While messaging (who calls these days?!) with a good evaluator friend earlier last week, we started chatting about how to write a (well-) balanced evaluation report that I had been agonizing and obsessing about for quite some time. I wasn’t getting anywhere and the deadline was looming. The main reason was that the project had gotten very complicated (read, highly politicized). My friend provided very meaningful suggestions.
When confronted with such a situation, I like to think of Anne Lamott’s quotation in one of my favorite books on writing (“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” (1995)):
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
My general plan for writing a report in muddy situations is this:
1. Get to the point quickly. Generally speaking, people do not read any more than is necessary, so brevity is critical to improving the odds that people actually read a report.
2. Substantiate all your “claims” with data written within the context of the project/program. Don’t conceal facts.
3. Know your audience. Make connections to your (primary and even secondary) audience.
4. Highlight the good data (program, practices, policies) and the gaps/needs (lessons learned). Strike a balance.
5. Refer to the evaluation plan, questions, and the logic model.
6. Use visuals in the form of graphs and always add a narrative.
7. Make recommendations that are feasible and actionable.
8. Always be objective. It is tempting to sometimes get carried away/ get entangled in the politics of the project and the people. Don’t take sides.
9. Have the report read/scanned by your team member(s)/ staff and maybe an outside person not affiliated with the project for balance, grammar, objectively (pay them for their time, if you can).
10. Get on with it. Just take it bird by bird.