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Rethinking the Traditional Policy Report

The conventional strategy for policy reports is to cater to a specialized cadre of industry insiders. This often results in dry, linear documents, interspersed with the requisite stats and charts to support their policy recommendations. While this approach can certainly help get your ideas down on paper, it doesn’t do much to get your audience to notice you and your message over the thousands of others vying for their attention.

Policy and advocacy organizations demand a lot of their audience — these are busy people, who invest a lot of their time and energy into their cause. It’s our job to make it easy and enjoyable for them to do so. Advocacy is about engagement and action. What’s so surprising is how un-engaging most policy reports usually are, and how little action they generate as a result. Survey the landscape and you’ll quickly see what I mean: there isn’t a lot out there to spark the imagination, much less create a sense of excitement and inevitability for what’s possible.

Because policy reports are, by necessity, dense and detailed, you have to do more than just make the case. You need to get people excited about the potential of you ideas. Some people like to pour over every word and statistic, others want top-line summaries. Some respond better when complex ideas and processes are written in deep detail, others are more comfortable when they’re simplified and visualized. The challenge is to give each audience enough of what they’re looking for to stay engaged and become an advocate.

Our work developing the Electrification Roadmap required us to go far beyond “designing” an attractive report; our collaboration with the client was geared to help build momentum for the electrification of the U.S. transportation system. This meant appealing to diverse interests across verticals such as business, technology, energy, and the public sector.

We used the Roadmap as an opportunity to excite and educate these audiences on the issues, creating a community of experts empowered to advocate for the initiative—both within and across their spheres of expertise. Instead of producing one long, narrative argument, we used design thinking to create a new kind of report that is built from the reader’s perspective by:

  1. Developing a strong organizational structure and breaking content into smaller segments that make material more comprehensible and digestible.
  2. Improving pacing and reading rhythm with clearly identifiable abstracts, prefaces and conclusions that help “skimmers” get the important take-aways and make it easy for everyone to recall key points.
  3. Leveraging best practices from a diverse slate of sources, from educational publishing to gadget magazines to make technically complex content more accessible with plenty of visual cues that keep readers engaged.
  4. Using typographic devices like display type, sidebars and pull quotes to create a more accessible document with multiple points of entry.
  5. Incorporating a variety of pictures, charts and diagrams to illustrate and support key points.

The result is a report that not only speaks to Beltway insiders, but a wide range of interest groups as well. This, in turn, created a more meaningful discourse between all audiences, and more cohesive, sustainable momentum towards the vision of an electrified transportation sector for our nation.

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