Content is of course the king in all writing activities and this is also true for the business plan. However, the appearance and the look and feel of a document can often overcome minor deficiencies and sometimes hide major flaws. The most important element of the business plan is the “look.” It must look clean. In general, the business plan should be between 10 and 20 pages. 1 Here are a few recommendations for preparing a business plan or an executive summary that will improve the way they look and read.
The first step in helping the reader to read is accomplished by having a document with the following features:
- Use good-quality paper.
- Use at least 1-inch document margins.
- Always double-space between lines. Never single space in the body of the business plan. You can single space tables, quotes, and the appendices.
- Use descriptive headings and subheadings to set off sections and to assist in transitions between content.
- Use a simple typeface, such as Arial, Calibri, Times-Roman, or Cambria or a related typeface that is easy to read. Use color to improve the appearance, but do not overuse.
- Include some figures and tables and refer to them in your discussion. Each figure and table should have a number and a caption. Make sure the figures, tables, and financial spreadsheets look attractive and are understandable. Use color to improve the appearance.
- Never present your business plan as a series of bullet points. The plan should have paragraphs and tell a story. It should not look like a presentation.
Simple fonts facilitate reading, understanding, and even the accomplishment of tasks. Psychologists at the University of Michigan conducted an experiment where they were trying to get 20-year-old college students to exercise. 2 They divided the students into two groups. One of the groups received instructions for a regular exercise routine in an Arial typeface and the other received the same instructions in a Brush typeface. The subjects who had read the exercise instructions in Arial indicated that they were more willing to exercise and they believed that the routine would be easier and take less time than those subjects reading the instructions in a decorative typeface. They conducted another test in which two groups of students read instructions in preparing sushi rolls in a simple typeface and a decorative typeface. The results were similar. The students using the simple typeface instructions were more willing to attempt making sushi rolls than those reading from instructions in a decorative typeface.
Reader fatigue is an important issue. Another way to reduce fatigue is by changing the lengths of your sentences. For example, have two short sentences and one long sentence and one short sentence followed by one long sentence and then one short sentence. The idea is to mix up the sentence structure and create interest. The second method that fatigues readers is of course having too much to read. 3 This is particularly true when the business plan involves difficult and unfamiliar material. Succinct and clear writing coupled with informative figures and tables will alleviate reader fatigue. This is the essence of pithy writing. The length of the business plan narrative should usually be between 10 and 20 pages and rarely if ever exceed 20 pages. You can also add between 4 and 6 pages of figure, tables, and appendices. Graphics and tables are also important elements for assisting in chronicling and presenting the business plan. Tables and figures should always have numbers and captions, and they should always be referred to by their figure number or table number in the text.
The last point is extremely important. “Never present your business plan as a series of bullet points.” Remember, the goal of the business plan is to tell an interesting story. Bullet points need background and discussion. The business plan should never look like it was simply lifted from a presentation. This is a serious rookie mistake. Use bullet points sparingly and when you do use them, you need to discuss them, just as you would discuss a point during a presentation.
Finally, how can you cram all of this information into one business plan and not bore your readers. It requires hard work and constant refinement so that the core aspects of the business are communicated in less than 20 pages. Several trade-offs have to be made; some areas will expand and others will be reduced. Very few business plans look the same. They are highly differentiated. It is the role of the entrepreneur and the entrepreneurial team to educate and facilitate the learning process of the reader.