Creative report writing?
You want me to be creative? Report writing is hard enough without this extra pressure!
Read our great tips below for good business report writing, and learn more about our writing courses.
Hey! Remember essay writing in school? There were some weirdos (like Jo Ellen) who loved writing essays, but for the majority of students, essay-writing was a homework-nightmare.
For some of you, report writing may be a breeze, not daunting at all. But for a lot of people those same essay-writing feelings come flooding back: "Oh my god, I've been given a report to write. Now what am I going to do?"
Homework nightmare all over again.
Something we've noticed with people who hate report writing is that they don't feel that's what they were hired to do. They were hired for their expertise, their experience, their professionalism and didn't quite take in that writing was going to be part of it all.
See, even if it's just a tiny part of it all, it can feel really, really BIG, and it's those exaggerated feelings can throw people off guard. A lot of people think of report writing as an onerous task, which is why creativity hardly gets a look in.
People huff and puff, tear their hair out, cry, leave it to the last minute, try to get someone else to do it for them. Suddenly they're under the cosh, suddenly they're going to get 'graded'.
All those feelings of inadequacy come up: What am I supposed to do? I'm going to be judged. My neck is on the line. I hate writing reports. I didn't know this was going to be such a big part of the job, etc, etc.
You might be right. That might be what's going to happen: you may very well be judged, your neck might be on the line. But it's the overwhelming feelings we're interested in because they tend to create that blank-page horror: what do I do next?
So this is what people tend to do: they constrain themselves, they lose their unique personality, they become dull, they have to give every piece of information they have and cover all the bases, they shut down and fail to bring their information to life.
OK, maybe it isn't as dire as all that, but we do see that people tend to rely on their facts, figures and statistics to tell the story instead of them telling the story and using the facts, figures and statistics to embellish it.
Now, of course, there are some organisations that only want the facts and figures. They like the denseness; it makes them feel they're getting what they paid for. But the reality is that in this day and age, report writing has to be more. Things are changing: an information-packed, fact-packed, dull report usually implies a dull person. Not fair, but there it is.
See, what report writing is all about is that you've taken research and information that you've gathered, you've assessed it, you've brought your expertise to, and then you have to present it to someone else so that they have the information that you have and an understanding of it so that they can then use that information.
What happens, however, if that often people feel they need to 'park' their personality and become someone else.
Whereas what you need to be doing, is taking all that information and filtering it through who you are and how you naturally express yourself.
Here's an experiment to show what we mean. Pick something you know something about: how much your favourite football team spent on new players this year, how much your council spends on policing, what percentage of your salary goes on mortgage payments/rent/groceries.
Now sit down and write an 'essay' about it (it doesn't have to be long!). Read it to yourself. Now find a friend and just tell them about the same subject.
We can pretty much guarantee the two versions won't be the same. Most people will go into 'writing' mode that's vastly different from their talking mode.
When relating something to another person you will have a whole collection of skills you use unconsciously that reflects your personality, your individuality. You'll enliven your verbal 'report' with anecdotes and the feelings you have about those stories.
The difference is that if you were talking about it, telling someone about it, your voice would be conversational, it would have colour and changes in tone, inflection and volume. Your voice would do as much (if not a lot more) to convey your message than the actual words you'd be using. You'd be using your body, arms and hands, facial expressions to layer more feelings and expressiveness about your chosen subject.
Because the written word is open to interpretation (read, misinterpretation) even more than the spoken word, then it is your job to get the colour, tone and inflection into your report that would otherwise be missing.
This is what we mean when we say people adopt a report writing voice. They write with overtly professional, filled with jargon, complicated, lengthy sentences.
They think that because they are committing themselves to paper and won't necessarily be around to answer questions and explain something in more detail, they have to present differently than if they were giving the same information face to face.
That's what we mean when we say people pack far too much in because they think they need to give the reader everything they know.
They don't! - You don't!
It's like putting on new shoes for an interview that you've never worn before. If any of you have ever done that, you'll know it's a bad move. No matter how great they looked and felt in the shop, walking in them gives you blisters, takes your attention away from everything else (oh my aching feet!) and makes you wish you had your lovely, old, comfortable, familiar shoes on.
Well, report writing is the same thing. Trying to write in 'reportese' is uncomfortable, it takes your attention away from your main message and you wish you could just tell people what you have to say rather than having e to write it.
Reportese vs Conversation
Begin to think of report writing as a conversation. It may feel as though you are doing all the talking but let's see if we can help you create that voice.
You know how when you're talking to someone or giving a really fantastic presentation, you can see people nodding in agreement or frowning in disagreement? You've hit the target when you can see a non-verbal response. You see how people are reacting.
Well, when you write something you can't see whether people are nodding in agreement or nodding off to sleep.
YOU HAVE TO KEEP THEM AWAKE, the same way you have to keep people awake during a presentation.
You're conversing with them but you don't have their input. What you want is for them to have some kind of reaction: they love it, hate it, agree, disagree, feel comforted, feel panicky, get angry or frustrated. Something is better than apathy, disengagement, indifference.
Boy, do you know how many dull and turgid reports there are out there that create just that: indifference.
See, it's even easier for people to get bored and lose their way with the written word. They can allow themselves to get distracted because you're not there to say, 'Now read this bit - this is the bit that really tells you what's going on.'
That's what you have to be able to do with the written word - give people a really clear road map of what you want them to get from your report. You have to make sure they read 'this bit'.
People love stories, they do. And for the most part, people love telling stories: they love setting the scene, giving things a big build up, getting to the punch line and then finishing up with a 'tie up all the lose ends' conclusion.
So tell a story when you report-write.
OK, maybe we're going to state the obvious here, but unfortunately, in our experience, it needs stating.
You need to know why you're writing the d**n thing in the first place.
See, we told you it was obvious.
You absolutely must have a message you want people to get. It really isn't OK just to pile fact upon fact and hope it will make sense to the reader. Part of the purpose of stating your purpose is so you can give the reader a roadmap of your intentions.
If you don't have a purpose, the reader will give you one you may not want.
Next, have a point of view. Again, if you don't have one, your readers may well project one onto you.
So ask yourself a few questions:
- Who is this report for?
- What do I want it to achieve?
- What do I want to 'leave' them with?
- What do they definitely need to know?
- How do I feel about all of this?
Once you've answered those questions, you can filter your information through your purpose and your point of view, and this is actually quite a good way to make the material come to life and give it some of your personality.
Lies, damn lies and statistics
Ah, we hear you say. But what about all those statistics?
OK, let's take statistics.
Here's a little game. Pick any statistic that you know. Doesn't matter what it is. Write it down as a 'cold' fact. Just the actual statistic. Now do a kind of 'riff' on it, embellishing it. Tell a story about it, actually give people some relatively useless information about it but that will peak their interest.
Here's one that's a classic in business: In most companies, 80% of their business comes from 20% of their client list. This is the 80/20 rule.
This is how we could write it if we were just giving you the facts:
80% of Impact Factory's business comes from 20% of our client list.
Our regular clients are A, B, C, D, etc.
They give us X, Y, Z amount of work each quarter.
We run marketing campaigns for both our existing client base and potential clients in order to develop the business.
We've given you accurate information, but there would be nothing behind it. You wouldn't actually have the full picture.
Or we could try this:
We have a range of long-term clients including Fidelity Investments, Barnet Council, Merrill Lynch, Lewisham Council, Proximity London, all of which shows the depth and breadth of the kind of people who like our work. We like them in return and enjoy developing our relationships with them.
And this is what we do to ensure a continued interest in what we do: we have unusual marketing campaigns, we give stuff away free, we really listen to the clients' needs and rectify any mistakes we might make as quickly as we are able, we send interesting email newsletters, we take them to lunch, etc.
80% of our business comes from 20% of our client list. Our clients really love us because we rarely break a promise, we exceed expectations, we communicate with them regularly so they feel connected to us, and they know how much we enjoy working with them.
It's simply more interesting, and if we then added in the actual figures, they would enhance the story, not be the story. Did you need all that extra information? Probably not. But what it did, was to paint a picture of Impact Factory that lets you know how we achieve what we achieve.
Anyone can take a statistic and give it a dry reading; writing it creatively takes something extra. You want people to look forward to reading your stuff.
Who are you writing for?
Impact Factory stuff is written by real people for real people. We always have a cartoon on the front page of our documents. It's a signature (long live The New Yorker magazine!). Our stuff is written colloquially and is filled with stories, anecdotes, analogies and examples.
This means that our work is true to us and our style.
You need to be true to your style rather than producing something that anyone could have written.
Here's another story from Robin: I once was sitting in the reception of a prospective client and picked up a report that was in a stack for people to read. I realised after five minutes that I hadn't understood a thing I was reading, and I consider myself very competent when it comes to interpreting statistical material.
One of our clients, Hewitt Bacon & Woodrow, on the other hand, has material that's clear and really easy to read. On the outside, you might think actuarial information, human resources consultancy - going to be pretty dull.
But their material is written for the customer, rather than for the person writing it.
For us, that's the key. Really good report writing is written in language that's accessible to your readers rather than in your language. Technical reports for the layperson are nearly inscrutable. The language is dense, packed with jargon, usually with an assumption that you actually know what they're talking about. People tend to write from their knowledge rather than from the perspective of the person reading it.
Do you know why there are so many books on the market for computer dimwits? Because most manuals are written for the people who created the programmes, not for the people using them!
The same is often true of reports.
Take care of your audience - coddle them, indulge them, look after them.
OK, let's get practical
People tell us that one of the hardest things about report writing is getting started. Blank-page syndrome.
One of the problems is that a lot of people think they should be able to just sit down and write something from beginning to end, their thoughts all ordered, the facts and figures tripping off their fingers easily. Ha!
Well, some can. Most can't.
You may have tried some of these methods, but it's worth having a go at all of them till you find which one/s help you get more creative.
Forget order. Just throw everything that's related to your report onto a flip chart or a large piece of paper. OK, OK, a small piece of paper will do. Don't edit, don't try to have the stuff make any sense. Random words will do, phrases, even whole sentences.
Let it be chaotic. Step back. Study it for a while. Then with felt tip pens or coloured pens/pencils, start circling related topic or issues. You can have a great time with arrows, squiggly lines.
Draw (oh no, I can't draw). No one is ever going to see this stuff. So draw. Stick figures, weird-looking charts and graphs, illustrations. It doesn't matter. The idea is to start freeing up your creativity, so draw.
Then you can put everything related to each issue or topic together on a separate page. And then you can start writing.
This is a hugely popular way of ordering information and letting your brain run free at the same time. If you haven't tried it before. It's really well worth having a go because it can do wonders for your creativity.
Here's how it works. Write the topic of your report in the middle of a blank page and draw a circle around it. Then draw lots of lines off the circle and write along the line anything that pops into your head about that topic. Or you can draw a picture.
Then draw lots of little branches off each of those lines and write (or draw) whatever pops into your mind about each of those subtopics. This can go on for a long time, with branches, and sub-branches and more sub-branches.
Don't edit or judge what you're writing/drawing on each line, if at all possible. You may find yourself repeating yourself under different sub-headings. That's OK. The idea is to let your ideas free-flow.
At some point, you can stand back and see if you can find any pattern at all in the little off-shoots. Look at the repetitions if there are any.
After that, it really doesn't matter what format you then use: you can sit down and write up each sub-branch into sentences. You can re-order the information. The important thing is that you've accessed your mind in a new way.
Let's ask google for a few examples
Classic outline format
Yes, we see nothing wrong with this method either. Anything that works, we say. So, in case you didn't get this at school, the outline method is:
1. The first piece of information
2. The second piece of information
3. The third piece of information and so on.
B. The first issue to be addressed
1. The first piece of information
C. The second issue to be addressed
1. The first piece of information
a. Sub piece of information
b. Next sub-piece of information
You get the picture!
Some people really like to work in this format. We, personally, think it might be a little stifling and creativity limiting, but we don't want to stop people using it if they find it helps them. We tend to think that's what you could do after you've tried one of the other more fluid techniques.
In other words, once you've been a bit anarchic, you can take all your information and order it in outline form.
One way to overcome the blank-page syndrome is not to write at all (at least at first). Use a Dictaphone to just talk. Much like having a conversation with a friend, use the tape recorder to babble. It most certainly doesn't need to make sense. Once you replay it and type it up you can have a go at making it make sense.
You don't even need to have blank-page concerns. Indeed, most of this document was 'written' on a Dictaphone. This is a way to let the subject stew away in your brain for a while. If you keep your Dictaphone with you at all times, or if you're not near a computer, you can at least make a record of your thoughts. Without it, the stew might just bubble away.
Keep the recorder next to your bed as you might wake up in the middle of the night with an idea. Great way to get it 'off your chest' if you don't want to turn on a light to write it down. You might sound like a drunken sailor the next day, but the idea will have been saved.
The next important technical aid is a notebook. Yes, the simple notebook, also kept with you at all times, to jot things down, make notes, keep tabs on those fabulous ideas that pop up.
30 Second Influencer
A few years ago, we created something called the 30 Second Presentation or 30 Second Influencer. We did this to give our participants a simple model they could use to get information 'over' to others in a punchy, enlivening style:
Here it is:
- Get people's attention
- Make it relevant to them
- Give them your central message
- Use an example they can relate to
- Tell them what you think they should do next/ what the next step should be
The idea is that you write about 60-70 words in total, and if you read it out loud it should take just about 30 seconds. It forces you to get really, really clear using the minimal amount of words.
Here's an example: Jo Ellen: I happen to be passionate about recycling and I could go on and on boring you with statistics, who's doing what where, how everyone should make sure they recycle everything they could. If I go on for too long, I lose my audience. If I give too little, you won't care.
By starting a report on recycling, using the 30-second influencer, I can lead people into my story before they know it.
Here's how it could work:
Rubbish! Like me, I bet you use tons of it every week. We could all benefit from recycling more of our rubbish. For instance, in Bury St Edmunds where I live, we have one of the best recycling records in England. Next time you unwrap a package, fold up your newspaper, finish a bottle, think before you toss it into landfill and bin it where it will do some good.
Hopefully, I will have got your attention, whether you agree with me or not. By opening a report on recycling with my 30-second presentation, I've given you a precis of my entire report in 5 sentences. Then, it would be my job to enliven those 5 sentences even more with the rest of the report. I might even break down the issues in more detail, and start every section with the 30-second influencer.
What its purpose is, is to get you to distil down everything you want to say in a concise, yet vibrant way.
The red editing pencil
Most people write waaay too much, as we mentioned earlier. They feel they have to stuff their reports with every piece of information they have.
You don't. So you need to get ruthless, heartless and pragmatic and start slashing your report. It isn't as hard as it looks and the advice on the next page might help you see what needs to go.
It's not just about the information, it's about the way you present that information.
Long paragraphs don't work. Give the eye a break! Most people, when they look at a page with very little white space, will already assume it's going to be boring.
Short punchy paragraphs are better than long technical one.
Lay things out; be careful of 'orphans' and 'widows', those single words on a line, or a heading that's on the bottom of a page with the information on the next page.
If appropriate, use pictures, graphs, and charts to illustrate a point, and then talk people through them. This is a great opportunity to use stories because the facts/statistics will be there in graph/chart form. People can 'see' what you're saying, so you can use your text to bring the facts to life.
What a relief. You've finished.
Wait! Before you press the print or send button, one last thing to do.
Read it out loud. More than once.
Then, if you have courage, read it to a friend or colleague. It should flow easily; you should be able to spot mistakes the eye couldn't see, but your ear can hear. We'd be surprised if after reading it out loud you didn't want to change a few things, even if they're minor.
Reading it out loud allows you to put some expression into it - if you find that your words aren't mirroring that expressiveness, get that red pencil out and start editing like mad!
And finally finally
The most important thing to remember is that there is information sitting in your brain that you need to present in such a way so that other people want it to sit in theirs.
When someone finishes reading what you have written they need to have the information you want them to have and the understanding for it to make sense; they know what it is that has to happen next;
It doesn't matter what the report is about, who it's for, what it's going to be used for if you can keep to that one objective - the transfer of useful information from you to others - then your reports should get easier and a whole lot more creative.
You know that piece of advice that people give to presenters? Tell your audience what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you've just told them.
Report writing is like that too.
You set out your stall, putting it in digestible chunks, perhaps using the 30 Second Influencer. The bulk of your report is what you want/need the readers to know, and then you pack up your stall, summarising the key points.
And like any good verbal presentation, make sure your last couple of paragraphs are the ones they're going to remember.
There isn't a right way to write a report, but there are lots of things available to help you make it more accessible, more entertaining and more likely that people will read it right to the very end.
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