When it comes to creating automated content, using a heavily templated approach is very enticing. It allows you to quickly set up new content and make sure that the final narratives very closely follow the outline that you set up. I call this a ‘Mad Libs’ approach, since it follows the same basic structure of the kids game, where the blank words in templates are filled in with specific details. Many companies in the Natural Language Generation space have made use of this approach, often thinly papering over their templates by adding a few basic options or paraphrases.
Having watched this industry for over ten years, I’ve seen how a huge percentage of these projects (and the companies connected to them) have failed. So often, it is because template-based approaches have hidden problems that are not apparent to non-experts at first glance.
Before diving into those hidden problems, let’s first establish the alternative to templates- intelligent narratives. Rather than using templates, these narratives are built by: (1) going through data to figure out what the most interesting stories are, and then (2) allowing the most interesting stories to self-assemble into a well-structured narrative. This has the huge advantage of ensuring that all the most compelling content finds its way into the final narrative. While templates wedge the data into the narrative, intelligent reporting builds the narrative around the data.
Sounds way better, right? But then why do some companies try the templated approach? That’s where template’s ‘hidden’ problems come into play. When comparing a single templated report with an intelligent narrative, the template will often not look that much different. In particular, the templated report will seem to do a good job hitting on the ‘main’ points (what was up, down, etc.).
The real problems happen over time, as people read more versions of the templated content and realize they are all fundamentally the same. This causes readers to (1) worry that they aren’t getting the full story, and (2) get tired of having to read through words just to get to the same pieces of data.
Narratives Are Not Predictable
If you have a big data set, the number of possible interesting stories you could write about that data is nearly endless. Which stories will wind up being the most interesting (the ones you will include in your narrative) cannot possibly be known in advance.
Take a football game, for example. Sure, the final score and the teams’ records are pretty much always going to be relevant, but beyond that, it’s chaos. You might have a game where there was a huge comeback, so the flow of scoring over the course of time is the key story. In another game, it was a blowout from the start and the key story is about a player’s stellar statistics. Or, the key story could be the revenge factor a team has after having been eliminated from the playoffs by their opponent in the previous year. I could go on, but you get the point- there is no way to write a template for all these possibilities.
Essentially, templates have to be built to talk about the types of things that always occur. One team wins; one team loses; the winning team’s record is now X; the losing team’s record is now Y; etc. However, it’s the things that rarely happen that are actually the most interesting to the reader. This goes for sports, sales figures, stock movements, you name it. Templates are therefore ironically built to show the exact information that is the least compelling to the reader.
There's A Reason We Don't Like 'Robotic' Writing
On top of doubting that they are getting ‘the real story’, readers having to repeatedly slog through the same information in the same arrangement over and over again will soon be begging to just see the data! This is because the words in a templated report are not actually adding any real information compared to the way they are in a flexible, intelligent narrative.
The idea that words are the key to helping people understand information stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of where the power of narratives comes from. There are two main advantages of a narrative when compared to raw numbers: (1) the ability to include or exclude certain information, and (2) the ability to arrange that information into main points, counter-points, and context. Wrapping words around the exact same set of data points in every report will not realize either of these advantages.
Fundamentally, good reporting is about synthesis, not language. In fact, intelligent reports can use very little language (as in infographics) and still convey a great deal of easy-to-digest information. Without intelligent synthesis, you are better off just giving readers the key pieces of data and letting them piece together the stories themselves.
[Quick note: both this problem and the problem of missing key information are most applicable to situations where end users are reading multiple reports. It is possible you could have a use case where people are only going to read the templated report once. In my experience, however, that circumstance is rare due to the amount of work that needs to be done to set up automated reporting. You typically have to merge your data into the automated reporting system, set up the reports (which take a decent amount of time even if you are using a template), and then set up a distribution system. It’s rare for this procedure to pencil out in use cases that don’t involve readers encountering multiple reports, either because they are getting multiple reports over time (e.g. a weekly recap) or seeing reports on different subjects (e.g. reports on different sales team members).]
Starting Over Next Time
Given the large initial investment in data integration, companies are often interested in applying their automated reporting capability to new, related use cases. In this very likely circumstance, you are much better off having built out your content with flexible intelligence rather than templates. Let’s examine why that is by looking at two different scenarios.
In Scenario #1, you’ve invested in building out an intelligent Generative AI system that synthesizes your data and turns it into compelling, insightful reports. In Scenario #2, you took a shortcut and built out a template-based reporting system. The good news is that in both scenarios you will be able to quickly adapt your narrative generation technology to your new use case.
The bad news, if you are in Scenario #2, is that your new reporting will have all the drawbacks that are inherent to a Mad Libs approach, since you will simply be building a brand new template from scratch. If you built an intelligent system, however, you would be able to apply the already-built intelligent components to the new use case. This reshuffling typically takes the same amount of time that it would take to build a template. Essentially, by building intelligence instead of templates, you can quickly expand quality content at the same rate that you can expand cookie-cutter templates.
Investing in quality content is going to cost more than a templated approach, and the benefits will not be obvious at the beginning. Over time, however, templates provide little to no value, while intelligent reporting will prove its worth. Trust me on this one: leave the Mad Libs to the kids.