the one impression you want to leave with the reader. Enhance that idea by removing unessential data or information.   
  2. Design for two types of readers. The visualization should be easy enough to understand at a glance, but also offer something of value that will invite the viewer to study it more closely.

As with any communication, accuracy is vital. The final step to writing about data, or creating a visualization for publication, is having one or more trusted individuals check and revise your work.

Good communication is good business. That doesn’t change in our increasingly numbers-driven world. Wherever people are busy crunching numbers, someone needs to communicate what it all means.  

—Tim Kemper


Lessons from a News Writer

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

A few months ago, I attended an excellent book reading by pop-culture author and essayist Chuck Klosterman. During the Q&A portion of the reading, a journalism undergraduate expressed frustration with the inverted-pyramid structure of news writing, an organizational method placing the most important details of a story up front. The student felt this upside-down approach stifled his creativity.

“I’m more interested in writing feature stories, with interesting, non-linear organization,” the student addressed Klosterman. “What advice can you give me?”

“You’re not going to like my answer,” Klosterman responded. “But I’m a supporter of the inverted pyramid; it makes writing accessible. It helped me greatly in my early career.”

I imagine this response surprised the student. Why would a skilled feature writer like Klosterman endorse such a simple approach to sharing news?  

Klosterman explained how he started his career at a small-town newspaper, writing stories in the inverted-pyramid style until the task became like clockwork. Doing so helped him focus on reporting the most important information and fulfilling the needs of his audience.

This exchange connects to business writing in a number of ways.

First, delivering information in a direct manner is often the best approach in business. A direct approach saves the reader time and highlights the most relevant information. Just as most news stories follow the inverted pyramid, most business correspondence should lead with the main idea, using the SEA organization method

The exchange also highlighted the payoff of practice. Klosterman honed his writing skills through the day-to-day grind of writing and reporting stories, using the inverted pyramid. In the business world, each new writing task presents a similar opportunity. Take something as routine as responding to email. By replying to every email clearly, carefully, and correctly, you will find it easier to draft more complex writing forms. 

Finally, the student’s frustration unearthed a common misconception about writing—that simple, straightforward writing is unskilled writing, that it doesn’t showcase an author’s abilities. This attitude can lead to unintended consequences.

Consider a similar scenario from the business world:

Jerry is assigned to write a proposal at work. He knows his supervisor will read it, and he wants to make a great impression. So he asks himself, “How can I make my writing unique?” “How can I ensure my effort gets recognized?” “How can make sure I stand out?”

You can probably see a problem emerging. Jerry is focusing is on himself, rather than the ideas he needs to communicate. He’s focusing on style before substance. This approach is unlikely to yield the results he desires.

Jerry would be better off asking: “What ideas are essential to this proposal? How can I make sure my readers understand these ideas? How can I simplify my writing to improve its readability?”

The main purpose of business communication isn’t to stand out; it’s to be understood. The best writers in business and journalism shine a spotlight on ideas, not themselves. They write with the needs of the audience in mind. And they organize their ideas in a manner that’s easy to understand.

Klosterman learned these lessons early in his career. And they opened the door to new and more creative opportunities, just as they can improve your own writing and standing in the workplace.

—Tim Kemper

Cyborgs Don't Worry

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

In “Write your worries away,” Jo Haigh describes a practice of jotting down worries in a notebook as they occur. She says that this helps to reduce her worry because, “I look at it more objectively for a start, but what is really powerful is when I come back to look at it again, either in a few days, a few weeks, a few months or even years, I realise just how unimportant in real terms it was.”

I’ve discovered something similar with to-do lists. Writing down a task takes it off my mind. Instead of trying to remember everything that needs doing, and worrying that something may be forgotten, all I have to remember is "Check the to-do list."

Over the years, I’ve read a few best practices for to-do lists. One is to focus on the three most important items each day (to avoid feeling overwhelmed). Another is to move finished tasks to a “Done” list instead of deleting them; being able to see what’s accomplished is powerful encouragement.

While many people like Ms. Haigh use paper journals or calendars to track things, I’m a fan of electronic ones. In part, that’s because the order of tasks can be changed easily. With many apps, reorganizing is as simple as drag-and-drop.

I’ve also discovered the power of cross-platform task apps. Personally, I use Google Tasks to keep a record in the cloud. When I’m at my home or work desktop machine, the app is easily accessed by keyboard. On the road, I can reference the list on my tablet (which later syncs whenever wi-fi is available) or use my smart phone to quickly add tasks, edit them, or rearrange the list.

In effect, the cloud becomes backup memory for my own brain, a cyborg relationship that allows me to focus on the work at hand. Not only does that reduce stress, as Ms. Haigh describes, it also provides a record of all I’ve accomplished today, this week, this month, this year, and so on. That’s both encouragement right now and a good source of future résumé material.

—Lester Smith

Photo by Pockafwye

The Tao Te Google

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

In the early days of the Internet, anyone with a modicum of HTML knowledge could game the search engines. Search-engine optimization (SEO) experts popped up right and left, charging hefty sums to place their clients at the head of search results. They crammed client pages with search keywords—in titles, meta tags, headings, links, and image descriptions—sometimes even as invisible (white on white) text on the page. When Google came into being, with its strategy of ranking pages by number and quality of inbound links, SEO “black hats” gamed that system by daisy-chaining sites in link-swapping deals.

Search engines got smarter. Their algorithms started actually punishing such tactics by sending abusive pages to the back of the line. In response, SEO pros studied the changed rules, revised their strategies, and charged more money to retune client sites. An arms race began between evolving search engines and SEO experts.

In such a situation, it should be obvious who wins. You can play catch-up only so long—especially with a giant with legs the length of Google’s—before you fall behind. And where Google goes, other search engines follow. As a result, the “black hat” SEO specialist is dying out.

Many things play a part today in a page’s search engine ranking, but all fit under one umbrella: Quality Content. If a page is well written, search engines will recognize its content by natural variations on key terms and phrases. If a page is well organized, with appropriate headings and graphics, search engines will note that as well. If a page is helpful, search engines will note inbound links from other sites of good quality. But if a page tries to cheat, it will suffer.

If I may borrow a section from the Tao te Ching

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

In other words, focus on a true purpose, and the results will come.

—Lester Smith

Photo by Beatnik Photos

It’s a Gusher!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Let’s talk about raw petroleum for a moment. Bubbling out of the ground it’s of little real use. You can burn it for heat, if you can stand the smoke, and you can use it for lubrication, but that’s about it.

With a little refining, though, petroleum can power an automobile, or a diesel engine, or a jet plane, or even a rocket ship! The more refined, the more powerful it becomes.

Some people treat business writing like raw petroleum. They feel that ideas bubbling up and spilling over should be enough for communication. While it’s true that this may generate some flames, the problem is the smoke. Poor organization, unclear word choice, grammatical errors, and such make the message more difficult to comprehend.

Writing requires refinement for best effect, and like petroleum fuels, the clearer it is the more powerful. The more time and effort spent in preparation, the more quickly and effectively a piece of writing can achieve its goals.

Does your writing just chug along, coughing and sputtering? Refine it with the seven traits of effective communication: (1) strong ideas, (2) logical organization, (3) appropriate voice, (4) precise word choice, (5) smooth sentences, (6) correct copy, and (7) polished presentation.

We recommend the Write for Business handbook for more information about these traits, as well as common grammar and spelling errors to avoid, an array of typical business forms, and more. Preview the table of contents to see how this handbook could help with business writing in your office. 

—Lester Smith

Photo from Wikimedia Commons