Expert view: Help your readers to fill in the blanks

You might be familiar with the experiment in which you cover one eye and try to focus on a line of text. One word will be missing - this is called the blind spot.

It is caused by the position of the optic nerve in the eye. The mind compensates for a lack of information by filling in the gap in vision with surrounding detail and images from the other eye, effectively providing a seamless picture even though our eye is not seeing one. A few lessons can be learnt here and applied to the art of financial reporting.

Blind spot

The first lesson is that everyone has a blind spot, but for some it is larger than others.

Those of us who provide financial reports often assume that, because reports are complete and adds up, everyone will notice everything on the page. But this is rarely the case. We can help our case by providing variety, using features such as graphs, different sizes of font and all the other exciting twists that our computers can provide. But even the way in which reports are presented needs to change to help maintain interest.

The second lesson is that, although pictures are good, a story is better. At Action for Blind People, where we have to assume that our readers cannot see, we still use graphs and other visual tools because they are accessible to those with some sight, but we have to make sure our words tell the whole story.

This is a good discipline because we have to think up new ways of saying the same thing so that the visual variety available to some is matched by the text available to others.

The third lesson is that our minds often fill in the gaps - every conversation we have is based on a level of assumed knowledge. We might think that readers receive the same message that we intend to convey, but often that is not the case. Readers' perceptions will be based on their interest in the subject and the amount of time they have available.

If we look at something for long enough, change our position and focus on different aspects, we will have a fuller understanding of it.

It is like a picture in an exhibition - we might recognise a famous work, but we will only appreciate it fully if we spend time looking at it.

In a reporting context, we need to make sure that the level of interest is maintained and that enough time is set aside in trustee and management meetings to ensure that the financial picture is fully considered. We want to see that our messages are received and understood.

- Chris Harris is head of finance at Action for Blind People 

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