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How an interview with an NBA great can help you write better workplace investigation reports

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In my last blog, I wrote about the importance of plain language. I wanted to do one more blog on this because I came across a “real life” example that illustrates the point nicely.

I’m definitely not one for sports analogies and stories. First, not everyone can understand or relate to them. Second, they bore me a little (especially any story that involves a detailed play-by-play). But for this blog, I had to make an exception.

This sports story is about something that happened recently during a post-game interview with a professional basketball player named Jimmy Butler (also known as “Jimmy Buckets”). For those who are not familiar with basketball, Mr. Butler plays with the Miami Heat, an NBA team, and has been named to the league’s All-Star team several times. In other words, he’s a really, really good player. Here is how the exchange between Mr. Butler and the reporter went during the interview:

Reporter:  Does it feel like you’re coalescing as much as the record shows? […]

Butler: Don’t do that. Come on now. What the hell does that mean?

Reporter: I mean you’ve won 10 of 11. So you’re obviously showing how good you can be, I would think.

Butler: Well you said a big word. You confused me.

Reporter: Oh, coalescing. That means coming together. Congealing. Gelling.

Butler: You could have just said that.

It made for a pretty funny interview. I really liked that Mr. Butler didn’t try to avoid the issue: he just called out the reporter, in a very blunt way, for not communicating effectively.

But what does it have to do with writing workplace investigation reports? Two things. First, don’t be like the reporter when you write reports. Use plain words that can be easily understood. Using complicated or overly formal words doesn’t make the report better; it just frustrates the reader and can make them feel like it’s their fault that they don’t understand. If you look at the clip of the interview (it’s circulating widely), notice the expression on Mr. Butler’s face after he hears the reporter’s question; it’s pretty great. Think about that expression next time you feel the urge to use a word that no one understands.

As workplace investigators, the matters that we investigate are not usually technical in nature. They are mostly about things that happened between employees. The parties and witnesses use everyday language when talking to us and we should largely try to do the same when writing our reports.

Second, if you are like me and review the work of others, be like Jimmy Buckets: identify the words that are not easily understood or are too formal and take them out.  If you don’t understand a word in a report, chances are that others won’t understand it either. I think that writing in plain language takes some practice and it’s difficult to identify problems in our own work. That’s why giving feedback to others is important: I know that I appreciate it when others take the time to point out issues in my written work as it’s the best way for me to improve.

At the end of the day, we write investigation reports for others – not for ourselves. Our job is not to show that we know really “fancy” words. Our job is to communicate effectively about the investigation that we conducted to help others, like clients or people managers, make decisions about the matter at hand. Keeping that in mind can go a long way to making our reports stronger and more easily understood.

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