#SorryNotSorry but there’s no such thing as how to write 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
financial reports (hundreds of kinds)
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.
How’s this report going to be used?
Who’s going to use it?
Therefore, what sections does the report need?
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.
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!
I could use structure in an email to someone I work with, but not to a stranger
I could use structure in an email to a stranger, but not to someone I work with
I couldn’t put a pleasantry in an email to someone I’ve never met before
I’d never write an email to someone I’ve never met before without a pleasantry at the beginning
So here’s what you need to know:
Tone is incredibly subjective
Like, completely subjective. We each feel quite confident when we’re writing, that we’re being polite, or warm, or assertive, or respectful.
And then there’s your reader. Who receives your message based on their history, their own perceptions of the meaning and tone of words, and also their current mood. NONE OF WHICH YOU CAN CHANGE.
We need to mitigate the likelihood of being misinterpreted
There are no guarantees when it comes to writing, because we’re writing to humans, and because language is subjective. But we can stack the odds in our favour. We can write in a way that is both fast, efficient, and less likely to allow the reader to hear an unfavourable tone.
To do that, we need to know 4 things:
1. There’s no such thing as a neutral tone
The absence of warmth doesn’t equal neutral. It equals rude. The absence of pleasantry, friendliness, signs that you’re an actual human, doesn’t create a matter-of-fact tone. It creates abruptness, and opens the door for your reader to decide you’re an asshole – especially if they’re having a bad day.
2. A simple smiley or sad face can help
Emojis are not going anywhere, my friends. Love them or hate them, we can‘t dispute that a simple smiley can lessen the likelihood that a statement comes across as snarky 🙂. Or a sad face makes it less likely that an apology comes across as insincere 🙁.
Will you find some people in business who think that’s unprofessional? Yes. In my experience, about 0.2%. But unless you’re positive you’re dealing with one of those 0.2% (with REAL EVIDENCE to back that up), wouldn’t it make more sense to assume you’re writing to one of the 99.8%?
The written English language is subjective and limited in its ability to express the subtleties of tone. Every little thing we can do to mitigate that is a win!
3. Narrative is risky
Ever heard of emotional leakage? Sounds messy. And it is. When you write in a narrative form, ie sentences and paragraphs, it’s easier for 2 things to happen:
your emotions leak through
your reader thinks they can feel your emotions leaking through
Hence, emotional leakage.
So what’s the alternative? How do we mitigate that? Structure!
4. Structure mitigates the risks around tone
Structure is your best friend in an email. Here’s what it does:
gets your thinking clearer
makes it easier for your reader to skim read
makes your writing more matter-of-fact, less narrative, thereby reducing the likelihood of emotional leakage
makes you look like a badass efficiency freak who everyone wants to work with
OK, so you’ve taken care of your up-front framing, and you’ve started to drill down to the clarity you need to write an amazing, fit-for-purpose document that’s gonna help you take over the universe.
But now you’ve got to the real guts of it: what do you actually write??? (Press play for dramatic sound effect.)
Why is writing so hard?
So here’s the thing. You know your stuff. And that’s both a blessing and a curse, because
you know everything your reader needs to know, but
YOU KNOW FAR MORE THAN YOUR READER NEEDS TO KNOW!
And you really want your reader to know all that, too. Which is a mistake.
Because let me be clear: the more words you use, the weaker the message.
Yes, I said it. The key to good writing is to write less. The more words you use—the more text on a page, the more you think in someone’s general direction—the more likely they are to miss your point. Your bottom line. Your slap in the face. Or kick in the ass. Or pat on the back (I thought I’d better add in a warm fuzzy—apparently my violent alter-ego is writing today).
Filtering through everything you know and want to say—and stripping back to only the key points—is the real challenge.
A process for stripping back
First of all, read and follow the steps I gave you in part 1. Then part 2. There’s stuff in there you need to produce before you follow this process.
Once you’ve nailed that, do this:
DUMP – get that shit out of your head. Brain dump. Sketch, purge, freewrite, list, use Post-its. Do whatever you need to do, to get your thinking outside of your head. Because outside is where you can work with it.
CHUNK – take that messy dump and group it together into chunks of related info. (If you wanna feel really cool, call this a thematic analysis.)
LABEL – describe each of those chunks of info. But don’t use one-word labels. Describe the chunk, like ‘How we got here’, ‘What we found’, ‘How we can fix the problem’. These will become your headings. And your readers will love them!
MAYBE / I’M NOT SURE / SOME READERS NEED IT – then either mention it, summarise it, point the reader to where they can find it outside of the document, or push it to the appendices. When in doubt, go to the appendix. It’s like magic. All the evidence that you know your stuff and you’ve done a shitload of work and you’re worth your weight in gold, without losing your reader.
ORDER – look at the chunks you have left and put them in order based on what’s most important to YOUR READER.
Now you have a plan!
Some people might call it an outline. But that sends way too many of us back into PTSD-like flashbacks from our university days. So let’s just call it a plan. A map, maybe.
That plan means you can now write. With ease and clarity. Without second-guessing yourself and angsting over what to say or what not to say. It means you can write fast and that’s good on every level (read here for how good writing saves money).
Your extra set of steak knives
My favourite thing about this process is this: it gives you confidence. It’s one of the most common comments I get from participants in my trainings: I feel confident now. I know what I’m doing. I can relax. (Press play for a heavenly chorus celebrating your amazingness.)
And that, my friends, is what it’s all about. Now write!
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.
The structure of the rest of the document determines its success (ie – YOUR outcome).
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:
What does this document need to ACHIEVE?
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:
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!!!!
People are always asking me for templates. Have you got a report template, Shelly? A business case template, Shelly? A template that will save all the woes of the world, Shelly?
I’ll spare you the clichés about length of string and teaching men how to fish: I DON’T DO TEMPLATES.
Templates are only good if they’re designed for a specific purpose. There is no such thing as ONE magical template for any kind of document.
But we do have some really clear insights into reader behaviour. And from that, we can build a strong, successful, fit-for-purpose document structure.
What readers want
As humans, when we interact with text, we’re subconsciously looking for 3 things.
What’s this about?
Is it relevant to me?
What’s the bottom line?
The importance of the executive summary or up-front framing
If you can answer those 3 questions before you do anything else in a business document, you’ve got your reader in the palm of your hand. They’re hooked. They’re engaged. And they’ll keep reading (or at least scanning through). It’s like mad-genius-evil-mastermind-writing-ninja material – so use your powers for good.
Answering those 3 questions is the basic formula for an executive summary. Of course, you can add more – but those are the bare minimum. If you don’t want to use an executive summary, make sure those 3 questions are answered in your introduction (or background, or scope, or whatever heading your douchebag template tells you is the starting point for saving the planet).
Let’s test this concept – what do you want as a reader?
Picture yourself going to your car and finding a piece of paper under the windscreen wiper.
(Note: Your version may contain less profanity. Whatever floats your boat.)
What the f*ck is this? You wonder.
(You pick it up and see a company logo – it’s a flyer, not a ticket, thank f*ck)
What are they selling? You wonder.
(There are pictures of food. It’s a restaurant. You’ve been known to eat occasionally. There’s potential here.)
So are the prices any good? You wonder.
(That’s the bottom line – now that I know what they have to offer and that I’m interested, this is the deciding factor. Let’s say they’re cheap AF and sound worth trying so we have a happy ending to our scenario. You’re welcome.)
The rest of the document structure depends on content and purpose.
In a nutshell: the rest of your document needs to be structured in terms of what is most relevant to your reader, and then what they need to know so that you can achieve your purpose. Note the difference here – it’s not about what you want them to know – it’s about what they need to know from where they sit. Those can be vastly different things.
In fact, that warrants more discussion. Here’s Part 2!