Nix the Table of Contents

If the evaluation report is so long it needs a table of contents, you know you have gone too far.

I have been researching the communication of evaluation findings in preparation for an upcoming webinar on the topic and because I have a horse I’m currently riding called How Not to Annoy People with Evaluation. Experts in the field rarely mention much on communication of findings. Those who do give a decent turn to getting the right stakeholders at the table, even thinking about different ways to display findings. But invariably, the evaluation seems to produce a written report. Many evaluation budgets aren’t large enough to rework the written tome into brochures, newsletters, and interpretive dance routines to cater the findings to different audiences. We’re often stuck with the written report.

So then why do we torture the readers with dozens of pages of inane technical information before getting to the findings? (Rhetorical. I think I have an answer for another blog post.)

Reports 200 pages in length are not useful. Plain and simple. The narrative and graphics must be concise and to the point. I was sitting in a meeting at a local foundation about two weeks ago, with two foundation folks in the room, representing different institutions. They were lamenting, as we all do, about not having enough time to fully catch up on every activity of their grantees. They pinpointed annual reports, saying even executive summaries can be too long (and I read a recent “expert” in evaluation advise an executive summary 4 to 20 pages in length!) and then they begged to the ether, “bullet points! Please bullet points!”

To make evaluation useful, we must stop producing documents that better serve as doorstops. One good sign: if you have to create a table of contents, you have too many pages.

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