Writing a report

Over the years, I have found that, as much as people love using the Question & Answer Technique (QAT) for emails, letters and short documents, lots of writers initially baulk at the idea of using the QAT for a full-blown report. Typical objections I hear are:

-  My readers expect a report to follow a recognised form

-  It would be far too difficult to use the QAT for one of my reports

-  It could cause offence if I launch straight in with a negative message

But once people have seen how I apply the QAT to a full-blown report, they realise that my approach deals very satisfactorily with all three of these concerns and their objections subside, often very quickly. You can see exactly how I use the QAT to produce a report by reading the rest of this webpage. But, first, let me give you a quick summary of my answers to the three challenges:

-  Readers may expect a report to follow a recognised form, but it doesn’t mean that they love reports in that form. In over 30 years of producing reports using the QAT, I have encountered colleagues who expressed doubts – protests even – at what I was proposing to do. And one even stopped me (see below). But I have never encountered an objection from a recipient of a report I had written using the QAT.

-  I completely accept that applying the QAT to a report may be difficult, at first. It certainly was for me. But once I had got the hang of it, the difficulty faded away. I now find it easier to write a report with the QAT than without it. You can read more about that below.

(It’s rare, now, that I ever choose to write a report without using the QAT. And it’s been that way for decades. But, occasionally, I find myself writing a report which is designed to persuade an audience who will be resistant to my ideas. On those occasions, I go for a different structure.)

-  Causing offence is the exact opposite of what the QAT aims to do: the technique is all about managing your audience’s reactions. My reports never launch straight in without an appropriate greeting and some suitable scene-setting. (The same is true for my QAT emails.) When it’s applied properly, the QAT should get to the key message in the shortest time possible, consistent with the formalities of a report (see below).

“My readers expect a report to follow a recognised form”

I remember being very proud of my first attempt at applying the QAT to a full-blown report. Sadly, the senior colleague I reported to at the time wasn’t so impressed. He took a very conventional approach and insisted that we turn my efforts into a classically-written report. It was to be several years before he came round to the QAT. His version of the report was what we issued to the client and, sadly, that is the only version of the report that I kept. I would love to be able to look back, now, and see how close my first attempt at a QAT report got to the form of presentation I use today. And how much I missed by. Quite a lot, I suspect!  

The diagram below illustrates what I think of as a classically-structured report: the kind of report that my former senior colleague insisted on using instead of my draft – and just the kind of report I wanted to stop writing. The diagram shows a report starting with the facts, progressing to an analysis of those facts, before deciding what the recipients should do after reading the report. The report ends with a set of conclusions.

Classical report structure

Most reports written in this style start with an executive summary that follows the same sequence. The reader still has to work through a summary of the facts and a summary of the analysis before getting to a summary of the conclusions. That’s not too terrible if the summary takes up only a page (or less). But a really heavyweight report – 100 pages, say – could easily have five, or maybe ten, pages of summary. So there’s still a lot to get through before finding out what the report has concluded.

When I’m faced with a lengthy report, I want to know what conclusions it will reach. Naturally, I look at the summary first. But, if the summary has a long introduction, full of background information and factual material, as so many do, I will jump forward to the end of the summary and then scroll up a bit to see if I can find where the key results are. (I know I’m impatient, but I’m not the only person who is in a hurry to know where to find the key messages in a long report.) This game of hide-and-seek is what we have typically come to expect from a report, but it doesn’t make for easy reading. In my experience, no one ever objects to being told at the start of a report what the key findings are (so long as those findings are set in context).

Another unattractive feature of many executive summaries is that, all too frequently, the summary is insufficiently explained and difficult to follow. This happens because writers of a classically-structured report tend to write the summary after the rest of the report has been written … leaving out all the explanations.

Most people are astonished when I say that I write the summary first (you’ll see, shortly, how it’s done). They are astonished because most writers don’t even know what their report is going to say until they have finished writing it, so they wouldn’t know how to summarise it in advance, even if they wanted to try. That’s understandable. But if the result is that they write a summary which can’t be understood by the reader until after they have read the rest of the report, putting a summary at the beginning is pointless.

Many years ago, a colleague who had done just that asked me to review his draft report before it was sent to the client. The report was 50 pages long, with a four-page summary at the start. As I read those first four pages, I found them a complete struggle. I marked-up more than 40 passages which were going to need explaining or clarifying – ten comments per page! As I started on the body of the report – 46 more pages to go – I dreaded what I might find and how many more comments I would have to mark up.

But my fears were utterly unfounded. The main report was crystal clear. Instead of having another 400+ comments, I had a mere handful. And most of the queries I had already marked-up against the summary were now being answered in the main report. So, instead of returning the draft with 40 questions for him to answer, I sent it back with 40 suggested amendments which would enable the summary to be understood before reading the body of the report. (And, to avoid any outrage when the writer first saw my mark-ups, I attached a covering note saying that I had found the body of the report crystal clear, but I had quite a lot of suggestions for the summary.)

Not long after the incident I described above, the writer of that report asked me to show him how to write a QAT report. He had heard that the QAT completely got around the summarising problem. He wanted to know how to do that.

“It would be far too difficult to use the QAT for one of my reports”

Classical report structure

When I sit at my desk to write a report, it is usually the case that I have gathered some facts, done some thinking about those facts and decided on some results that follow on from my thinking. Before I discovered the QAT, my natural instinct was just the same as everyone else’s: I thought I should write the report in the same sequence, arriving at what I am now calling the “classically structured” report (right). But my experience with the QAT had made me realise that people want to receive information in a form that suits them, as the recipient, rather than in a sequence that was most natural for the writer or speaker. The same is true for a report – only more so because reports are usually so much longer than a simple conversation or email.

The lesson from the QAT is to lead with the key message. In the case of a report, that means the findings, conclusions, recommendations or whatever result the report is going to build up to. If the reader wants to learn more once they have seen the conclusions, they will want an explanation of how or why the writer reached those conclusions, containing the thinking and the facts that support the conclusions. Diagrammatically, that means flipping the presentation around, so that it looks something like this:

QAT report structure with questions

This is a little more complex than the various other examples I have walked you through already, because it has three QAT streams flowing instead of one.  For example, my simple story about Andy would have been represented like this:

Andy QAT with questions

… or like this, without the questions:

Andy QAT without questions

My three-pronged QAT structure is by no means the most complicated report you will ever see, but it’s a useful place to start. So let’s look at a short example based on the following (entirely fictional) information, starting with a classical presentation:  

    ASSESSMENT OF RONALD STARR

    Background
  1. Ronald Starr is a graduate of our management training scheme. Immediately after completing the training program, he was put in charge of the company’s Widgets Division (“Widgets”), based just outside Knaresborough. Ronald’s five year assignment was to make Widgets successful once more, following its poor performances under the previous manager.
  2. Position at the outset
  3. When Ronald took over management of Widgets, it had a customer base of 40 companies, mostly in Yorkshire and one or two neighbouring counties. The division’s turnover was £15m pa. The profit in the year before Ronald took over was a mere £55,000.
  4. Position now
  5. By the end of his five years in charge, the number of customers supplied by Widgets was 100. Of these customers, 75 are spread right across the UK and 25 are in European Union member states.
  6. In Ronald’s final year of management, Widgets’ turnover was £47.5m and its profit was £5.45m.
  7. Analysis
  8. Over the five years of Ronald’s management, Widgets has increased its customer base by 150%. Over the same period the turnover has more than trebled and the profitability has increased from less than 0.5% of turnover (ie barely breaking even) to 11.5% of turnover which is an acceptable level.
  9. Conclusions
  10. The three key indicators (customer numbers, turnover and profit) all show significant improvement over the five years.
  11. My assessment of Ronald’s performance during his period in charge is that he has done an excellent job and should now be considered for promotion to a more senior role in the company.

Diagrammatically, the report looks like this:

Starr report conventional

In order to re-write it as a QAT report, I need to flip the presentation around, so that it looks like this:

Starr report QAT

How did I arrive at that presentation? I started with the key message, which I placed in the top box:

Ronald has done well

That statement prompts a very obvious question about how the writer justifies their assessment, in other words:

 Why do you think that?

or

In what ways has he performed well?

Whichever way you choose to think of the question, the answer is:

  • Profitability has been restored
  • Turnover has more than trebled
  • The customer base has been expanded
Starr report QAT

Those three statements each fill one box at the second level of my diagram. Taken together, they summarise why the writer thinks Ronald has done well, but they lack detail. Readers of the report are likely to want more information about the current state of Widgets contrasted with the position in which Ronald found it. That leads on to the boxes, at the third level of the diagram: two boxes for each of the three summary points, making six boxes in all. In each pair, the left-hand box shows the current position and the right-hand box shows the position Ronald inherited five years ago.

If you compare my two diagrams carefully, you will see that, in the QAT presentation, I changed the order in which I discuss customer numbers, turnover and profits. In the conventional version, I followed the sequence: customer numbers, then turnover and, finally, profits. But, in the QAT version, I put profits first and customer numbers last. I wrote the QAT version that way round because I think profit is the most important of the three criteria. Increasing turnover and expanding the customer base are clearly crucial to how Ronald achieved the profit turnaround, but if he had increased either of those (or both) without restoring profitability, it would be a far less impressive achievement. Or worse, if he had dropped his prices in a search for customers and/or turnover, he might even have turned break-even into a loss.

There is, of course, no reason why writers of a conventional report couldn’t also put profits first in their report, but they tend not to. I have so often found that people reporting on a business frequently choose not to write about how profitable things are until after they have explained how the profits are achieved.

In a similar fashion, when reporting a performance comparison (as in this case), people quite often start with the initial position – in our case, the status before Ronald arrived – rather than saying how it is now. If the first piece of evidence in support of Ronald’s excellent performance is that he restored profitability, I’d prefer to tell my readers how profitable the business is now … and then say what the position was previously.

So let’s now turn my QAT diagram into a written report:

    ASSESSMENT OF RONALD STARR

  1. I have been asked by the CEO to assess Ronald Starr’s prospects.
  2. I recommend that Ronald be promoted to a more senior position. He has done an excellent job over the five years that he has been in charge of the Widgets Division (“Widgets”), making it successful once more. My opinion is based on three key indicators: profit, turnover and customer numbers, all of which have shown significant improvement over the five years Ronald has been in charge, since his graduation from the company’s management training scheme.
  3. Profits are now at an acceptable level compared with barely breaking-even at the start of the period. Profit is now £5.45m, equal to 11.5% of turnover. In the year before Ronald took over, profit was £55,000, equal to less than 0.5% of turnover.
  4. Turnover has more than trebled over the period to £47.5m from £15m.
  5. The customer base has increased by 150% and expanded from the local region to a pan-European base. Widgets now has 100 customers, up from 40. The geographical base has expanded throughout the UK (75 customers) and into Europe (25 customers), having been confined to Yorkshire and the neighbouring counties when Ronald started.

In this extremely short example, the summary (paragraph 2) articulates three points that are amplified in the three subsequent paragraphs. In a longer report – one that takes up several pages or more – each point from the summary would probably be given a section of its own so that the topic can be fully developed (see my slightly longer example below).  

But before the summary, there needed to be some sort of an introduction. In this example, a single sentence in paragraph 1 was all that was necessary. In any report I write, my goal is to complete the introduction within one or two paragraphs – half a page at the very most. Anything longer than that is a big disappointment to me.

Background information isn’t ignored: it is delayed until it is needed. In this report, the fact that the Widgets division is based in Yorkshire was delayed until the final paragraph because that was the first point at which the location of Widgets took on any importance at all in the context of this report.

Three rather more significant factual points were dealt with earlier: Ronald graduated from the management training scheme five years ago; running Widgets was Ronald’s first assignment after graduating from the scheme; and Widgets had been failing. I think all three facts are sufficiently crucial to a proper understanding of the conclusion that I mention them all, in passing, in the summary.

Clearly, in such a short report, it doesn’t make a bean of difference whether those pieces of information appear in the first paragraph or the second. But, in a full-blown report, there will often be significant amounts of background information – sometimes several pages worth of material. The more one gets into the habit of deferring any mention of background facts until they become relevant, rather than detailing them in an “information dump” at the start, the easier – and the more engaging – it will be for the reader.

This next example is a little longer – just about long enough to enable me to show how I would signal to the reader that each part of the summary will be expanded in a separate section, which I point them to. Once again, I have kept the introduction to an absolute minimum: one sentence.

    REVIEW OF ONLINE RETURNS

    1  Introduction and summary

    1.1    Profits have been declining as a direct result of online customers returning too many items. I have reviewed why that has been happening and, for the reasons set out in more detail below, I have identified four simple procedures which should reduce the number of online returns:

    • improve the accuracy of online product descriptions (see section 2);
    • introduce new quality assurance programmes so as to discourage suppliers from providing faulty goods (see section 3);
    • pay bonuses based on net sales, ie net of returns, instead of gross sales as at present (see section 4);
    • discontinue those products which have the highest number of returns (see section 5).
    2  Accuracy of product descriptions

    2.1   There is definite scope to improve the accuracy of online product descriptions, both in terms of reducing erroneous or confusing product descriptions and, specifically, the way size information is conveyed.

    2.2  In future, all product details should be thoroughly checked for accuracy and clarity before being posted online. Any errors that come to light later should be corrected as soon as possible. Inaccurate descriptions have (justifiably) been cited as the reason for many returns.

    2.3  Product sizes should be specified for any overseas territories where we make online sales. Misunderstandings over sizing systems have led to a significant number of clothing returns from customers based in the EU and USA.

    3  Quality of goods

    3.1   The company should introduce new quality assurance programmes, including a detailed inspection of goods when received from suppliers. For some product lines, specialist quality assurance consultants may be required to advise how to test the items. Too many faulty items have been despatched to customers and been returned (at the company’s expense).

    4  Bonuses

    4.1   If the company changes its bonus system to one which pays out based on sales net of returns, rather than based on gross sales as at present, teams will no longer be incentivised to sell goods which they know are likely to be returned.

    4.2  The revised reward structure will need to be phased-in over time in order to avoid any sudden discontinuity in bonus levels which might adversely affect morale and in order to allow an opportunity to identify the appropriate bonus scale under the new arrangements.

    5  Discontinue some product lines

    5.1   It may be necessary to discontinue some product lines if the rate of returns cannot be reduced to acceptable levels once all of the above processes are in place.

By now, it is perhaps becoming clear that the challenge of writing the summary before the rest of the report isn’t really a challenge at all! Instead of trying to summarise the whole of the report, including the background facts and my analysis of those facts, I simply summarise the conclusions. So long as I know what the conclusions are before I start to write the report, there isn’t a problem. My experience over decades of writing this form of summary indicates that it is a mistake to think that readers want the executive summary of a report to be a synopsis of all the content: a synopsis of the conclusions and a pointer to where they are expanded upon is just fine.

In the case of the report about Ronald Starr, my conclusion was that he had done an excellent job as evidenced by the significant improvement in profit, turnover and customer numbers. In the case of the online sales report, my conclusion was that the decline in profits could be reversed by taking the measures I set out in the four bullet points of paragraph 1.1.

Although both of those reports are fictional and somewhat artificial in order to allow me to keep them extremely short, I can quite safely say that I have never had any recipient of one of my reports complain that, by encapsulating  just the conclusions, one of my summaries was too short or contained too little by way of the facts.

Many of my reports have addressed quite complex topics. Some of the most challenging to write – but possibly the most significant in their effect – were written to assist the defendant in one of the longest and most complex trials which had ever taken place in the Commercial Court. I was inundated with facts and had to put in a mountain of research and analysis. In situations like that, I find the QAT so much easier to follow than the conventional approach. Instead of trying to figure out a mechanism for explaining all the complex material, I let the QAT guide me through what my readers will want … and the order in which they will want it.

I am sometimes asked whether a QAT report should include the diagram used to help write it. My answer is a very firm “No”. A colleague of mine tried it once and it didn’t go well.

The incident dates back to my second attempt at using the QAT. My first attempt was the one I mentioned earlier that hadn’t lived to tell the tale. This time, I was working with enlightened colleagues who were happy to embrace the idea. The diagram I mapped out for the report probably looked something like this next diagram. (We were working on a very technical accounting project, so there’s no need for you to read what’s in the individual boxes, unless you’re into that sort of thing.1The actual report is confidential, even after all these years. The diagram here is from a training exercise not long after.)

Low Ball report QAT

One member of the team I was managing was so excited by this new way of thinking about a report that he decided to show it to the client before we had even written the first word. He thought they would be impressed with the way we were thinking about the project. I have never forgotten the conversation that ensued. It started with a prolonged silence, which I thought was because they were reading the diagram carefully. I was wrong. After the long pause, the senior client representative asked: “Should I start at the bottom and read up? Or start at the top and read down?”

My colleague who had brought the diagram to the meeting was quick to explain that the diagram should be read “top-down.”

“Oh”, said another member of the client’s team. “I have been reading it from left to right.”

This was when I learned a valuable lesson that people have to be taught how to interpret visual representations just as much as we all have to be taught how to read words and numbers. A new picture format requires new learning. I have never since shown one of these diagrams to the intended recipient of a report. I use them only with colleagues who are writing with me … and for demonstration purposes on my training courses.

In the Appendix at the bottom of this page, I talk through the writing process for a full-blown professional report.

“It could cause offence if I launch straight in with a negative message”

It’s been a long time since I first heard the objection: “It could cause offence if I launch straight in with the key message.” At the time, it took me by surprise. Causing offence is the exact opposite of what the QAT aims to do: the technique is all about managing your audience’s reactions. My reports never launch straight in without an appropriate greeting and some suitable scene-setting. (The same is true for my QAT emails.)

But some reports deliver bad news and the writers are naturally concerned about how to present the information. I remember running a course at a government department where one of the attendees objected that he couldn’t begin a report with the words:

Dear Sir, Your bank is in dire financial straits 2My client didn’t actually use a bank in his example. In the interests of confidentiality, I have disguised what type of organisation his department reports on.

I reassured him that I wasn’t asking him to do that. But, to work out what he should do, I first asked how he had been in the habit of presenting bad news. The answer was that he would take the reader through a lot of background information, followed by his analysis, before ending up – many pages later – with the conclusion: “There will need to be a significant injection of capital into the bank.”

I asked him why couldn’t he write:

 Dear Sir, As you know, my department has been carrying out a review of the bank as prescribed by [the relevant law].  Our review indicates that there will need to be a significant injection of capital into the bank in order to satisfy the regulations. Our reasons are …

When a report brings bad news, it usually needs to be written carefully. I completely get that. There is nothing in the QAT which undermines the need to be tactful. It’s important to find the right words to encapsulate the key message.

The government official would never dream of writing “dire financial straits” and I didn’t want him to. But he was quite happy with “significant injection of capital.” The only difference between us was whether taking several pages to detail the background, describe the analysis and develop the conclusion was, somehow, more courteous and respectful than disclosing the need for capital on page one. By the end of the course, the government official was happy with the page-one approach.

Appendix: Turning a complex diagram into a report

If the QAT diagram is a complicated one, the task of turning it into a report may seem daunting, especially on the first occasion. But, actually, it’s not that difficult. This appendix sets out my recipe for getting it done. Remember: the goal is always to follow the sequence that is most natural for the reader.

Let’s take this diagram as the one we are working from. I’ve left the contents blank because I want to keep this as generic as possible. But, at this stage, the box at the top level always reflects what will go into the summary. The boxes beneath the top level reflect the answers to the various questions that follow on directly from that summary.

Generic QAT structure

Once you have developed the diagram to your complete satisfaction, you are ready to start writing.

First, you need to give some thought to what will go into the introduction. The aim is to keep it as short as possible, with background material delayed until you get to a point later in the report when it becomes relevant to what you are writing about.

Some people find it really difficult to do that: they want to include a lot of background at the start. If you are finding that urge difficult to resist, then don’t waste time fighting it – at least, not on your first attempt. You’re not going to arrive at a perfect draft at the first time of asking. Of all the things that need to be done well in a report, having the best possible introduction is never the most important. If you have time to revisit the introduction when you have finished the rest of the report, you can edit it down at that stage if you think it needs it.

When you have your introduction, the summary is the next step. Together, the introduction and summary, form the opening to my report (see, for example, the online returns report higher up this page).

In the example represented by the diagram we are using, the conclusion has three threads to it, which I am going to refer to as A, B and C to assist with the explanation that follows (eg Starr has done well:  (A) profitability restored; (B) turnover trebled; (C) customer base expanded).

Introduction and Summary in the QAT structure

In the written report, each of those three items A, B and C are going to be given a section of their own. I generally like to number each of the sections, with the introduction and summary being numbered as Section 1. So A, B and C will occupy sections 2, 3 and 4:

Section 1 in the QAT structure

So far, so good. Now let’s turn to Section 2. It’s going to address the issue that we have labelled as “A”:

Section 2 in the QAT structure

I generally start each section (apart from the first) with a reminder of what I said in the summary about that topic. For example, in the online sales report, the first bullet point of the summary recommended that the company should:

  • improve the accuracy of online product descriptions

My natural instinct would, therefore, be to start section 2 with a suitable reminder of that:

2.1   There is scope to improve the accuracy of online product descriptions.

In this way, the relevant part of the summary becomes the introduction to the section which deals with that topic.  

Section 2 will deal with everything falling within the topic we have been calling “A” – in other words, all of the blue area. As you can see from the arrows in the three diagrams below, I follow each question-and-answer thread all the way down to the bottom, before going back up to address the next question.

Direction through Section 2 in the QAT structure
Direction through Section 3 in the QAT structure
Direction through Section 4 in the QAT structure

When all this has been done, the report is finished. Or, at least, the first draft is finished. I always leave time to re-read my draft, look for improvements and try to find all the typos. When that has been done, the report is (nearly) ready to send out. If it’s a formal report – for example to a board of directors or to a client outside your own organisation – you may want to make it look smart by giving it a cover (in print or as part of a pdf you send out by email) and perhaps a contents page, if the report is long enough to justify one.

There is one final touch that I include for the most formal reports. I call it “the Covering Letter”. This is where I set out the instructions I was given, including the terms of reference and anything else I need to include for legal purposes if the report is going outside my organisation (eg to a client).

When clients engage me to do a piece of work, there is usually a letter of instruction (ie part of the contract between the client and me) which sets out exactly what the terms of reference were for the project. The covering letter is an ideal place to record those terms of reference – and anything else which might have determined the nature of the work – so that anyone reading the report knows exactly what the instructions were.

If the instructions are simple and succinct, I might include them in the report’s introduction and dispense with the covering letter. But, all too often, the terms of reference are so lengthy or longwinded that they would get in the way of a neatly-written introduction. That’s why my reports almost always include a covering letter at the front . The covering letter is also where I can include my signature if I’m signing the report (by hand or electronically).

Report cover and coverling letter in the QAT structure

The covering letter should be placed inside the report cover, before the contents page and most definitely before the introduction and summary. Once the reader gets to the introduction, their mental stopwatch will be turned on: this is the point when they expect the report to start giving them information that is useful. If there’s a covering letter containing administrative details about the project or the report, I want to get it out of the way before any of my readers become impatient to know what the conclusions will be.

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