Ramp up your reputation with these five report-writing tips

This guest post is by Rob Ashton, chief executive of Emphasis – a business writing company that runs report-writing courses for consultants.

No matter how knowledgeable you are as a consultant, you’re only as good as your last report. Meetings come and go, but reports last. You may meet five or ten people while on an assignment, but your report could be read by hundreds. It’s the most tangible, lasting evidence of your expertise and the value you have provided. And it could still be finding an audience years after you’ve moved on to other projects.

This is both a blessing and a curse. Writing good client reports is a great way to build competitive advantage. They can establish and spread your reputation throughout a client company like nothing else. But you might as well pack up and go home if you get it wrong.
Many consultants are only too aware of what’s at stake, of course. That’s why they continually put off writing client reports and fail to type a single word until beads of blood have formed on their forehead. Others leap in with a stream of consciousness that fools them into thinking they’re giving their clients value, hitting them with a tome that would have made Tolstoy proud.

But there is another way – just remember to do these five things

  1. Make the report client-centred, rather than consultant-centred. When deadlines loom, it’s easy to fall into the ‘getting it done’ trap. But to do so is to focus on your needs, not the reader’s. Keep your client’s needs at the forefront of your mind as you write. What do they need to know? What do they want to know? (Not always the same thing.) How will they best understand it?
  2. Communicate your key message quickly. It’s common to start with background, outline your project and then – and only then – make your recommendation. But to do so risks hiding your most important points among the peripheral detail. In fact, many readers probably won’t make it to the end, or will head straight there anyway. Better to put your main message first, and then return to it later in more detail.
  3. Avoid unnecessary jargon and management-speak. Seek to impress with your ideas, not your language. Clients seldom appreciate long words, complicated sentences,
    management-speak and jargon that’s alien to them. Nor will they want to plough through lots of acronyms and abbreviations. All sectors have their own specialist language, and jargon does have its place. But you must be certain that your reader will understand it before you use it.
  4. Keep it human. Phrases like ‘It is recommended …’ or ‘It is estimated …’ do not sound more professional; they simply depersonalise your report and make it less accessible. Your client wants to know that their consultants are human beings, with opinions and expertise – so be bold and write: ‘We recommend …’ and ‘We estimate’. Besides, if your ideas are good ones, it makes sense to take credit for them.
  5. Make the conclusion work. As I’ve said, this may be the only part the real decision-makers read, so make sure it can stand alone and that it contains real information, including hard facts and figures. If your report includes recommendations, make sure that these are also in the executive summary, along with their implications, values and costs. Keep it short, concise and full of impact. You’re aiming for those last words to linger in the reader’s mind after they’ve stopped reading.

Print this list and stick it by your monitor. Read it whenever you’re avoiding writing. It will save your sanity – and your clients.