The ability to write a compelling report is highly-valued in the business world. For those involved in project management or decision-making process, understanding how to produce a report is essential if they want to advance.
However, for most people, the idea of simply having to write another report brings on indigestion. What is it that makes report writing so unpleasant?
Well, like most things in life, if you can’t see where all the pieces join together, you’re bound to feel a bit nervous. Thus, that unpleasant feeling you get as stare at a blank page and start biting your nails. “Now, where do I begin…?”
Krouwerconsulting.com suggests the following exercise, “Select a report that you have written and give it to three people. Ask them to read it (often a challenge in itself). Then, ask everyone to state the recommendations and conclusions of the report. Do these match what you intended?”
In this article, I’ll give you a framework that you can use for writing reports. Once you have the framework in mind, it easy to get started. So, let’s start at the top.
Creating reports involves organizing data. The trick is that you can’t write the report until you’ve gathered data. Likewise, you can’t gather data unless you know what you’re looking for.
Sounds like an earful, but it’s really quite simple when you see how all the parts fit together.
The first two steps are to work out:
What’s the purpose of this report? How will the readers use it?
Who is the target audience? What benefit do they get from reading it?
Clarify the purpose of the document in one sentence. Poorly-written reports are vague. They meander from topic to topic. Keep it focused. If a colleague asked you to explain your report, your answer would be: “this report discusses…”
After you’ve hammered this out, you can get into the nitty-gritty of writing the report. This involves carrying out the following five steps:
Identify the topic.
Gather the data.
Analyze the data to produce findings.
Analyze the findings to make recommendations.
Make recommendations and back them up with stats, facts and figures.
Keep these five points in mind and then start on the table of contents.
Get Started Now
The Table of Contents is the skeleton around which you write your report. List the main topics for your report. Let’s say there are five chapters.
To get things moving, pick the topic you’re most comfortable with and begin writing. You’ll finish this very quickly. Move onto the next topic, get it over with and start the next. Before you know it, half the report is finished. You don’t have to start with the introduction and plough through relentlessly. Once you understand the framework, writing the report is like Lego. You pick the pieces you want and assemble them in your own good time. Write your document around the reader’s needs. Ask yourself what the reader needs to know at each stage of the report.
Is the subject clear?
Have statistics and supporting data been supplied?
Are the relationships between different parts of the report clear?
Are the recommendations easy-to-understand? Are they persuasive?
Use Headings to Guide the Reader Through The Report
As the most effective reports are reader-centered, use a series of headlines to guide the reader through the report. Headlines are like sign-posts. They allow the reader to skip and jump through the document as they please. Readers are under no obligation to read every sentence in your report. Like a bored child at dinnertime, they pick and choose the best parts and ignore the rest.
Blend Sections Together
After you’ve written the chapters, put them aside. Try to get some distance. Move onto something else for a while.
Next up, refine the material. Try to make your arguments more compelling. Use facts, figures and statistics to persuade the reader that your recommendations are sound and based on real evidence. Write in plain English. Avoid clichés, hyperbole and flowery language. Use positive words and phrases to inject some enthusiasm into your report. Reinforce your arguments with quotes and references where most appropriate.
You’ve finished writing. Examine the document and see where you can blend the sections together. Ideally, words, sentences, and paragraphs should blend into each other quite smoothly.
Read the report aloud and you’ll hear where it jars. Your ear will pick up where the tone is insincere, sentences become disjointed, and the writing is strangled. Don’t be too hard on yourself, as it’s easy to get distracted while writing. Changes in tone, voice, and style appear from one section to another. Work on blending these together as otherwise the report will start to ramble or have an odd stilted feel to it.
Making the Last Cut
This time you have to start at the top and work your way through!
Print out the document. Don’t do this on the computer.
With a pen in hand, read the report once for voice and for voice only. Then go back and do the same for style, spelling, grammar, layout, cross-references, and so on. It takes as much time to edit as it does to write.
So, don’t try to do everyone at once. It can’t be done. The only person you’ll fool is yourself – but the reader will always know the difference.
One final tip: write in the afternoon and edit in the morning.