Report Writing for Consultants
A good report is not a mass of data. Rather, it is a clear and concise presentation of insightful information. The quality of a report is a direct reflection of the quality of thinking that goes in to it. The following is a high-level overview of what goes in to creating a consulting report.
There are a number of key decisions to make before you start writing. These include identifying your audience, determining the style and tone, and developing a graphic treatment.
Make no mistake, a report is not a data dump. What's really matters to clients is how you analyze, interpret, apply, and synthesize your discoveries. The facts or details are only important to back up what you think it all means. You can organize your information using both horizontal and vertical logic. Horizontal logic describes the flow of findings (main ideas) through your report. They are on the same level of importance and flow from one to the other. Vertical logic describes the flow of supporting points (facts) that fill out the detail and support the main idea.
Headlines present and describe both main ideas and major sub-points. Headlines are single, complete sentences that can stand on their own without any other information. They should clearly tell a story otherwise some re-work or re-organization should be done.
In general, report headlines should focus on the real message in its simplest form. To create headlines that tell the story of your report in a meaningful and concise manner, use the following guidelines:
- Using complete sentences only.
- Expressing a single thought per headline.
- Using a headline to express something that the reader doesn't already know.
- Using simple, direct language and active voice.
- Writing headlines that are not open to multiple interpretations.
- Avoiding "see below" headlines that force the reader to look elsewhere for the whole message.
Develop Supporting Points
Supporting points back up, explain, or embellish on the statement made in the headline in a short, concise manner. Supporting points provide the vertical logic or structure for the report and provide proof for the statement made in the headline. General guidelines for presenting supporting points include:
- Making sure the relationship between the sub-points and the headline is obvious.
- Using parallel grammar structure for all bullet points.
- Limiting the number of bullet points to less than 5 per headline.
- Using charts or graphics that can be easily explained in 15 to 20 seconds.
- Placing background material and in-depth studies in an appendix.
The body of a consulting report is designed to tell and sell a story in a quick, concise, and entertaining manner. Too much detail in the body of a report signals a lack of analysis or evaluation of data. It indicates that you weren't able to answer the question, "What does it all means?"
An appendix is an important tool for including detailed support information in a way that doesn't interfere with the flow of the report. An appendix can include such things as:
- Financial projections and spreadsheets.
- Related articles.
- Glossary of terms.
- Names of interviewees.
- Bibliography of key individuals.
Polish and Proof
Good writing is an iterative process. You start with raw materials and polish them into a finished product. It's important to get your ideas on paper first and then worry about hammering them into shape. Probably the most helpful way to improve your report is to read it out loud with the members of your team. If it sounds good and keep's everyone's interest, it's a winning report.