In my last two posts I showed you how you can tackle the Introduction and Summary sections of a report.
Communicado: Business Communications Blog
My colleague Robert Good recently wrote about creating effective report introductions - a difficult task at the best of times. Another area that can fall into the difficult category is report writing headings. There are quite a few questions about this from writers. I've briefly answered the most frequently-asked below:
When you are writing a report summary, in effect you are creating a cheat-sheet for your reader. As such, the summary needs to be a short, complete and accurate account of what you have already written in the main body of your report.
Incidentally, if you have not yet started to write the report, writing the summary can be a great way of deciding what to include and how to structure it.
In the last of his introductory blog posts giving speed reading tips, Alex our Speed Reading Coach, explains how to measure your reading speed and what the results mean. Over to you, Alex...
Writing a report introduction can be a surprisingly tricky affair – deciding what to include and what to leave out inevitably means editing down your perfectly-formed report: a report that you would ideally like the reader to sit down and take the time to read carefully and thoroughly!
So here are some practical tips to get you on the right track and help focus your reader on the important stuff from the outset.
When you are writing a report introduction, make it directly relevant to your reader. For example, imagine there is a small change in regulations that affect your organisation. Often in this situation, a report will be circulated to everybody for information. A typical introduction to such a report might start like this:
“This report sets out the changes to the XYZ regulations (sections 3 and 5). The regulations come into effect on June 1st. A copy of the changes will be filed in our procedures manual.”
Unless your reader has plenty of time to spare, this might end up unread. Instead, you need to get their attention:
“We will be directly impacted by small but important changes to the XYZ regulations that come into effect on June 1st.”
Notice that the detail – that is, sections 3 and 5 – were omitted: keep focussed on the main message. You can then tell your reader what the report contains:
“Page 1 describes the changes in detail and includes a quick summary; Page 2 sets out the new end-of-day procedure that will be implemented to ensure that we remain compliant.”
Finally, a call to action rounds off the introduction nicely. Tell your reader what they now need to do:
In the second of his posts introducing speed reading tips, Alex Garcez our Speed Reading Coach explains the differences between using the left side of the brain and the right side when you are reading. Alex, over to you...
One of my favourite comedy sketches is “Numberwang” from “That Mitchell and Webb Look”. Numberwang (in case you didn’t know…) is a spoof gameshow in which contestants call out numbers – seemingly at random – until the host declares “That’s Numberwang!”. OK, I know I may not have quite sold it to you, but somehow Mitchell and Webb manage to make this slight joke into something very funny – have a look on YouTube and see what you think.
Anyway, the reason I mention Numberwang is that I was reminded of it the other day when looking through some documents that I needed to review. I was bombarded by more numbers than a Numberwang show, and it got me thinking about the use and abuse of numbers in the context of writing business reports.
Numbers, like all other information, have to earn their place on the page. Let’s take a few examples. ‘Page 1 of 1’ at the bottom of a document is occasionally useful for audit purposes, but for many short and informal documents, page numbering is just clutter. Likewise, version numbers. ‘Draft 1.0’ can so often be either meaningless or misleading. (The whole convention of numbering drafts is a topic in itself. I prefer a first draft to be 0.1 rather than 1.0, but that’s another story…). And try not to number your lists if bullets will do instead: numbering implies a sequence, and nine times out of ten there may actually not be one.
But of course, one of the main ways in which numbers infect documents is through section numbering. Ask yourself if you really do need to number your sections? Will a sharp section title do instead? Maybe a number will help if you need to refer to the document in discussions and reviews, but not all documents are used in this way. And don’t forget that numbering can seriously interrupt the way a document flows: ‘Section 4.3.2’ is a fairly forbidding start to a piece of text.
The cardinal sin (if you will excuse the pun), however, is to use numbered sections to send your reader off on a wild goose chase. ‘See Section 6.1.3 for more details’ suggests to me that there is something wrong: why aren’t the relevant details here, at this point in the text where they are needed? And flicking backwards and forwards to Diagram 3 in Appendix 5.2 (which is no doubt also full of lengthy tables and small print) isn’t much fun either. Now that’s what I’d call Numberwang.
Today, we're delighted to introduce you to our guest blogger Alex Garcez, aka The Speed Reading Coach. Over to you Alex...
You know already that when I'm banging on about better business writing, I focus relentlessly on the needs of the audience. I do this because I know that clearly written, well-structured content improves comprehension and enables audiences to read content more quickly and efficiently. In my ideal world, all content would be clearly written and well-structured. In the real world, of course, it rarely is.
So one of the things frequently on my mind is what to do when you are a reader (rather than a writer) and you are faced with a mass of poorly written unstructured content (or indeed a mass of well-written but poorly structured content) and you have no choice but to wade through it.
Speed reading is a solution that's been floating around on the edge of my universe for some time, but if I'm honest I've always been a little sceptical. Could it really work? Anyway, a few months ago, I finally decided to take the plunge and give it go - and I'm now convinced it does work.
My guide on this recent journey has been Alex Garcez, also known as the Speed Reading Coach.
Here at Pacific Blue, we've decided to team up with Alex and over the next few weeks he will be a guest blogger, bringing us some background information about speed reading and providing a series of speed reading tips to introduce you to his proven techniques.
When you stop to think about it, the benefits of being able to read faster are blindingly obvious. You can look at it two ways. Either you could take the view that reading faster lets you get your reading done more efficiently and frees you up to do more of the things you want to do. Or you could take the view that reading faster enables you to absorb more knowledge and expertise than you are currently able to.
Interestingly, Alex tells me that a joint study by the US Department of Labor and Yahoo has identified a link between the number of business books people read and their relative earning power. The study concluded that people who read a minimum of 7 business books a year earn around 2.3 times more than those who just read one.
Whatever your motivation for wanting to read faster, it seems to me it's a bit of a no-brainer. So watch out as Alex reveals some of his speed reading tips over the coming weeks.
And if you can't wait, we are now running speed reading courses with Alex.
I noticed recently that quite a lot of people visiting our website had arrived after searching using the phrase advantages of report writing. This is interesting because inherent in this search phrase is Bette's question. When you spend many hours of your waking life thinking about how to make business writing and communications better, it is easy to lose sight of that basic Bette question, 'Why bother?'
So this post takes us back to basics to think about the advantages of report writing and answer the question, 'Why bother?' Why write a report rather than shove everything in an email?'
I'm going back several years, but I can think of an organisation we worked for who had gone the route of communicating almost entirely by email. Worse still, (because they could), employees copied each other in on almost everything. Everyone spent hours sifting through piles of unformatted, poorly written guff - just in case there was a nugget of information relevant to them. Email communication was totally out of control.
Our role was to re-introduce the skill of report writing. I like to think we did some good, but in honesty, our intervention felt hopeless - at that particular moment, it was clear we were swimming against the tide.
Not long after this, the company in question was taken over and their brand vanished for ever. I'm not suggesting their obsession with email was the cause of their demise, but I'm fairly clear it was a symptom of the organisation's wider dysfunction; and this wider dysfunction was definitely a factor in them getting swallowed up by a more successful competitor.
So my first point is this: bother with report writing because an email only culture almost always brings more problems than it solves - even though, at first, email only may seem an attractive solution.
So why else would you bother writing a report - what are some of the other advantages?
Structuring and sequencing content
If you read my recent comments on using post-it notes, you'll know I believe an audience focused structure and information hierarchy is fundamental to the success of a report or similar document. Up to a point, you can create this in email format, but because email was never really designed with this mind, you have to work twice as hard to achieve success. When most people struggle to adequately structure even short emails, I wouldn't hold out much hope for it happening with longer communications.
Formatting to reinforce the hierarchy
If you are serious about your structuring and sequencing, you will also be diligent about applying a simple but consistent set of formatting styles to help your audience identify and understand the different elements of this hierarchy and sequence. Not impossible to achieve using email; but much, much easier in a word processed format.
Individually, simple things like tables of contents, headers and footers, hyperlinks within documents and good old page numbering make small but important contributions to an audience being able to navigate around and make sense of what's going on. Collectively, they make a very powerful contribution to the understanding of content and an audience's sense of where they are in the bigger whole.
Distributing the end product
As the now-defunct company demonstrated, it's the easiest thing in the world to cc almost everyone into an email. When you are distributing a paper-based report or emailing it out as an attachment, you are far more likely to think about who should receive a copy.
The act of writing
There's no question that emails are perceived by both writers and recipients as a bit light weight - something that can be polished off in a few minutes. The very act of writing a report or a document immediately adds to the significance of the content. Writing a document or report means you are far more likely to:
- carry out an audience analysis
- give serious consideration to your content and how it should be organised
- see the document's creation as an important and time-consuming task (of course, this last point can be both good and bad)
Finally, viewed from the audience's perspective, would you sign off an important business case proposed only by email? Unlikely, I think.
So next time you are faced with the task of writing a report or document and you hear Bette Midler's question echoing in your head, remember the alternative: dysfunctional, email hell.