Why the Mueller report doesn’t ‘speak for itself’, and how to make sure your reports do

Robert Mueller insists his report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election ‘speaks for itself’. But many say its 448 pages of dense, legalistic language muffle its key points. This article shows how three simple changes could have made the report’s messages clearer.

Note: This article includes rewrites of snippets of the Mueller report. These rewrites illustrate our advice for report writers. We make no judgement on the content of the report, or the political fracas around it.

In May 2017, Robert Mueller was appointed Special Counsel to investigate Russian government interference in the 2016 presidential election. His brief included investigating any coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.

This New York Times article on the press conference gives a useful summary of controversy around the report.

Mueller believes the report speaks for itself

Mueller gave a press conference on 29 May 2019, two months after delivering his report. He said he was returning to private life and that ‘We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself.’

Not everyone agrees. People have drawn starkly different conclusions. Some say the report proves the president has done no wrong. Others see clear grounds for impeachment.

A report only speaks for itself if readers get your message

Much of our work is helping people write clear, persuasive reports. To our eyes, the Mueller report has some of the problems we see every day in our work with government and business clients.

If your readers haven’t got your message, then your report doesn’t speak as plainly as you think. In fact, we recommend that report writers make sure readers are getting the intended message while the report is still a draft.

We have a lot of sympathy for time-pressed authors: making complex subject-matter clear is hard work.

Image, Washington court house

The Mueller Report is the perfect example of what report writing shouldn’t be. Image by Claire Anderson. Unsplash licence.

Three techniques that would have made Mueller’s messages clearer

We give three pieces of report-writing advice to most of the authors we meet.

These three techniques might not have defused the political disputes around the Mueller report, but they’d certainly have helped the messages leap off the page.

1. Write executive summaries that flag key points in the first 150 words

Both volumes of the Mueller report start with an introduction and an executive summary. These summaries are a dense, demanding read: page after page of long paragraphs without a single bullet point.

Our advice is to start your report with a short executive summary — one page is ideal, two to three is fine. Make sure you set out your key points within the first 150 words — and resist the temptation to start your report with an ‘introduction’ or ‘background’ section.

Get straight to the business at hand. Your executive summary needs to be crisp, concise, and easy to read quickly. Give your executive summary a headline, and use subheadings, short paragraphs and bullet points.

Here’s an example of an executive summary that flags key points within 150 words. Next to it are first 150 words of the executive summary for volume I of the Mueller report.

Note: Our rewrite highlights and interprets points made in the full text of the executive summary of Volume 1 of the report. We’ve done this deliberately to show that a report can only speak for itself if the author makes their points clear. Our interpretation may not be one that you — or Robert Mueller — would agree with.

Rewrite of executive summary

Some notes about the rewrite above

Mueller’s summary doesn’t lead with the jaw-dropping finding that we’ve highlighted in our rewrite above. The summary starts off with 500 words that tell the story of Russia’s hacking and social media campaign. Mueller used the phrase ‘numerous links’ but many news outlets used the more descriptive ‘extensive contact’ phrase.

About the evidence, he says, in a more opaque way than we’ve expressed the same ideas:

‘Accordingly, while this report embodies factual and legal determinations that the Office believes to be accurate and complete to the greatest extent possible, given these identified gaps, the Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.’

Refer to the summary to Volume I, after 250 words on factors that made it harder to gather information, which was the raw material for the bullet list we’ve created.

You might say it’s a stretch to interpret ‘shed additional light’ to mean ‘enable new criminal charges’. But given the investigation has produced indictments or guilty pleas from 34 people, we’d say it’s a reasonable interpretation.

2. Use ‘statement’ headings that sum up the text that follows

The Mueller report uses what we call ‘label’ headings headings that tells you what the topic is, but don’t tell you anything about that topic.

We recommend that report writers use ‘statement’ headings that tell readers something about the paragraphs that follow. Statement headings tell readers what’s coming next, and help readers see your messages and follow your argument.

Here are two label headings from the Mueller report, alongside how we’d rewrite them as statement headings:

Rewrite of headings in Mueller Report

3. Keep paragraphs and sentences short, and use bullet points

This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating. Long sentences and long paragraphs will make your report harder to read. If you make your report hard to read, most people won’t read it all. And those who do read it are likely to miss some of the points you want to make.

Here’s a rewrite of one paragraph from the Mueller report. The sentences in the original aren’t overly long they hover around the 30-word mark, and our advice is aim for 25 words. But nine in a single paragraph makes for a difficult read.

The rewritten sentence shows the difference statement headings, short paragraphs, and bullet points can make.

Rewrite of a long paragraph from the Mueller Report

Keen to find out more about writing reports that speak for themselves? Join us on our Report Writing workshop or our Critical Thinking Lab.

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