Read This Before You Write a Boring Business Report
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The Importance of a Clear Report
I am not an editor, yet I spend a large portion of my work day editing and re-writing reports that my staff have written. Why? Because it’s my job to ensure that our department is communicating our messages to the larger organization clearly. If we don’t, it is likely to cause problems.
Imagine that, like me, you work in the legal or compliance department a financial institution. You learn that an issue has arisen that may constitute a potential breach of an applicable regulation. You and your team must investigate the facts and circumstances, determine what happened and how or why it happened, assess whether there has been a regulatory breach, and make recommendations both to address the situation and to prevent it from reoccurring. You must present this information in a report. This report may be skim-read by a c-suite executive whose time is limited, or it may be read in great depth by lawyers or regulators. It must be concise and easily understood, but it also must be accurate and complete.
Writing such a document can be a daunting task, but it’s an essential one. More than once a draft report, requirements document, policy, or procedure that I’ve reviewed has turned out to be completely unsuitable, and required complete rewriting. Often, this was not because the writer failed to understand what was required, but because he or she failed to convey the information clearly and concisely.
If your document is rambling, vague, or incoherent, if it is laden with irrelevant information or jargon, or if it is not responsive to the task or issue at hand, it is, to put it simply, useless.
Now that you know the importance of being understood, where do you begin?
Doing The Prework
Before you even put a pen to paper, or your hand to the keyboard, think about these questions – Who is going to read this report? What do you want the reader to get out of this report? Is this report going to achieve your intended result? Are you simply memorializing something that’s taken place, or do you want the reader to take an action? You must be very clear on what the purpose is and what you want your reader to do with the report that you’re giving him or her.
“All research, investigation, and analysis should all be done long before you even start to write the report.”
Do you really understand the content of the report? Do you know what the facts are? Do you know what really happened? Have you thoroughly done the research, or are you just fluffing? I see a lot people trying to take shortcuts and it can be seen very easily. So, make sure you really understand your content before you begin writing.
Just as you wouldn’t begin a journey without knowing where you are going and how to get there, you shouldn’t begin writing your report without knowing what your conclusion will be and how you will lead your reader to it. To do so, once you’ve finished your research and analysis, you should outline your document. Your outline should identify your main points, organize these into sections and paragraphs in a way that makes sense, and ensure that your points are fully developed. Thus, a good outline will serve as your map during the writing process, ensuring that you stay on message, include only relevant information, and reach your conclusion.
The actual writing should begin only after you’ve completed the outline. And, when you’re writing, don’t worry about editing; that’s the next step. I’ve found that if you try to edit as you write, you’ll likely derail your train of thought.
Your report shouldn’t be a novel, nor should it resemble a WhatsApp message to a close friend. Wordiness, grand or flowery language, and slang are inappropriate as they will distract the reader from your point. Your word choices and sentence structure should be concise, clear and free of ‘fluff’, and, to the extent possible, should not include jargon or buzzwords. You should include only the information and detail necessary to make your point or recommendation.
Here are a few points to remember regarding style:
- Engage your readers by articulating your key message(s) clearly in your introduction.
- Use the active rather than the passive voice. Avoid vagueness by using precise verbs to ensure that the reader understands what has happened or what he or she must do. For example, ‘he solved the problem’ is more precise (and concise) than ‘he found a solution to the problem’.
- Use shorter paragraphs and sentences. Use ‘smaller’ words. Avoid buzzwords and jargon, which risk confusing or annoying your reader.
- Use more nouns, fewer adjectives, and fewer adverbs. For example, if you find yourself frequently using ‘very’ or ‘super’ with an adjective or adverb to convey size or importance, re-write using a single, more powerful or evocative word.
- Don’t waste words. To the extent possible, re-write to eliminate prepositional phrases. For example, ‘the client’s account’ is clearer than ‘the account of the client’.
- If you find that you are struggling to convey your key points clearly and concisely, stop and review or reconsider your outline before resuming writing.
- Remember to write for your reader. If your reader is well-versed on the topic, you needn’t provide as much background information. If you’ve had many dealings with your client, your messages should demonstrate your understanding of his or her needs, objectives, and concerns. If you need your superior to make a decision, include only the relevant information he or she needs to make it, and provide your recommendation clearly and unambiguously.
- Always write with a professional tone.
Break It Down
Do what you must to make your point. Bullet points are very helpful in providing clarity. In the that notes I prepare, I use a lot of bullet points because all I need to see are the first three or four words in the point, and I can remember what my thought on that point was.
Subheadings are also great tools for breaking things down in a report. Even within a methodology like the IRAC structure in legal writing (Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion), you can use sub-issues or sub-points to lead your reader. It makes it clear to your reader and offers a signpost of what is to follow.
Maybe you need to write a long report, and a couple pages of an executive summary. Or, you may need to write a couple pages of a report and then put all those statistics in an appendix. Think of your reader. Would they have the time to read a 100-page report? Or perhaps a 100-page report is required for your reader.
Many organizations set page limits for certain reports and papers. Whilst these can be frustrating, especially if you’re writing on a complex subject, they can be helpful in forcing you to revise for conciseness and clarity. If you can’t put your thoughts in a reasonable number of pages, then you probably don’t know it well enough.
Write your report, save it, forget about it for a few hours – or a few days if you can – and then go back to it. Consider asking someone else to read it too. Preferably someone from a different team or who isn’t a specialist in your field or area (however, you must consider any applicable confidentiality requirements or restrictions before doing so). If your test reader can’t understand what’s going on, you must edit your report further. Especially if your report is going to go to senior people in the organization who may not have the time, or the need, to get into granular detail. They simply need to understand what they need to take from this report and whether something needs to be done.
Edit ruthlessly, and you’ll get a better product. I know that this is not environmentally friendly, but print it out if you can, because it will help. When I first started at Deloitte years ago, I had a partner who was a real stickler for details. I learned a lot from him. He would pick up on things like a footer with the wrong client’s name. Someone had used the same template for another client, and because it’s the footer, you wouldn’t necessarily see it unless you printed the document. So print the document – and I know you’re going to kill a few trees, but if it’s really important, print it. You could print it on scrap paper, just make sure you can read it (consider reading it out loud) clearly and edit it well.
A lot is missed out on when editing on screen. People have such a short span of attention from being conditioned to reading things on small screens. Get somebody to read something longer than usual and they will have trouble staying focused. So it helps to print it out, mark it up, and then make the changes.
Steps to Take in 24 Hours
- Know Your Content Know your facts. Are you confident with the knowledge you have on the content and context you have to report on? Put in the time and effort to research it if you haven’t grasped it well enough.
- Consider Your Audience Who are the main readers of your report? Put yourself in their shoes and develop a report that can be understood by all of them. As you write your report, ask yourself if someone from another department or company would be able to understand your report.
- Edit Ruthlessly After you’ve written your report, save it, forget about it for a few hours and then go back to editing it with a fresh pair of eyes. If you can, ask somebody else to look at it too.