Reader-Friendly Writing – 1:3:25


Writing a research summary for decision-makers is not the same as writing an article for an academic journal. You write for a different purpose for decision-makers, so you need to take a different approach.

This approach is 1:3:25. Start with one page of main messages; follow with a three-page executive summary; then present your full report in up to 25 pages, in language someone who is not necessarily research-trained will understand.

Main messages (1 page)

Make your main messages bullet points. They are the heart of your report, the lessons decision-makers can take from your research. The messages may not even appear in your text; they are what can be inferred. They’re not the same as a summary of findings – you have to go one step further and tell your audience what you think the findings mean for them, what implications your work has for theirs. 

To formulate your messages, set aside your text and focus on expressing clear conclusions based on what you've learnt. Consider your audience: who are they and what do they need to know about what you've learnt? For example, you may have studied the impact of increasing use of homecare and found that hip-implant patients regain mobility faster out of hospital than inpatients. A key message would be to encourage early discharge. Spell it out.

You may find it difficult to write main messages – as a researcher you’re trained to be detached and collect evidence rather than judge it – but you need to so your research is of real use to decision-makers. If you don’t infer these messages from your work, you’re leaving it to be interpreted by someone else, who won't likely have your insight.

If your research doesn’t offer definitive recommendations, be as specific as you can. Avoid falling back on “more research is needed”. Use your main messages to define the questions that still need to be asked.

Executive summary (3 pages)

This your findings condensed so your decision-maker audience (such as a local hospital administrator or ministry official) can quickly decide whether your report will be useful to them. Outline the issues you were looking into, using language and examples your audience will relate to; then sum up what you found. Be succinct, not cryptic. Your executive summary is not an academic abstract; it's much more like a newspaper article. Lead with the most interesting bits, then cover the background, context and less urgent information. If you need to mention your approach, methods and other technical details, do this in a line or two.

Full report (up to 25 pages)

You may be more comfortable with this length (counted as double-spaced lines, 12-point type, 2.5 cm margins), but avoid lapsing into academic style just because you have more room. Use anecdotes or stories to get your point across. To make sure your writing suits the decision-maker – test it with your decision-maker partners. What do they find most useful and interesting? How do they respond to your language and style?

You’ll generally need to include these seven sections.

Context: Outline the policy issue or managerial problem your research addresses. State the research question clearly. Highlight earlier research and the contribution current research may make. Anecdotes can work well here.

Implications: State what your findings mean for decision-makers. The essence of your key messages is in this section. If your work may interest different types of audiences, and it has different messages for each, separate and label the messages.

Approach: Describe your method(s), including the study design, data sources and details of the sample, response rate and analysis techniques. Explain how you worked with decision-makers. Outline your plans for dissemination. Put highly technical material into an appendix; here you should focus on explaining why these details matter, how they might affect the study results and conclusions, and why you chose one approach over another.

Results: Summarize your findings to show how they support the conclusions you have presented, highlighting themes and messages. Use graphs and tables if they will improve understanding. Move any results that don't relate directly to the conclusions to an appendix.

Additional resources: Give details of publications, websites and other useful sources of information for decision-makers.

Further research: Outline gaps in knowledge; frame questions on management and policy issues you've identified and suggest studies to answer them.

References and bibliography: In your report, use consecutive superscript numbering for references and present them as endnotes, not in the body of the text or at the foot of pages. In your bibliography, list resources useful for decision-makers and researchers wanting more in-depth information and useful reading beyond that used in the report, including some easy-to-read items to give decision-makers background. The references and bibliography count as part of the report's 25 pages unless you have fully annotated them, in which case put them into an appendix.