Friday, April 17, 2015

How to Write a Report

There are all manner of occasions where people who are trying to function together need to share information, and this occurs in a wide variety of ways—including plenaries, committee sessions, staff meetings, one-on-one conversations, notices on bulletin boards, memos, informal chats around the water cooler, and even graffiti on the bathroom wall. In today's essay I want to focus on one particular kind of communication: a report. It's something that is relied on a lot, yet often with indifferent results.

One of the reasons why reports may be weak is a lack of clarity about what they're trying to accomplish, which can be any of the following, in almost any combination.

—What's happened; what have you accomplished?Put yourself in the shoes of the person reading the report. What level of detail is appropriate? Let me give you three examples of an annual report from Customer Service.

Example A
We resolved all complaints that came to us in the last 12 months.

Example B
We handled six complaints last year. Four were from women under 30; two were from men over 55. Three were from the East Coast; one from the Midwest, and two from California. Three came in the winter, two in the spring, and one in the fall. There were multiple complaints about sexist language on our website, and multiple complaints about our new 800 number. Four of the complaints were resolved within 30 days; one took 90 days; and one is still pending.

Example C
We fielded six complaints last year (one more than the year before, and well within our capacity with current staffing levels). Two trends were noteworthy: 

a) Three young women reported that they were offended by the sexist language on our website: using "he" for the third person pronoun when the gender was unknown, and an instance of "guys" when referring to unknown persons. We recommend that we make it editorial policy to use "they" for the third person singular when the gender is unknown, and eliminate "guy" from our vocabulary unless it is known that we're referring to men.

b) Three people reported that it took 15 minutes to reach a live person when using our new 800 number with automated voice options. As this comes across as institutional and impersonal (the very opposite of our customer service commitment), we recommend offering callers an option of speaking to an agent within a maximum of five minutes.

While A is obviously the quickest to read, it doesn't offer enough information to be useful as a management tool. Example B had a good deal more detail yet no discernment was used in winnowing wheat from chaff. Example C, while the longest, honed in on the data that was actionable. Reports are not meant to be a brain dump; they are meant to capture the highlights.

—Identifying issues
This could be problems, unexpected opportunities, or simply confusion. Perhaps something came up that calls into question whether you have sufficient authority to handle it it on your own and you'd like clarification. Maybe you need an adjustment to staffing levels, or your budget is inadequate to finish the year. If you want a response, be sure to ask for one, labeling it clearly (rather than burying it deep in the report).

A good report will not just identify issues; it will summarize relevant background information:
o  any current agreements bearing on this matter
o  the reasoning behind the current policy (if there is one)
o  how urgently is a decision needed
o  the budgetary impact of the suggested change
o  who are the identified stakeholders on this issue (so their input can be solicited)

—What's ahead
Sometimes a report will include analysis of trends, letting everyone know the consequences if things continue. By looking ahead of the curve, the group can look at the issue and consider a response before it's a crisis.

It can be important to know if a manager or committee is happy in their work. If not, where's the problem? (Management can hardly be expected to fix what they're not aware of.)

—Intra-organizational concerns
Often, managers or teams are expected to collaborate with other managers and teams within the organization. If so, is that going well or are there problems? If there are difficulties, what are they?

—Have you learned anything new?
Occasionally, people learn things that are revelatory but not necessarily tied to issues (that is, they don't require a response). While there is nuance about how much of that to include in a report, it can happen that someone outside the team will recognize an opportunity that the manager or team members will fail to see. Because of that possibility, it's often a good idea to report (briefly) on what you're learning in your area. You never know from where inspiration will arise.

—Compelling writing is clear, concise, and to the point
The opposite of this is rambling, wordy, and poorly organized. Sloppy reports are often glazed over and not thoroughly digested. While you may not think that word choice, grammar, and sentence structure should matter that much, they do.

For what it's worth, I find concision to be the very last skill developed in people learning to communicate effectively.

Does the report contain information or opinions that might be embarrassing if the wrong people saw it? This is most often the case if you're evaluating personnel, or discussing a delicate negotiation. If so, you need to mark the report clearly as inappropriate to share without express permission… or wear body armor.

• • •
At this point in my career as a consultant and nonprofit administrator, I write a report (or its equivalent) every day. If I skip one day, then I compose two the next day. So I've had a lot of practice.

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