Tuesday, April 6, 2010

How to write a report.

Post 460 - One of the most challenging tasks in business is preparing a persuasive report or memo. Here are some thoughts on this topic informed by the writings of Monci J. Williams.

The thinking in any report will be easy for a reader to follow if it focuses on answering a question that already exists in the reader’s mind. For example, a situation exists. Therefore a complication arises. As a result, a disturbing event is anticipated or a sensitive, threatening topic needs to be addressed. The complication, or the event, or the tension it creates, triggers a question which the report will answer.

Most business reports set out to answer one of the following four questions:

1. We have a task to perform. Something is stopping us from performing that task. What should we do?

2. We have a problem. We know the solution. How do we best implement it?

3. We have a problem. A solution has been suggested. Is it the right solution?

4. We have taken an action. The action didn’t work. Why not?

Reports are best prepared using the following guidelines:

- The opening sentence should anchor the reader in space and time, thus setting the stage for a story to come.

- Don’t start off by trying to “get it all down.” You may think you can find the structure more easily afterwards. But the chances are you’ll leave it, disjointed thinking and all, and move on to something else once you see it typed up.

- Put the history and chronology in the introduction but make it brief. The purpose is only to set the stage for the question and answer that will be presented in the report.

- Articulate the key question and the answer that the report will address in the introduction. Anyone who reads the introduction should know the essential substance of the full report.

- Outline the relationship between ideas before beginning to write. Cluster the ideas into groups that require similar or related actions. Each cluster of ideas should answer a question raised in the previous cluster.

This approach applies to every kind of document in which the purpose is to offer your thinking to the reader. This includes emails, one-page memos, multi-page reports, and formal slide presentations.

Finally, reports should always be written in the language of action. Instead of writing, “Improve financial reporting,” write instead, “Install a system that gives early notice of change.”

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