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Report writing for consultants
Author : Rob Ashton
Posted : 01 / 04 / 07
The last few weeks have been a punishing combination of late-night problem solving and early-morning meetings. Finally, the consultation period is over and the moment of truth has arrived: the time has come to write your final report. You have probably spent a lot of time with your client and may have built up a strong relationship – but this does not change the fact that leaving the right impression will depend ultimately on the quality of your report. So, whatever you do, don’t leave the report until the very last minute, without time for enough preparation and planning to do it real justice.
But before we look at some guidelines on how to produce a document that will be a glowing testament to your firm’s experience and expertise, it is worth pausing for a minute to put your report in context. Our research has shown that mountains of paperwork stifle most companies: the average manager claims to receive eight reports or other long documents each day. This roughly equates to being asked to wade through War and Peace five times a year – a sobering thought.
To put it plainly, your report is going to have to be pretty good to compete with all the other documents that will be vying for your client’s attention. Yes, your client may have made a substantial investment in employing your services, which might push your report further up the queue, but then, of course, the flip side of this will be that their expectations will be so much higher. Your firm might be expert in its area but this expertise will be lost if you fail to communicate it effectively. And you will simply become one of the many thousands of people who regularly spend hours struggling to write a turgid business document that nobody will read.
So what can you do to make sure that your report goes to the top of the pile, makes a lasting impression and demonstrates your firm’s proficiency and understanding?
First things first. Your report should be client-centred, rather than consultant-centred. The chances are that no sooner do you realise that the report deadline is looming, then you immediately fall into the ‘getting it done’ trap. Your focus now is on yourself and ‘getting it done’ rather than on the client and their needs. At this point, it is worth taking a couple of deep breaths and spending a few minutes thinking about what your client actually wants. This may sound obvious. Indeed it should be – and yet so often reports tend to follow a standard template structure that poorly reflects an individual client’s brief. Why not ask the client exactly what they want to see in the report and even how long they would like the report to be? Alternatively, ask yourself a few simple but telling questions. What information does the client expect? With what level of detail? How much knowledge do they already have? What will they use the report for? Who will read it? And it goes without saying that the old copy and paste technique needs to be handled with extreme care. It is all too easy to forget to change the company name or to leave out a vital piece of client-specific information.
And what about the key messages and recommendations that you want to get across? How can you make sure that these really stand out and are not lost among volumes of periphery detail and background? Many consultants use a basic structure in which they start with their findings, then outline their conclusions, and then give their main message – their recommendations – at the end. The effect on the client is to keep them guessing or arguing with every point and perhaps ending with a conclusion that differs from your own. A far more effective structure is to start with your main message and then provide the information that supports it.
Then comes the next common trap: falling into jargon or business speak, or using unnecessarily flowery language. This, many people believe, demonstrates knowledge, intellect and know-how, or even superior industry expertise. But does it really?
The truth is that your client has no interest whatsoever in the sophistication of your use of vocabulary. What’s more, the public and private sectors are becoming increasingly cynical about consultants, believing that they produce overlong, overwritten reports on purpose to justify their ‘exorbitant fees’. Whatever you do, avoid providing any additional ammunition to that particular argument. The bottom line is that clients will not appreciate long words, complicated language, management speak and ‘businessese’ jargon, nor will they want to plough through lots of acronyms and abbreviations. They will find them irritating, confusing and time consuming. Take the time to find a more effective way of writing whatever it is you want to say. If using complex technical terms is absolutely unavoidable, make sure you provide a glossary in the appendix.
On the subject of language, remember that when companies and organisations appoint consultants, they hire people, not robots. Language like ‘It is recommended…’, ‘It is estimated…’, or ‘It has been proven…’ does not sound more professional; it simply depersonalises your report and makes it less accessible. Your client wants to know that their consultants are real human beings, so be bold and put people at the heart of your writing: ‘We recommend…’, ‘We estimate or ‘We have proven…’.
It is far more interesting and meaningful to read about organisations and individuals taking actions than to read about all sorts of actions and events mysteriously occurring. Think ‘Tarvex’s customers are crying out for the new product range’ rather than ‘The new product range has experienced considerable demand’. Or ‘The CEO has transformed the company’s performance in the exports market’ instead of ‘The company’s performance in the exports market has been transformed’.
Make your language as lively as you can. If you are trying to ‘sell’ a particular recommendation, paint a vivid picture of the excellent results it will bring; or of the horrendous pitfalls that will befall your poor client as a result of not implementing it. And it goes without saying that you also need to examine all the pros and cons, including the cost implications, of following – or not following – your recommendations.
Generalisations or exaggerations are another characteristic of poor writing to be wary of. Take ‘record levels of profit’, for example. Are they truly record levels – ie. the highest ever – or do you really mean the highest in recent years? And what about ‘a large percentage’? (Is this 51 per cent or 99 per cent? There’s quite a big difference, after all.) Beware of words and expressions such as ‘record’, ‘significant’, ‘considerable’and ‘wide section of the community’ unless you can actually quantify them.
It has been very difficult to escape the recent newspaper headlines about the woeful state of young people’s literacy. School and university leavers are, we are told, virtually incapable of writing a properly constructed sentence or presenting a coherent and logical argument, never mind using the correct punctuation, grammar and spelling. A university degree, it seems, no longer guarantees the kind of literacy that blue chip employers expect. Despite, or perhaps because of, this sorry state of affairs, we are a nation of language aficionados. Countdown attracts millions of viewers every day; we are obsessed with crosswords and wordplay; Eats Shoots and Leaves, a book about punctuation for goodness sake, dominated the bestseller list for months.
My point here is this. We notice words and language and how people use them; pulling up people for poor punctuation, dodgy spelling or dubious grammar is almost a national pastime. And the likelihood is that your client will have a similar awareness of language – and irritation with its misuse. So never delude yourself that it is only what you say that counts and not whether you know how to punctuate correctly. It is amazing the bad feeling and ill will that a misplaced comma or a misjudged apostrophe can cause.
Another common error is to try to plan and structure the report simultaneously. It is, in fact, much easier to do these two things separately. Start by ‘brainstorming’ all the information that needs to go into the report. When you are sure you have covered everything, it is time to tackle the issue of what goes where and in what format. The structuring process requires an element of bloody-mindedness. Only information that is essential to your client should go in the main body of the text; any information that is ‘important’ or ‘of interest’ should be relegated to appendices, footnotes or a separate chapter. Additional detail, figures, references or diagrams are all examples of ‘important’ information. Put yourself in your client’s shoes. How would you react to a report if you felt your valuable time was being wasted on nonessential detail?
Remember that while your client may be interested in the background to the project and in how you carried out the research and the consultation process, they are actually paying you to identify the cause or causes of a problem or challenge and to tell them how to solve it. If you make them wait until the end of the report to tell them your recommendations, the chances are that their patience will be wearing very thin indeed.
This brings us to another tip on helping your client to navigate your report. As you start to structure your report, plan how best to divide it into logical sections and give some thought to your subheadings. Subheadings should be clear and meaningful, rather than generic, so that they act as signposts, guiding your client through the report and showing them where to find specific topics.
Pay particular attention to your executive summary. As we all know, this may be the only part the real decision-makers read, so make sure it can stand alone and that it contains real information, including hard facts and figures. If your report includes recommendations, the executive summary should make it clear what these are and include their implications, values and costs. What about length? As a general rule, it is advisable to stick to a maximum of two pages, using headings and bullets (but not too many), and perhaps a carefully selected graph or pie chart, to get your main message across.
If your report is well-written, it will influence your client’s thinking and decisions and galvanise them into action. It will also act as a first-rate marketing tool for your firm. But if your report is poorly written, it will exasperate your client and jeopardise your reputation and the chances of your recommendations being implemented. It might even lose you the business.
The value of a well-written consultant’s report is perhaps best summed up by the MD of one of the UK’s leading radio stations when asked recently about his own personal experience of consultants: ‘One particular US consultant charged a fortune for producing a series of badly presented and poorly written reports critiquing the station and, frankly, stating the obvious,’ he said. ‘But then I hired McKinsey who worked with me to formulate our 10-year strategy and I learned a lot from them, including how to present an argument and rationale on paper, which is key if you want to be successful in influencing people’s thinking.’
Robert Ashton is Chief Executive of Emphasis.
Want to improve your team’s report writing? See our report-writing course for companies and our business-writing courses for individuals. You can also call us on +44 (0)1273 732 888 for a no-obligation chat with one of our friendly advisors.
To learn more about making report writing a much easier and less painful task, check out our free webinar recording How to turn your expert analysis into exceptional reports. It’s ideal if you have to write reports to colleagues and clients as part of your day-to-day job – whether that’s as a traditional written report or as a slide deck.
Rob is a former scientist who set up Emphasis in 1998 after a career in magazine and journal editing. He designed the document analysis that underpins all our courses and believes training should always be based on evidence, not pseudoscience or wishful thinking. His writing has been featured in the Guardian and The Telegraph, as well as specialist publications including Accountancy Age, Training Journal and Nursing Standard. He's also a member of the Association of British Science Writers.
He's currently working on a new book about the science of the words we write and the effects they have on all of us.
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