Thursday, January 13, 2011

Writing a Report the Easy Way

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Have you noticed that if you work in an office and have the temerity to criticize a system or a set of procedures, your boss will often counter with the suggestion that you write a report.

I know. This used to happen to me a lot - when I worked nine to five. My own fault of course. I shouldn't have opened my mouth in the first place!

Actually I used to like writing reports. One, they gave me an excuse to write. Two, I could analyze the system, the problem or the sets of procedures and then come up with improvements or solutions to offer to management.

Reports are often the only way a lowly employee can influence management, even director level decisions. I was surprised at how many senior staff members actually ended up reading my reports - especially when speaking to them personally would most likely have been out of the question!

Writing reports has that advantage. You circumvent personal prejudices and unlikely inter-personal relationships by appealing on a more intellectual level.

I would often add wit and a certain degree of the 'entertainment' factor to keep people reading - rather than relate a dry set of facts or, heaven forbid, lapse into a scathing attack on policy or certain frustrating individuals.

Because this is what you should do in a report:

1. Introduce the reader to the world you're going to report on.

Even if your guess is that everyone likely to read the report is familiar with the office, campus, retail outlet or department, assume that they don't.

Give an overview of the company, situation or location as you see it. This not only gives your reader the terms of reference, it shows you have a grasp of the facts - hopefully too, establishing that you have an objective viewpoint - and will have recommendations later in the report that are at least practical and realistic.

The opening of your report therefore is an exercise in establishing trust. This is important because unless the readers trusts you from the start, they're unlikely to want to read on - and will be extremely wary about your conclusions.

2. Show that you care.

You do this by first of all highlighting the positives of the current system. You explain each part of the process as though you watch over it and nurture it.

For instance, if you are reporting on, say, a manufacturing process, describe the intricacies with high regard for the quality of the finished product. It's important to remember that though your report may seek to highlight inefficiencies, there's always someone out there with a vested interest in the status quo.

You'll have noticed that political reports have a circumspect tone - usually careful not to apportion specific blame or come across in any way emotional or partisan. This is the tone you need to adopt, especially as you:

3. List the pros and cons of the subject matter.

This is the meat of your report and will most likely make up around 60% of the wordage.

Here you highlight the processes that work, how and why they work - and then how and why they might be improved.

Give a title to each section - and subtitles if necessary. Always be conscious that the average reader has little time and less patience when reading something that is not particularly fun or entertaining.

Make sure that your argument is coherent - and approaches the subject matter logically. A list of random criticisms won't cut it - and will most likely offend. When you go back over your work, edit for consistency of argument - and ease of reading.

Don't use big words just because you know them. It's an odd fact that inexperienced writers try hide their ignorance and lack of power with fake pomposity. It's easy for a more experienced writer - and a director level boss - to spot.

Good writers use short, effective, specific and meaningful words to get their point across. Cultivate this as a habit - in whatever writing you do.

Give examples in your report of the specific issues you want the reader to think about. Vague rhetoric only bores and confuses.

If you have ideas that are based on systems from other companies then by all means mention them and explain why they work better. Do this without breaching any confidentiality of course - and be careful not to mention names the reader may want to call to verify the information. This might backfire on you.

4. Always write a conclusion.

Use the last part of your report to summarize what you have written. Busy managers will often read just the opening of your report and its conclusion.

Curiously this is the same way movie producers read screenplays. The first few pages to establish you can write (the trust factor) and the last couple of pages to see if you have a good ending.

Rather than fume at the idea your report may not be read in totality, use this knowledge to your advantage.

State your conclusions and recommendations clearly and succinctly - in bullet form if you wish.

Stay rational and objective to the end. Be positive and if possible, use figures to prove that your ideas will reap tangible benefits.

Personally I found this last piece of advice the most effective way to get a manager to change a system for the better. If you can say that your improvement will lead to a 10% increase in profits, or a 25% increase in productivity for your department - and your report proves it - you give the reader something solid to hold on to. Something he can sell to his work colleagues - and his own manager.

I read a self help book once (can't remember the author) that suggested writing good reports for employers was a surefire way to put your career into the fast lane. Employers love to see people who understand and care enough about a business to write a report on it.

Whatever your position - college professor, middle manager, file clerk or doctor's receptionist - consider how writing a report on your job might help your long term situation.

Especially if you're frustrated and unhappy in your job.

Even if you work in a take away outlet or sweep floors at a department store, you should ask your employer if he would mind if you wrote a report to suggest improvements. You'll be amazed at the often positive reaction.

Then just see how far your eagerness and enthusiasm will take you. I've found that writing a simple seven or ten page report on my job - no matter how lowly - has often catapulted me into promotions - to the bewilderment of work colleagues who'd never even thought of suggesting the idea to the boss.

Try it.

It's all good writing practice anyway.

Keep writing!

Rob at Home
rob@easywaytowrite.com
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

THIS WEEK'S WRITER'S QUOTE:

"Until the day of his death, no man can be sure of his courage." Jean Anouilh
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