The Long and the Short

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Guest Post: Tony Proscio

By raising this question, I risk putting myself out of business. But it’s a sincere question, and I honestly don’t know the answer:

Is there a future for the long-form report in philanthropy? Does anyone read even the most crisply written Big White Paper? Fifty or sixty pages on the benefits of preventive family medicine in Oakland? Or the economic development multiplier of community arts organizations in Cincinnati? If, as we’re constantly being told, the attention span of even the most educated and sophisticated person is plunging, do we still have an appetite for 25,000 words on the intricacies of foundation affinity groups or high-engagement philanthropy? Or do we need to start breaking most topics down into 400-word blog posts and 5-page fact sheets?

I enjoy writing long, reflective reports. I even like reading (some of) them. I think it’s possible to make them more than worth the time they take to digest. But just because something is important and worthwhile doesn’t mean that people will actually do it. If the length of a paper scares readers away, they won’t ever find out how rewarding it would have been to invest an hour in reading it. There’s a place for everything, and I can’t help wondering: What place do long reports still have in our work? And if there is still a place, what pieces belong in it, and what makes those successful?

If anyone has a thought on this — especially if it involves not giving up my livelihood — I’d love to hear it.


Tony Proscio, a planning, evaluation, and communication consultant to foundation and large nonprofit organizations, is also the creator of the Communications Network’s Jargon Finder.

 

4 Comments

  1. GabiGabi11-01-2012

    Here’s the good news Tony, you can keep your job!

    You ask a critical question and one that plagues any and all us who are competing for readers’ time and attention.

    My opinion? I have a few :)

    First, if you can say what you need to say in 400 words, for pete’s sake do it. But I think a lack of good editing is only a small part of the reason that so many papers are so long (note: our definition of long is of course getting shorter and shorter). Papers are more often long because the issues they address are seriously complex and require a lot of context. The challenge is to maintain and honor that complexity while, well, getting to the point.

    Second, different audiences use different kinds of content at differing levels of analysis and detail. Are they using the report to help redesign an initiative from the ground up or are they just trying to communicate the key points to their board? Are they identifying a major area of need or just sketching out the context for an existing service? The audience for the long report might not be huge but it relies on this level of detail. After all that’s why most communications departments produce the full report, an executive summary, key findings, an abstract, and now the tweet (sigh). We may not have an appetite for the long report but sometimes we still need it to feed our understanding.

    Finally though, I think your question hits on something that is less about length and more about, let’s call it, chunkability. Can a user easily extract a key finding from a report? What about from across twenty reports on a related issue? Can she quickly and easily identify and pull out graphs and tables from the report to repurpose them elsewhere? Can she skip to sections of the report her colleague or peer has already highlighted? These aren’t just time-saving strategies that would allow us to finally read the long reports we do set aside, they are actually a set of interactions and behaviors that make the long/short argument moot. The process (and art) of information sharing becomes less about reduction and more about meaningful extraction and re-use.

    These are of course all questions and strategies we are engaging with at IssueLab, a collection of more than 11,000 long(ish) reports! :) Whether semantic markup, metadata standards, text mining, or something else entirely are the solution there is no doubt that the long report has value and will continue to have value. The future will just have to include more user-friendly and appetizing ways to reveal what’s in them.

  2. Hi Tony,
    These are good questions you raise. And while I know I put myself at a certain amount of risk questioning your use of words, I wonder if part of the problem could be the word “long?” I think we too often associate the word long with something tedious– as “I really had to work a long time on this.” Or, “this is going to take a long time to read.”

    I think the word that rings truest for me in your post is “reflective.” That suggests, at least to me, that you are trying to do a service for others by using all your analytical and writing skills to create something that’s worth spending some time with and who knows, maybe taking away something useful.

    Also, perhaps it’s the physical length that scares some people away. Perhaps more reliance on digital forms will help mitigate some of those fears. For instance, I have many “long” articles and books on my various e-readers. But no matter how much I keep adding to them, I don’t notice the additional weight — or the length.

    Your post also reminds me of a standard reply to the question a former high school teacher of mine would get asked — and probably by me too –whenever he handed out a writing assignment — i.e. “how long does this paper have to be?” Unflinchingly, he’d say: “As long as it takes to say what you have to say.”

    Hope your questions get good responses.

    Thanks again.

  3. Jeff StangerJeff Stanger11-01-2012

    Great set of questions. Thanks for raising them in a post that wasn’t TL;DR.

    This is something I think a lot about in my work at the Center for Digital Information. Anyone who’s talked to me knows I’m a vocal advocate for going “beyond the PDF document” to do what the digital medium makes possible. The questions you raise parallel those in other fields — “What is the future of the article?” in journalism; “What is the future of the book?” in publishing. I think the answers are no less consequential for philanthropy and those it funds. We produce a lot of important information, for internal use and public dissemination. We ought to be questioning its form on a fundamental level. While I don’t think we necessarily need to replace documents — reports, white papers, journal articles, etc. — we certainly should devote sufficient time and resources to aggressively experimenting with the latest capabilities of the digital medium. What does the future of a fully tricked-out digital report look like? Let’s find out.

    Good comments from Gabi and Bruce. One point I’d add is that length is only one attribute, and perhaps not the most consequential one. The reports and other documents we commonly produce also tend to be static, linear, slow to generate, immediately out of date, and after the fact. We should examine their utility and value on those grounds as well.

  4. Great question. I suspect you’ll get lots of responses over the next few days as more of us have time to mull over this constant challenge.

    I agree with thoughts from Gabi, Jeff and Bruce, but will continue to ponder.

    A couple of things strike me right away: (1)I find it lots easier to write a long report than to read one, and (2)I never rarely feel pain when reading a well-written, 400-page novel.

    Are these responses linked? Maybe.

    In the first instance, my reports emerge from a project or program completed. And I fully understand the drama behind my report: the people involved, the heated discussions, the exciting ideas, the site visits, etc. In my head, it’s a story. Unfortunately, in some long reports, the story is stripped out leaving only data on the page.

    Can just data be compelling? Absolutely, and especially when arranged to tell a story. Think infographics, interactive graphics and maps, supporting videos and podcasts. The flow and change of the data creates a narrative, an impression.

    As far as reason 2 goes, well, I guess I’m a sucker for stories both simple and complex. It’s amazing how many characters I can remember, how many intricate relationships I can track, how many subplots I can follow. Given the unrelenting popularity of day-time drama, I’m not the only one.

    So maybe it’s not just length.

    Just a couple of thoughts.

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