Monday 12 March 2012

Report-writing: how to do it successfully

Part 1: The road map

What is a report?

No help from the dictionary here (Oxford English at least) – for the simple reason, I suppose, that the notion of a written report for business, government, professional and voluntary sector organisations involves too vast a range of subject material to embrace adequately in a single definition.

So, for the purposes of this piece, what I mean by report is a written communication which lays out and explains an assessment, strategy, financial review or summary, feasibility study, government or corporation ‘white paper’, proposal of any kind, results of an inquiry, judgment (in the legal sense, hence the spelling without an ‘e’), research results – and pretty well any other sort of business.  

Having written all of these kinds of reports, and quite a few others, for multifarious clients, I know as you do that there is a big difference between most of them. I also know that – thankfully – there are templates of a sort for putting together, say, an annual report giving the financial and corporate results of a company, as against a written report supporting board decision-making about the advantages of buying one chain of restaurants over another.

So are there principles that all reports share?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that all reports require a lot of clear thinking about content and structure; the first to ensure clarity, the second to ensure ease of reference.

No, in that the content, structure, style of writing and purpose can differ so wildly between types of report that they may as well be different animals, or hail from different planets.

I would like to look at the ‘yes’ side of the above answer and offer some observations on how we should think about content and structure.

So how do I assemble ideas about content?

The answer is to marshal your thoughts. And the way you do this is to start with a question. The question is “What do I want to achieve?” The more complex the nature of the thing you are writing, the more levels there will be to the answer.

So, take a piece of paper and write down all the answers you can think of – and if you are working with colleagues, so much the better, they will definitely help by adding more answers.

Sometimes the answer is simple – or there is one dominant answer, for example:
  • To provide information to enable decision-making
  • To show company results
  • To influence the board to go ahead with this project
  • To sell more products or services to this or that target audience
  • To explain implications of this or that strategy to the main board
  • To show how to clear a path through these obstacles
  • To explain how we can make more profit while reducing costs, increasing customer numbers and maintaining levels of employment for the next year.

You notice that the last one just started to get a little more than simple because there were a number of layers to it. Never mind, what is important here is that your report effectively hangs upon one or more propositions about what you want to achieve. It’s your report and you are clear about the desired outcome – so this is the peg upon which you hang your content.

Sometimes the answer is more complicated. Part of the reason for this is that you don’t really know what the priorities are. You have been asked to do something which is causing you a headache and even with the help of colleagues you are a little unsettled about what the real objective of your report is. In this case:

  • If you are in a position to get further clarification from someone who seriously does know, or appears to know the answer, do so now. Choose three or four of the main reasons why you think the report is being asked of you and then ask the question: “Can you identify the biggest priority – or have I not covered the field?”

  • If you are not in this position but you have to ‘wing it’ – a position occupied by many otherwise over-busy people in all kinds of organisation – set out to write the shortest possible report covering the most obvious reasons for writing it.

For the time being, at least, stick to your guns and put your objective or objectives for writing the report clearly at the top of the piece of A4 paper. Do not – please do not – at this stage think you have enough to get you started directly on the computer.

This is just a mapping exercise. You might not look at this bit of paper more than once when you do actually put your report together, but believe me this bit of scribbling will set the right direction of travel and save you some frustrating hours tangling yourself in niceties you don’t need to think about.

Of vital importance, realise that the thing that you’ve just written down about what you want to achieve by writing this report is seldom the same as the bit in so many reports that calls itself ‘Objectives of this report’. I’ll unfold this a little. The thing you want to achieve may be “to influence the board to go ahead with this project” but your ‘Objectives of this report’ will certainly not explicitly state your desire to influence the board to do anything.

The report’s ‘objectives’ are, let’s say, to lay out and to explain aspects of the projects costs, feasibility, implications on company strategy, perceived obstacles and ways of overcoming them…and other stuff, so that the board can make a decision. If you write an intelligently constructed report, the Board will not only make the decision you want but will congratulate itself for doing so – and probably ignore you for stating the obvious so clearly. Never mind that. You never wrote ‘I want to impress the board and be recognised for doing this so brilliantly’ as your foremost objective. On the other hand, one person or two on the main board might just notice the clarity of the report and how the right pieces seemed to have assembled themselves with distinction. This may do you some good.

What comes next? Yes, of course, the content itself.

We are still on the mapping exercise so scribble down some of the subject areas you wish to cover – all of which support your objective as written down at the top of the paper. Don’t go into details about each section yet – see if you can do this with just a few headings and some doodles. If you are doing this in a group, you’ll quickly fill the page and make clear what the key areas are. 

Now you can assemble your priorities. What comes first? What’s most important? You’ll realise that some sections of content are actually subsets of others so you can group those accordingly. You’ll also notice – depending on the nature of the report – that you have more detail than you require, for example supporting data and metrics, or other reports or letters that have informed your thinking or that you wish the audience to take into account. These will probably be best placed in the appendices – more on that later.

As you assemble outline content you may find that the list of content – once tidied up a little – is almost looking like a structure for the report. But be careful here. You do not necessarily want to put your most important content first because it might require supporting arguments which can only be set out by including some of the other content beforehand. Imagine you are telling a story, a narrative, in a way that not only holds the audience but which enables them to judge where you are going. But you are not aiming to thrill your audience, diving and weaving between plot and character to make them second guess you. You want them close all the time – your job is clear explanation. So look for a logical sequence. This is normally a three-stage process depending on each area of content: scene-setting; current position including options, pitfalls and opportunities; and solutions or indications of the most appropriate way forward.

As a pointer about content – if you are using the report to persuade or influence be very careful about assumptions. If you make them and don’t qualify them, they’ll be spotted quickly and this often discounts the base of genuine evidence you are building up in the report to support your argument or to provide an explanation of a circumstance or situation. If you are looking at something a little nebulous like market trends and forecasts, do state clearly that these are assumptions and be very careful, if at all possible, to qualify and explain where and how you obtained these types of information – and choose credible sources. Do not base your argument half on assumptions and half on reasonably ascertainable fact – you want as much of the latter as possible and as little of the former.

A good rule is that assumptions and forecasts are generally wrong. But don’t follow that rule too closely otherwise you’ll decide that nothing is ever worth doing because, who knows, we may all be dead from a cataclysmic event tomorrow or next month. If we are making and selling energy efficient cars, we have to assume that there are people out there who want to drive them and will continue to do so. But if we are basing our reformed business model on the assumption that China will have at least 8 per cent growth per year for the next fifteen years, or that we will live in an entirely bookless world within a decade, we are unlikely to achieve our aim of influencing the board’s decision.

So focus your content on the doable and the knowable and leave aside the distractions from these arguments. On the other hand if your report is entirely about possible future trends affecting local, regional and global markets, you can have a field day…but put your best-shot assumptions in a line of priority.

As an ancillary point of the same kind, do not write what you perceive your intended audience already believe or what you think they want to hear. That will be your perception and you may not have the wisdom or experience of your audience, or you may not be as stupid as them. Trying to gauge people’s emotional response to your ideas is not a good way of creating, prioritising or embellishing the content of a report. Write what you know.

What about structure?

You have a list of prioritised content on your paper, and you have subset information. The task now is to get the ducks in order – you need a series of headings that do justice to the main sections of content you have decided upon.

So think very carefully about the content headings you have written down and make sure the headings don’t overlap. For example, you might have written down ‘sales teams’ and also ‘recruitment needs’; and you may have written down sales overseas’ and also ‘leading product lines’. Let’s say you are looking at the current progress of the sales of five product lines in 12 different countries. Is it best to look at this progress country by country or product by product? Which way will lead us to the telling information most quickly and effectively? Which is going to involve the least amount of duplication? If the trading situation affecting sales in each country is the main thing of interest then you will probably need 12 sub-headings under ‘sales progress’, one for each country. If it is purely about product line popularity and demand for each line, it is probably easiest to lead with five sub-headings representing the product lines.

Once you’ve sorted that out, you might want to think about whether you place your information on sales teams and recruitment needs as one section heading and then you might wonder whether you place this before or after the section on product lines/countries…and so on. The point is, do the thinking now rather than allowing yourself to be tied into knots when you commit to writing on screen.

Gradually the scribble becomes a road map. Make a slightly neater written copy as a guide taking only two-thirds of the page from the left margin. In the right margin area make notes about your sources. You may need information from a letter, a colleague, other reports or another document. Write down what you need next to the proposed subject headings.  

Now you can move to the computer…and you will be ready to start writing a report that is worthwhile and constructive. Every minute you’ve put into this preparation time will pay itself back tenfold.

Next time we can look at some simple report formats…