This post is part of the series: “How to write distinction-earning MBA assignments”. Check out the rest of the series for straightforward, actionable MBA assignment ideation, planning, research and writing advice.
There is nothing more saddening than to sit with a student who has lost substantial marks or even failed an assignment, despite having:
- Put in a substantial amount of time and effort.
- Had a well-defined, narrow topic that was relevant to the module.
- Drawn on high-quality references, combined with sound fieldwork.
- Undertook deep, critical analysis.
In these cases, the culprit is oftentimes the absence of one extremely underrated assignment quality – good presentation. Simply put, despite your best efforts, your otherwise excellent assignment can lose substantial marks (and in some cases, even be failed) thanks to poor presentation.
What do you mean, presentation?
Essentially, presentation relates to everything visual in your assignment (or dissertation/thesis). This ranges from when, why and how you use figures and diagrams, through to the quality of images and even captioning and referencing thereof. Presentation (i.e. using visual components effectively to aid reader comprehension) is closely linked to structure (ordering and linking all components effectively to aid reader comprehension). To keep this post relatively digestible, however, I will discuss presentation only.
But why is presentation so important in a business degree?
Taking the time to ensure that your assignment is visually appealing and well polished is often considered something of a luxury in the context of a demanding MBA. This is a justifiable position, given that the quality of the actual research, analysis and conclusion-drawing is typically what earns you the big marks. That said, a little bit of effort can go a long way when it comes to your visual presentation. There are (at least ) three reasons for this:
- No matter how objective and unbiased we may expect the markers to be, there is no doubt that a visually appealing, well-presented assignment creates a strong first impression on the marker (i.e. one that suggests a good degree of effort has been put into the assignment), thus setting a positive tone from the start.
- A visually appealing, well-presented assignment helps the marker understand your analyses and arguments, thus setting a strong base from which marks can be earned. In other words, good presentation makes it easier for the marker to understand your assignment, and thus award marks (provided your analyses and arguments are sound).
- More explicitly, many schools allocate marks towards presentation (as well as structure). In other words, poor presentation can pull down your marks both directly and indirectly.
Therefore, it’s pretty clear that good visual presentation is a critical aspect of quality assignments – yet it is all too often deprioritized or outright ignored by MBA students. The good news is that it doesn’t need to be. Good presentation depends on some relatively easily achievable basics, which I’ll discuss below.
So, how do I improve my presentation?
Below, I’ll give seven suggestions that will help you improve the overall presentation of your assignment/dissertation/thesis. These points are by no means comprehensive but, if followed, should ensure that you never lose marks for something as simple as presentation. I’ll also link to additional resources along the way.
#1: Know (and apply) any school-prescribed style requirements.
Let’s start with the most obvious, but often overlooked presentation pillar – that is, university-specified style requirements. These vary from school to school but usually relate to prescribed fonts, spacing, margins, captioning and so on. Also included here is which version of English you should use (American or British). It may sound like a minor aspect, but it pays to get this right, particularly when it comes to writing your dissertation or thesis. A marker once told me that the very first thing he does when receiving a student’s work is check the margins and spacing, as this reflects the student’s attention to detail, and often predicts the general quality of the work!
Make of it what you will – it takes very little time to get this bit right, so just do it. You don’t want to lose marks over something is basic as line spacing. Oftentimes, you can request a pre-styled Word document template from your school – just ask.
#2 Use figures and tables strategically to support your analysis.
Don’t include a figure or a table if it does not add value directly to the analysis that precedes it. Sounds obvious right? Not quite. Too often I’ve seen figures dumped into an assignment (particularly models and frameworks) with pretty much no justification other than “because the lecturer said it was important” or “it was a key model in the study guide”. Similarly, I’ve seen tables of detailed data dumped into assignments purely because the student had access to the data and wanted to show it off. That’s just not good enough.
Put bluntly, the markers have no interest in verbatim copy/paste model dumps with no relevance. Figures and tables should only be included when they support or enhance your analysis and conclusion-drawing. Even then, do not fall into the trap of copy/paste model dumping – instead, populate and customise the model with your assignment-specific information. Make every model or framework your own and be sure to analyse rather than describe – read more on this here.
#3: Handhold the reader in and out of figures and tables.
Following from Point #2, you should always refer to any figure or table in the body copy ahead of the insertion itself. For example, in your body copy, you would potentially write “Figure 2.1″ assesses how…”. If the insertion supports the analysis, this should flow naturally and logically from the body copy. Equally important, the insertion should be followed by some discussion directly below it. This needn’t be long but should make very clear what conclusion(s) can be drawn from the table or figure. This might sound something like “Thus, Figure 2.1 suggests that…”.
If done right, it will always be extremely clear to the marker why you included a particular figure or table, as well as what conclusion(s) you drew from it. Clearly, this provides a very strong basis for the award of marks.
#4: Use high-quality images, for goodness sakes.
Nothing screams “I don’t care about my MBA” more than pixelated, hard to interpret, low-quality images. That’s harsh and horribly judgemental, I know, but remember the prior point about first impressions – they count more than we’d like them to. Moreover, if your images are really low quality, there’s a good chance they’ll fail to convey their actual meaning, rendering them useless in terms of mark-earning potential.
Does this mean you now have to become a Photoshop expert, in addition to a Master of Business? Thankfully, no. But I would strongly suggest that you get comfortable playing around with Microsoft PowerPoint. The “Shapes” menu (Tab: Insert -> Shapes) enables you to very easily recreate theoretical models and frameworks, as well as any other basic figure you’re after (see below).
Once you’ve created your figures in PowerPoint, you can easily export them as JPEG files (Tab: File -> Export -> Change File Type -> JPEG File Interchange Format), which you can them import into Word (see below).
#5: Caption and reference correctly.
This links to Point #2 (university-prescribed style and presentation requirements). When inserting figures and tables into your assignment, make sure that you correctly caption them (e.g. Figure 5.1: My image). Some schools will require that the figures are captioned above and tables are captioned below, some the other way around, and some all above or all below. Check with your school and make sure you do it the right way – it’s a straightforward mark-earner. Also, pay attention to where references should be placed for tables and figures (if relevant).
Along the same vein, check whether your school requires that you include a list of figures and tables after your table of contents. Should this be required, I’d recommend using Microsoft Word’s automated feature for this. Even if not officially required, it may be wise to include such a list as it helps the reader navigate the document.
Lastly, it should go without saying that getting your general referencing 100% correct is essential. Sadly, this is a common problem area, and it really doesn’t need to be. To this end, I’d strongly recommend using a reference manager to handle all your referencing. A good reference manager will ensure that your inline references are inserted correctly and consistently (i.e. as per the style you designate, for example, Harvard referencing) and that your reference list (i.e. the one at the end of the document) is built correctly. One caveat here is the old adage, “rubbish in, rubbish out”. In other words, you will still need to insert the original reference into the reference manager (once). If you put the wrong details in here (for example, the wrong date or publisher), no reference manager can save you.
There are numerous managers available, many of which are free. I personally have used Zotero (see screenshot below) and found it to be more than sufficient.
#6: Keep your language simple and arguments clear.
This point admittedly digresses somewhat into the adjacent topics of assignment structure, argument development and language use, which is beyond the scope of this post (and is covered elsewhere on the blog) – but I can’t discuss presentation without at least mentioning it.
Some students feel the need to use big words (often incorrectly) and present complex, convoluted arguments (often flawed) in an attempt to demonstrate the quality of their thinking. This is a very dangerous practice, as it oftentimes leaves markers more confused (and even irritated) than impressed. Simplicity of language and clarity of argument are your friends when writing your MBA assignments. Remember the critical point made earlier in this post – good presentation makes it easy for your marker to understand your assignment and consequently award marks. Therefore, it should follow that anything that puts your assignment at risk of being misunderstood is bad news.
Accordingly then, don’t be afraid to use simple, plain English, and aim for clarity when presenting your analysis and arguments. This is not to say that your thinking needs to be dumbed down and devoid of all complexity – to the contrary, good analysis is all about recognising (and working with) complexity. Rather, what I am stressing is the need for you to present that complexity in a simple, easy to understand fashion.
A final point regarding simplicity – always assume that the marker knows absolutely nothing about your industry and organisation (which is likely correct in any case). On this basis, be sure to clearly explain any industry jargon, acronyms, concepts, etc. Fancy terminology without explanation will only serve to frustrate and confuse the marker, so, again, keep it simple and clear. Write for the intelligent layman.
#7: Proofread your work. Always.
Another perfectly logical, but all too often neglected point, given the demanding schedule of the typical MBA. It is essential that you proofread your final assignment. Again, while the MBA is a business degree and not an English degree, typos and basic grammar errors inevitably detract from the work by at best making it difficult to read, and, at worst, suggesting carelessness and a lack of interest on the part of the writer.
Therefore, it is essential that you always proofread your final assignment at least once. Ideally, you want to do this a few times, and even better, get a friend or family member to go over your work as well. You will likely still miss some errors. Having the odd error here and there is OK (I guarantee that you’ll find some errors on this website, and even within academic journals!) – the objective is simply to minimise these as much as possible so that they don’t detract from the work.
So how do you proofread your own work? This is well covered online, so I’m not going to regurgitate suggestions. The University of Wisconsin’s “Writing Centre” provides some good pointers here. The University of Exeter also provides some useful guidelines on editing (the stage prior to proofreading). In addition to this, I would recommend an online grammar checking service called Grammarly, which is effectively like Word’s spellcheck on steroids! Obviously, it is not perfect, but it is a useful line of defence in the war against grammatical errors. Lastly, if you really want your paper to be perfect, you can find reasonably priced proofreading services by undertaking a quick search on Google.
Lastly, if you really want your paper to be perfect, you can find reasonably priced proofreading services by undertaking a quick search on Google. This can be useful for particularly large pieces of work such as the MBA dissertation/thesis. Be sure to check your university’s policy regarding outsourced editing and proofreading before you go this route though.
Hopefully, by now, I’ve managed to convince you that presentation is both important and relatively easily achievable by following the seven steps:
- Follow any school-prescribed style requirements to the letter.
- Use figures and tables only when they support and enrich your analysis.
- Handhold the reader in and out of figures and tables.
- Use high-quality images (which you can create using PowerPoint)
- Ensure that you caption and reference correctly.
- Keep your language simple and arguments clear.
- Proofread your work – ideally a few times.
Have a question, suggestion or counterargument?
I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below, or get in touch with me here. Also, if you’d like 1-on-1 assistance with your MBA or business course, check out Grad Coach’s tutoring services here.