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Posted by Roy C. Leggitt, III on Monday, December 12, 2011

The Importance of Narrative in Technical Report Writing

Stories help us make sense of things. They get our attention and tap into the well of our emotions. So it is no surprise that attorneys seek experts who can convey their knowledge in a compelling way. This presents a big challenge for technical experts, whose communication style can be, in a word – dry.

Science is based on observations, facts, statistics and analysis – and it follows that technical reports need to be objective, thorough and include some rather arid content. I’d argue, however, that there is room for style in the realm of scientific writing. As a Consulting Arborist, I look for related happenings during the site inspection and integrate the assignment into a bigger picture. This bigger picture approach as narrative can transform a mind-numbing dissertation into a compelling story.

With this in mind, I recently reported on the prognosis of an oak tree in a simple letter titled, Oaks, Goats and Oats. My report needed to convey a clear relationship between a declining oak tree, a herd of goats who were over-grazing the “oats” among other things, the loss of forest mulch and subsequent soil compaction. The future of this one oak tree was at stake, as was the health and sustainability of the entire site. Wanting to engage the reader, I used a narrative style…

"I grew up on a 40-acre piece of the Sierra Nevada at about 3,000 feet elevation, a place where lots of native oaks occur. We also had goats. I learned that goats eat just about anything that is or was ever alive.

…[During my site inspection], I paid the goats a visit (I find goats rather appealing) and had the whole herd trot over to the gate. This is an area under the limbs of a very large, very old oak that had a bumper crop of acorns. There was not a single acorn present [in the fenced area] under the tree. I picked up an acorn and tossed it into the herd, and one member immediately munched it and swallowed. Gone. I followed suit with another acorn, tannins and all.

Grazing eliminates all opportunity for regeneration of oaks. Look around California and you'll see what I mean. There are absolutely no young oaks on grazed land. Anywhere. No young oaks means no more oak forest in a couple hundred years, maybe less."

While my scientific observations, the facts, statistics and analysis of oak regeneration were all included, they were woven into a story of my experience in visiting the property and interacting with the goats themselves.

Credentials alone do not an effective expert make. The most effective Expert Witness is also a passionate teacher and good storyteller. They teach their audience with personality as well as clarity and thoughtfulness. They transform a proper investigation into a memorable and compelling story.

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