In your business reports, you present the information in such a way that the reader can learn the critical information about the subject without having to review and evaluate the raw data you have used. Your role as a report writer is to reduce the reader’s time from 100 hours of analyzing the data to two hours of reading one source–you. You do the 98 hours of reading, thinking, and synthesizing; you then present it in such a clear, orderly fashion that the reader grasps the concepts after only two hours of reading.
You must make judgments about what to include and how to explain your findings. As you decide what to include, you will choose from four types of content: facts, conclusions, inferences, and judgments. Your readers will expect some balance of these four types of content, depending on the subject and your company or agency. Some reports must contain predominately facts. Others may include inferences and judgments. A few will even include judgments.
This article explains how you can evaluate your reports for the amount of each of the four types of content: facts, conclusions, inferences, and judgments. You will have a better understanding of the balance among these four types of writing in your writing so you can decide whether your readers and company or agency will be satisfied with the balance.
Facts, Conclusions, Inferences, and Judgments
Imagine that the report writer has three sources describing a company’s difficult times during 1993, 1994, and 1995. The total number of pages is 33. Her report will describe those difficult times in two paragraphs. She might use any of these three descriptions to introduce the two paragraphs:
- “The company nearly failed in the 1990s due to poor management practices and delaying action on the losses.”
- “The company suffered heavy losses in 1993, 1994, and 1995 and filed for bankruptcy. Speculation was that the losses were due to young, inexperienced management. The losses and delays in acting upon them nearly caused the company to fail.”
- “The company lost $5 million to $8 million on revenues of $68 million to $76 million in 1993, 1994, and 1995 and filed for Chapter 11 in 1995. During that period, two rating services described the company as being “top-heavy with inexperienced management” (Lohman 45) and “filled with young, untested upper-level managers” (Bradshaw 4).
All three descriptions explain the company’s situation during 1993, 1994, and 1995. However, the first uses generalized words that required judgment on the writer’s part. The last reported the facts without judgment. The description in the middle used conservative statements that required some judgment by the writer, but less than the first.
The differences among the descriptions are in the use of facts, conclusions, inferences, and judgments. The explanations that follow will help you assess the proportions of facts, conclusions, inferences, and judgments in your writing.
Facts are objective and verifiable: “Two companies attempted to use portable monitoring devices to measure source pollution, but both stopped using the devices after the testing periods.” The statement is made up of facts. Someone could check company records and know that, in fact, two companies tried the portable monitoring devices over a period of time; the companies used them to measure source pollution; the companies stopped using them after the testing periods.
In the descriptions of the company’s losses in 1993, 1994, and 1995, it was a fact that Lohman and Bradshaw made the statements, but it was not necessarily a fact that the company had inexperienced management or young, untested upper-level managers. The report writer could not verify those facts, so she quoted the sources directly and cited them. She made no claim that the reports were true; she only reported, factually, that the two writers stated those words.
The more unbiased and objective the report must be, the more necessary it is that the writer reports facts without inferences or judgments. The third description of the company’s situation uses all facts. Most of your report writing will be factual without conclusions and may avoid inference and analysis.
Conclusions are based on the facts, but are not themselves facts. When based on facts, conclusions have the feel of being logical or justified. They result from deductions: if A is true and B is true, then C must be true.
In the statements about company losses in 1993, 1994, and 1995, the writer’s conclusion might be that since two writers described the company’s management as “young” and “inexperienced,” the company must have had young, inexperienced management. However, that is a conclusion based on fact, not a fact itself. It is a fact that the two writers used the words “young” and “inexperienced” to describe the management team, but the writer does not have the evidence to conclude that, therefore, the management team was young and inexperienced.
The second of the three descriptions of the company that suffered losses in 1993, 1994, and 1995 contained one conclusion: “The company suffered heavy losses.” The word “heavy” requires a conclusion that losses of $5 million to $8 million on revenues of $68 million to $76 million were “heavy” losses.
The first description is made up largely of conclusions and judgments: “The company nearly failed in the 1990s due to poor management practices and delaying action on the losses.” We would expect that the writer has the facts to conclude that the company nearly failed in the 1990s. The writer could have facts to show the near failure was due to poor management and delaying action on the losses. If the reader could ask the writer what the facts were that led to the conclusion and the writer produced them, that would mean it is a justified conclusion. If the writer does not have facts, then the statement is an inference or a judgment.
Inferences are based on facts but are not themselves facts. The assumption that having a young, inexperienced management team resulted in the losses may be an inference. It is not a fact. It cannot be proven. It is “reading between the lines” to create a statement that seems to flow from the facts, but may not.
Inferences generally use words that describe the probability of truth of the statement: “probably,” “might,” “may,” “could,” or “possibly.” “It is possible that the losses were due to an inexperienced management team,” or “It is probable that the losses were due to an inexperienced management team.” By introducing the degree of probability, the writer moves the statements more toward being an objective statement and further from being judgment.
After all, it is possible that the losses could be due to poor management, just as it’s possible that they could have resulted from two dozen other factors. If the writer stated that it was probable that the losses were due to poor management, then the writer would have gone further from the factual end of the continuum toward the inferential end.
The first and second of the three descriptions of the company that suffered losses in 1993, 1994, and 1995 contained the inference that action was delayed because the company waited three years to file for Chapter 11.
Generally, avoid inferences in your report writing. The reader may draw inferences in the process of doing his or her analysis based on your objective, factual presentation. You may have the latitude to point out inferences to the reader to help the reader interpret the data. If so, state the inference that could be drawn, but state it clearly as an inference: “One inference, not based in any factual data, is that the higher error rates resulted from the presence of two new staff during the audit period.”
Judgments are very much like conclusions, but the writer has made a value judgment. Judgments require some leap from the facts to a conclusion that might not be so easily supported by the facts. They often imply good, bad, right, or wrong. “The company needs a work ethic policy.” “Their plans to expand to the other market are ill-advised.” “Without reducing their expenses, the company will fail.”
Some of the statements about the company that suffered losses are inferences that border on being judgments: “The company nearly failed in the 1990s due to poor management practices and delaying action on the losses.” We only know from the research that the company lost money for three years and filed Chapter 11. We don’t know that it nearly failed. We don’t know that their difficulties were due to “poor management practices” and “delaying action on the losses.” All of these are very close to being judgments.
Evaluate the Proportions of Facts, Conclusions, Inferences, and Judgments in Your Writing
You can evaluate the proportions of facts, conclusions, inferences, and judgments in your writing to see how much of each type of content you have. You can then decide whether you must change the proportions to reflect your company or agency’s preferences.
- Use a report you have written. Open it in Microsoft Word.
- Use Microsoft Word’s highlighters to mark the facts, conclusions, inferences, and judgments. Make sure you use the highlighter so the background is colored, not the letters. You can read about the function at this link.
- Use yellow for facts.
- Use green for conclusions.
- Use cyan for inferences.
- Use red for judgments.
You can see an approximation of the proportion of each of the types of writing. For a more exact measure, make four copies and delete all but one colored text in each. Microsoft Word will tell you how many words are in each selection. Calculate the percentages by dividing the number of words in each by the total number of words.
Use your understand to adjust your writing as necessary to fit your company or agency’s preferences.