How to dramatically increase readability using signposts

29 June 2020

Enticing your reader to begin reading your report may be your biggest writing challenge. Even the most motivated reader is likely to be deterred by a report with pages of unbroken text. So how do you overcome this common communication barrier?

The 3 most commonly used devices to break up text in business reports are paragraphs, headings and lists. Depending on the type of report, you could also consider tables, graphs and text boxes that summarise key points.

Write well-structured paragraphs

A paragraph is a group of sentences that discusses one idea or one aspect of an idea. Known as the topic sentence, the first sentence in the paragraph becomes your signpost that alerts the reader to what follows. In business reports, paragraphs are usually no longer than 5 or 6 lines. 

Each individual paragraph must be well structured. If your paragraphs are poorly structured, you will quickly lose your reader. Two common traps when writing paragraph are including unrelated ideas in the same paragraph and repeating the same idea in different parts of the report.

Element

Description

Topic sentence

The first sentence of a paragraph that introduces a new topic and tells the reader what the paragraph is about. The topic sentence is usually worded in broader terms rather than containing specific information.

Supporting sentences

The sentences following the topic sentence that provide further information relevant to the topic. They may include more specific information such as facts, statistics or examples. 

Transitional sentence

The first sentence of a paragraph that introduces a new aspect of the topic of the previous paragraph. The transitional sentence links ideas from the previous paragraph to the new aspect.

Concluding sentence

The last sentence in the paragraph or series of paragraphs that summarises the main point of the topic.

Add headings and subheadings

Media outlets understand the power of headings. A startling headline will grab your attention and make you want to read the article. In business writing, effective headings guide your reader by giving them key information. They also break the text into manageable chunks. 

In a business report, aim for 2 or 3 headings or subheadings per A4 page. Write the headings and subheadings in sentence case. That is, only capitalise the first letter of the first word in the heading and any proper nouns (e.g. brand or organisation name).

Use bulleted lists wisely

Used appropriately, bulleted lists can increase readability by grouping items into ‘chunks’ or by providing a brief summary. Provided each point in the list follows a consistent grammatical structure, and has no more than 5 to 8 bullets, lists are physically easier on the eye. But be careful not to overdo lists.

Simply putting a bullet point in front of a paragraph or creating a long list will not make your report easier to read. Intersperse each list with paragraphs and headings. If each point goes over 1 or 2 lines, consider converting the list to well-structured paragraphs. Finally, make sure each bullet point follows a consistent grammatical structure (known as parallel structure).

Clear signposts are critical in business reports. Not only will they encourage your reader to begin reading, they make the information easier to find when decision makers and others need to refer back to the report to find important information.

Need help writing reports? Ask us about our online report writing training and one-on-one executive mentoring. Call 02 9238 6638 or email patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au

 

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