/writing/ Three Sided Stories

AS THE ‘OL saying goes: There is always three sides to a story – side A, side B, and the truth.

As I stand knee-deep in conflicting data for an annual donor / client report, there seems an appropriate applicability to the development setting: There is four sides to client reporting: M&E, communications / reporting, program teams, and senior management.

For a product that is conceptually about presenting our programs as a single, effective solution, four sides to an annual report is three too many. A good reporting framework, led by the communications / reporting team, should systematically singularize the many facets of even the most complex development programs into a clear product that supports mutual objectives.

Program teams often try to make their work look as good as possible, hesitant to expose any gaps in their work. The M&E team is there to ensure that all claims made by the program teams are supported by the appropriate documentation. The reporting team is largely stuck in the middle, trying to balance the good, the bad, and ugly of it all.

Throw in broader strategic and political interests and tactics of the senior management team, and something as simple as an annual report can be a tricky piece that can quickly derails a program and its relationship with the client.

Conceptually, we should focus on reconciling the different sides of the story by establishing a single narrative that best highlights what’s going well and transparently identifies gaps, why they are happening, and how the program intends to resolve those gaps.

The reporting team sits in a prime position to facilitate the process, even before the writing begins.

As a reporting team, demand that M&E and Program teams sit together before they send information / data that has been verified and reflects a single “side” of the story. Ensure that program and M&E teams understand the fundamental difference between their data, and more importantly, how that data should be analyzed and presented (i.e., M&E tends to be more focused on black and white results – did we meet our target for the year? Whereas program teams are often mired in the details of implementation and likely provide an overabundance of activity-level details. Two different sides of the story that need balancing.)

Sit with the senior management team to better understand broader strategic and political considerations that are driving higher-level decision making, as well as establish official program responses to particularly sensitive issues (i.e., We were late with this deliverable because of XYZ). Probe senior management teams about the current mood of the client which can help the writing team better mold the report to changing circumstances (i.e., clients are often particularly antsy before and right after fiscal or annual years end, during which they are themselves put under additional pressure from their senior management teams.)

Beware that all teams, including senior management, not actually responsible for producing the report will likely try to simplify the writing process (Here’s our data, now leave us alone). It’s our job as the reporting team to articulate our needs and push these teams to engage in the writing process through a more nuanced and thoughtful approach.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the program to create a single, well-defined narrative through our reporting mechanisms. The client pays us too much not to make this commitment.

Thanks for reading.

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