How to write a report

#SorryNotSorry but there’s no such thing as how to write a report.

A  REPORT.

Like there is one kind of report and there’s one right way to write one.

Meeehhh! Wrong. But thanks for playing.

There are endless kinds of reports

  • status reports
  • research reports
  • analysis reports
  • financial reports (hundreds of kinds)
  • investigation reports
  • incident reports
  • audit reports

See what I mean? You’re not asking the right question.

How to write a report isn’t the right question.

You need to be asking how to write THIS report.

Every single report needs to be written in a way that’s fit for its own purpose. So there’s a set of questions to ask so you can build a report that will achieve what it needs to.

  1. How’s this report going to be used?
  2. Who’s going to use it?
  3. Therefore, what sections does the report need?
  4. And lastly, what level of detail do those people need in each of those sections, so they can use the report for their purposes?

Now you’re on the right track

If you can answer those questions, you have a plan. Once you have a plan, you can write the pieces that are easiest first, and work your way from there. Lots of reports should have an executive summary (pretty much any report that’s 2 pages or longer needs one), and you can write that last.

Reports.

They can be big beasties, but they are certainly manageable. And there’s definitely NOT one right way to write a report. Please stop asking!

How to be concise – strip out the fluff!

Being wordy is only good if you’re a dictionary.

If there’s one thing we know about text, it’s that messages get weaker as the word count grows.  But, flick our writer switch, and what happens?  The more concerned we are with getting our point across, the more words we use!

Doh!

We’re worried people won’t get it.  We’re worried they might miss something.  So we say the same thing over and over again, in slightly different ways, trying to cover all our bases.  All the “just in case”s.  Every eventuality.

You know what that gets us?  Really badly written legalese.

Brief = strong

The best business writing is stripped back to just what’s needed to make your points and achieve your outcomes.

So how do we strip our writing back, but still be comprehensive enough to get the job done?  Here are a few quick approaches.

Strip out fluffy, wordy phrases

It’s easy, when we’re trying to put our most professional foot forward, to take on an unnaturally wordy voice.  Because we want to be taken seriously, we try to sound a bit more formal.  Resist!

UseInstead of
toin order to
canbe able to
becauseas a consequence of
considergive consideration to

Write less formally and more conversationally

We think a conversational voice is waffly, and that’s true in one respect – we speak in very long, run-on sentences with lots of “and”s.

But if we use conversational to mean the active voice and everyday words, that will be less wordy than a traditional formal voice.

Use headings and bullets

A well-written heading speaks directly to your reader.  It engages them. The following approach forces you to think first, write second, and do that in a very focused way.

  1. Separate your thinking into key points
  2. Turn those into statement headings
  3. Then list supporting info as bullet lists beneath them

And no, before you ask, I’m not suggesting that you then flesh out each of those bullets into a paragraph.  The bullets are enough!  Use them as often as you can (but keep each list short – no more than 7 bullets).

Stay concise and outcomes focused and your business readers will love you for it!

Writing for outcomes – how to structure a business document Part 2

In my trainings, structure is one of the most common things participants say they want help with. They hope I’m going to give them a standard report structure. *snort*  That’s like unicorn farts – would probably be really lovely but there’s no such thing.  Sorry bout it.

In part one I covered the upfront framing that –

  1. gives readers an incredibly satisfying experience, and
  2. engages the right audience.

But I promised more.  So let’s move from reader behaviour to a reader-centric document structure.

Let’s be very clear about how documents work

  1. You’re writing a document because you need to achieve something. An outcome.
  2. To achieve YOUR outcome, the document has to work for THEM – the reader.
  3. The upfront framing either engages or loses your reader (we’ve already covered this)
  4. The structure of the rest of the document determines its success (ie – YOUR outcome).
  5. Shall I say it again? Write for them.  Not for you.  That’s the only way you’re going to ultimately get what you’re after.

Purpose, purpose, bla, bla, bla

Any writing trainer worth their salt will tell you to identify the purpose of a document before you start writing.  This is true.  But I find purpose – both the word and the concept – problematic.

Firstly it’s overly and inappropriately used as a heading (how many documents have you read that have the heading purpose followed by a waffly, non-specific introduction??).

And second, when I ask people what the purpose of their document is, they give me answers like –

  • to inform… (for what purpose? We don’t tell people stuff for no reason)
  • to analyse… (documents don’t analyse things.  People do)
  • to define… (see above)
  • to describe… (see above above. For what purpose?)

None of which give a writer the drilled-down clarity we need to develop a fit-for-purpose structure.

Instead, I train people to ask 2 questions:

  1. What does this document need to ACHIEVE?
  2. If this document works, what will HAPPEN?

Both questions direct us to a tangible, observable action by our reader.

Know your audience, bla, bla, bla

Again, everyone tells us this.  And it’s true.  But what’s most common in business documents today is that we have multiple audiences, with differing needs.  So knowing that can make the writing process even more daunting and definitely not simple and clear.

How about this as an alternative: list all the readers of your document.  Who will access it?  Who will use it?  Who will sign off on it?  Who might need to refer to it?

Now look back at the solid outcome you identified with questions 1 & 2.

And ask the 3rd question:

  1. Who has the authority, ability, or position to make this document achieve its purpose?

Answer that and you’ve identified your primary readers.  They matter the most.  Write in a way that works for them, above anyone else.  (By the way – this also gives you the ability to push back when an approver wants a document written a certain way, but you know that won’t work for the end user.  Handy!)

Now create the headings/sections/chunks of your document

With clarity on outcome and readers of influence, you can now create a fit-for purpose structure.  I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell you what that structure looks like.  But again, unicorn farts.  From where YOU sit, with YOUR knowledge, expertise and insight, and with the new clarity about purpose and readers, YOU have all the pieces to the puzzle.  You can create a structure that will work best.

Ask yourself –

  • What does my primary reader need to know so I can get my desired outcome?
  • Does my primary reader need to know X (ie, any chunk of information) for my doc to achieve its purpose?

It’s all connected.

Want to know more?  Bring me in for a training.  I’ve got so much more!!!!