The worlds of risk and compliance in financial services seem to thrive on the production of reports. Readers, however, do not always seem to thrive in quite the same way.
While many reports carry an organisational ‘look’, we can remember than with report writing there are no rules about how it appears and what it looks like. Personal preferences, organisational culture or simply people using previous reports as templates – or just templates – can mean lots of reports look the same, possibly hiding important information under a cloak of corporate anonymity. There are no rights and wrongs in report writing: even if there may be some ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ relating to them if written in Standard English language.
Here is a collection of tools and tips to help you consider how you write reports, based around the writing process – before, during and after your report writing.
reviewing how you produce your reports may be a step to make for better reading and more importantly, improved outcomes
- Go straight to ‘after’ – at least taking a mental leap forward. Following Stephen Covey’s famous habit of effective people and beginning with the end in mind, picture what you feel should happen after your report is read. What do you want the reader to understand, improve or simply commit to doing? This leap forward is to enable you to focus on the purpose of your report; not just to be read but acted upon. Something should happen as a result – otherwise why write it? (A conscious decision to take no action can still count as an action: the outcome is the decision).
- While beginning at the end, you are not deciding the conclusions or actions in advance – you need the gather and analyse the data/information first.
- Scope it out in terms of its purpose or outcome as above, and in the timescale and the requirements of the audience – those who will read it. Some reports must be prepared regularly, but one-off reports will need to work to a timescale, or risk remaining the difference between a dream and a goal. Understanding what is important to your audience is also key to your report being read. Tailor your report not just to their existing knowledge level, organisational level, or experience – but consider pitching it towards their desired communication style too. Personality style tools such as DiSC or Insights provide a colour-based template guiding you to certain characteristics, and you can use this to consider the style and structure of a report. More ‘Driver’ type personalities may appreciate a punchy conclusion as the first point of an Executive Summary: more analytical types may want a more logical approach from which a consolidation is drawn.
- Gather & collate information – the nature of which will vary wildly depending on the outcome of the report. This is where you can start considering how your report may look, and how you will use information – graphics, illustrations, data – to engage the readers.
- Structure – there are no rules about reports having a particular structure, so consider the likely headings and what will work best for the audience. An Executive Summary will frequently appear towards the front – but do you need some scoping statement before that? A tool for the likely headings is BOSCARDI: Background, Objectives/outcomes, Scope Constraints, Assumptions, resources, Deliverables & Issues. With a clear scope you should be able to decide on what structure and order will work best.
- Again – no rules. You can start with the conclusion and work back or use BOSCARDI and then decide on your conclusions and actions. Remember the benefits of using either Inductive logic (Because of X, Y & Z this is true) versus Deductive logic (this is true because of X, Y & Z).
- Start with the Executive Summary then flesh out everything else – or write everything and then produce the Executive Summary? You decide. Remember your conclusions/recommendations/actions need to be thought through and presented in a way that will be effective for the audience.
- For some useful tips on the process of writing have a look a couple of Harvard Business Review Articles – links below. You don’t need to be J. K. Rowling to realise the importance of writing somewhere that you can focus you mind on the work required, but ideas such as reading what you have written out loud can be surprisingly effective at helping you achieve your desired impact with the best words for the job.
- Remember editing is a part of the process. I find most people on my Report Writing training courses have a desire to make their reports more concise. This is straightforward: word count. Yet it remains something of an art to decide whether “Sales increased 5.4%” really is an improvement on “Revenue increased by 5.4% during the year ended 31 July 2022 due to the successful product launch of Product X in October 2021, accounting for 60% of the increase, as well as the positive impact of GBP/USD FX movements, accounting for most of the remainder”.
- Beware of marking your own homework: a colleague may be better placed to spot tpyos (see what I did there?), and even small formatting and grammatical errors will leave an impression about the professionalism of your report.
- Appendices: use thoughtfully to include extra information and data, but outside the body of the report. They should go to the end and each one suitably numbered and on separate pages.
- Ideally your report will be received an acted upon – the best feedback you could wish for. But that doesn’t mean you cannot seek further feedback or offer suggestions about improvements to format and content in future reports – especially if you are producing the same report frequently.
There are reports publicly published most weeks, so looking at how others go about the process can help you learn a how to improve what you produce. I share a couple of links below to reports I feel are interesting examples of format and approach – you may not agree with all the findings.
If you cannot identify why a report has been written a particular way, that may be a clue that someone – maybe even you – are just using the previous report as a template. If you want different outcomes, you usually need to use different behaviour: reviewing how you produce your reports may be a step to make for better reading and more importantly, improved outcomes.
Some example reports:
Presented on a web page, with a separate published Executive Summary
Good example of a long and quite complex topic being boiled down to a pithy title and subheading
Controversial when published, but an interesting example of format and methodology.
Articles on the writing process:
Practical tips on the writing process, not just for reports:
Useful model for gaining attention and engagement
Short article to get that word count down