Report Writing: Getting the Length Right

At a recent workshop, one of the participants had a hard time with the idea of brevity. He had been told by his manager that his reports were too short. Therefore, he was looking for tips on how to pad his sentences with extra words.

I read over some of the documents he brought and found the writing style acceptable. I believe the man was confusing his manager’s comment with content and not context. Context is all about the writing style: your word choice, sentence and paragraph length, and tone. It’s the way you deliver the message. Content is about the message itself.

When we say keep business writing short and simple, we’re telling you not to use a lot of words to deliver a message — the context. However, I think the manager was asking the man to provide enough “meat” so the reader has necessary information to understand the topic and to take any required action.

A tool

How do you decide the right amount of information to provide? When writing a report, I start with an objective matrix. I divide a page into three columns.  In the first column, I list everything I know about my readers with regard to their current knowledge of the topic, attitude, constraints, desires, etc.  I call this B1 – the current belief. I then move to the third column and list what I want the readers to think and/or do after reading my report. This is the  B2 – future belief.

Now for the middle column. This is where I place all the details readers have to know to shift them from the B1 (current) to the B2 (future) column. For example, if I wanted to convince a reader to adopt an in-house writing program, in the B1 column I might put the number of staff who write to customers, any problems that have occurred, and any concerns about company image and time spent in writing. Remember this column is the current situation. It details what the reader knows now. It will form the introduction for the report.

Moving to the B2 column – the third one, I would summarize the program I want to run and its content, who should attend, and when ideally it should start. This will form the conclusion section. If I wanted approval for a supplier or a tendering process, I would include that as well. Remember, this column is all about the knowledge you want the readers to have or the specific action you want them to take as soon as they have finished reading. Never write any business document until you are clear as to your desired outcome.

So what do I need readers to understand so they will move from the B1 to B2? In the middle column, I would make a note to include the details of the writing program, attendees, benefits, delivery, logistics, timing, projected costs in my report. If I wished a specific vendor, I would jot down all the necessary vendor information. If the report’s desired outcome was a tendering process, I would remind myself to include an outline of the process and the timelines. I would also consider any objections the reader might have with regard to the topic and make a note to defuse them in the report. I flesh out all these points when writing the document.

Once you have started the objective matrix, give more thought to your readers. You have three types of report readers: senior management, experts, and users. If you are writing to senior management, their key interest is the bottom-line and/or market share. They don’t like a lot of scientific data, statistics, and jargon. Experts know as much if not more than you about the topic. They want jargon and calculations. Users are more comfortable with “how to” details and only a smattering of support data.

If you are writing a report to all three types, I suggest focusing the executive summary for the senior managers, the body for the users, and the appendix for the experts. (Any report over seven pages should have an executive summary.)

Using this additional reader information, go back to the objective matrix to see if you can add anything else.  A well thought out objective matrix ensures  your report answers all your readers’ questions. It will also help you to avoid adding irrelevant information.

Making It Visually Appealing

Once your report  is written, it’s time to make it reader friendly. Although business readers want all the necessary information, it doesn’t mean they will read the entire report. They skim looking for specific details. Therefore, add talking subheads.

Talking subheads are different from subheads. A subhead is a place marker, i.e., Monitoring Visits. A talking subhead provides key information, i.e., How to Prepare for Successful Monitoring Visits. It can be anywhere from seven words to two lines. This technique allows readers to skim but also ensures they get key points. I like to insert a talking subhead about every five paragraphs.

Remember if you are writing a lengthy report, all key points should be repeated four times: in the executive summary, the body, the introduction or the conclusion, and in a subhead.

Jane Watson is a trainer, author, and consultant in the field of written business communications at Ontario Training Network. She offers courses in report writing: Report Writing for Council and Report Writing Toolbox.