A story from the mid-1970s. A story of the early days of Steffen Robertson and Kirsten, now SRK.
Soon after joining the company in the first offices in Johannesburg, Oskar Steffen was faced with a problem. His clients complained that the Steffen Robertson and Kirsten reports were too long and nobody read them. This was bad news, for we slaved over the reports. Each was handwritten in pencil or ink and then typed by a bevy of typists. You had only one or two chances to edit and improve them. So each was a gem, in our minds, of devoted labor. The idea that nobody read them was devastating.
Oskar called in a technical editor for advice. Their advice was simple: no report should be longer than twenty pages. The basis of this advice was that nobody could read and assimilate more than twenty pages in a single sitting. If we wanted our reports to be read, we needed to trim them to the issues and say it all in twenty pages.
Of course there was no limit on the number of appendices. Although no appendix should be longer than twenty pages. The details were to go into the appendices. The highlights were to be brought forward into the main report.
Oskar insisted and we obeyed. It was hard work. It required discipline and planning. It required suppression of writing egos and elimination of the idea that length/wordiness equalled quality. Many of us struggled with the practice. But Oskar persisted and insisted. And once the clients started complimenting us on the reports, we strove even harder.
I have no idea if this rule still holds in SRK. Although I have recently downloaded a few SRK reports from the web and they were all less than twenty pages. Gems of information and conciseness.
I got to Tucson and started writing reports. They were torn to pieces, for I was used to the South African way of saying what is; I was not used to the American need to persuade the skeptical. John Gadsby taught me the trick of brevity with focussed persuasion. Syd Hillis taught me the trick of getting the essential information into a few words. Syd always insisted that my reports should not record the chicken-scratching of my mind as I grappled with the ideas and issues.
I still try to follow Oskar’s edict. I still try to follow the lessons of Gadsby and Hillis. Although I have over the years been accused of writing too little. Of producing reports that are too short for the gravity of the issues I write of. Defence of my brevity by reference to the masters gets short shrift.
Let me know what you think. Do you like short reports with informative appendices? Do you care if the letter report is forty-one pages with no table of contents and no executive summary, as long as you can follow the glory of the development of the author’s ideas and crawl to conclusions?
Or do you demand of your consultants a twenty-page report that you can read in one sitting—with as many twenty-page, one-sitting appendices as the project demands?
PS. Andy Robertson adds these observations:
I certainly believe that the meat of any study should be presented in a report of readable length (less than 20 pages). You have the option of writing a short report with a lot in appendices or a long report with a suitable length Executive Summary. For reports that have to address many aspects a combination of all three is often the best way to go. An executive summary, of less than 10 pages, that is backed with a Report that addresses the various aspects in sufficient detail to fully understand each aspect – often several sections that may each be less than 20 pages and the appendices that contain supporting materials.
I do recall the early days in SRK when we, and those under us, had to be persuaded the condense the meat of a study into readable length. It is however horses for courses – sometimes a short report with appendices, sometimes an executive summary and a longer report and sometimes all three. One needs to choose the most suitable for the project requirements and audience to whom it is addressed.