Ok, so I’ve just finished writing the library’s annual report for my organisation, and I don’t mind telling you that it’s taken a lot longer than I had anticipated. Having written reports for my MA I anticipated a fairly similar experience. However, when you’re writing the real thing rather than for a lecturer it really is considerably more difficult.

Obviously some of the principles remain the same, but there’s greater pressure to get things “right”, whatever that may mean. After all, who’s going to give you a hard time if you don’t pitch your report right to your lecturer? OK, they may set you straight on a thing or two and suggest slightly different ways of presenting your evidence, but really the pressure’s off. When your writing your report to the board you only get one chance to make an impression and pitch it right. It could determine how your plans are received or whether you truly have a say in future developments.

With that in mind, here are some reflections on the report writing process, and what I think should be taken into account:

  • Consider your audience – Who are you writing for? What’s their position within the organisation? How involved are they in the day to day activity of the organisation? How much do they know about your area of the business? The nature of your audience will determine how your report will develop.
  • What do they need to know? – This really is worth taking into consideration. Your departmental head my need to know the ins and outs of your daily working practice and any issues you come across, as it may impact heavily on how they operate and how they shape future policy. Upper management, however, probably don’t need (and certainly don’t want) to hear about the minutiae of daily life. They want to know exactly what matters to them – facts, figures, results and how it impacts on the overall business. Your efforts will be appreciated more if you cut the c**p and tell them what they need to know and why they need to know it.
  • Cinderella’s new ball dress or the Emperor’s new clothes? – Remember that you are feeding information into a large machine, and the wrong information could be potentially damaging (like putting petrol in a diesel engine). It’s good to make reports up-beat where possible, and extract positives from bad experiences – it may show that you are leading the way to the panacea of a “learning organisation”. Congratulations, you get Cindy’s new dress and a ride in a carriage. However, this does not mean you should dress up information in a completely different light and overplay positives whilst underplaying any difficulties. It may make you feel like you’re wearing the latest fashions from Milan but the truth will out eventually, and you could end up looking more exposed and self-deluded than the emperor of the aforementioned fable. Be positive, but be honest too.
  • Presentation – How a report looks and reads can be just as important as its content. Long, rambling reports without noticeable start and end points will lose their impact after just a few minutes. They need to be punchy, easily navigable and succinct whilst presenting all the relevant information. Subdivide them with snappy headings to allow the reader to locate relevant information quickly and easily. Perhaps even include a table of contents for longer reports. Use bullet points to emphasise key points – even if you go into more detail later the initial issue will have been noted. Provide graphical representations of raw data (such as graphs or pie charts) close to their related points if possible – visual displays are easier for readers to digest and tend to have greater long-term impact than lists of figures. The close proximity to the relevant points is not exactly essential, but it reduces the effort the reader has to put in to see your point, and that can only be a good thing. Plan your report with easy navigation and easy reading in mind. You do the hard work so the reader doesn’t have to – it may lead to a better reception and appreciation of your work.

Much of that doesn’t exactly sound a million miles from what we’re taught at Uni, but I assure you it’s doubly important when writing reports for real. Scraping 50% isn’t an option, and there are no prospects of retakes. So plan like a demon and pull out all the stops – the rewards are worth the effort!

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