Friday, 21 December 2012

A piece about a piece

Giles Emerson on Wwword 201212

Having spent many years interviewing other people I found myself at the ‘receiving end’, just the other day. Someone actually wanted to interview me about my work as a – wait for it – “writer of anything!”

The night before this extraordinary experience, arriving home at a little before the dear little sparrows awoke, I’d returned from Scotland, via a nine-hour-in-one-go drive from the Western Highlands. And that morning I’d waved my talented photographer-brother, Charles Emerson, away so that he could rejoin his family in Bristol. The Scottish, short weekend, had involved two days of driving and one-day of hard work and a lot of jabber from me – but then I don’t get out much.

I was absolutely blathered with tiredness and somewhat annoyed to boot because my Broadband had failed big-time, courtesy of that corporation of Britishness that underpins much of the UK’s telecoms.

So I snuck to a neighbour’s house with my laptop and gratefully set up in their kitchen for said interview.

Once the extremely attractive woman in New York, Lucy Sisman, and I were up and communicating (grainily but in lickerty spit audio), I suddenly found myself the gamekeeper turned poacher.

I was being full-on interrogated by a very sharp mind. I felt myself dither and pother away in the way people who should really be in bed or sucking out the contents of a bottle of wine, sometimes do just smoffle along. Yap, yap, yap.

Here I was talking about my work as a professional communicator for government and business and a self-styled ‘hired pen’ (what unutterable plonkerishness – you can see the likeness between me and Clint Eastwood on; and all I could muster were near-fatal banalities. But the blessed Lucy is sharp enough to catch the thread of a story. And she makes it all sound quite interesting. Honestly.

This said, I wished I could have said something like…er…The great thing about writing is that it is very difficult indeed. The marvellous thing about words is that one placed in an appropriate sentence can change the world, suddenly, in the eye of a beholding reader….Or…

You see I really didn’t want to be the subject; I wanted the subject to be words. But then, with joyful hindsight, what I have learned is that here is a website that does nothing but celebrate words. And it’s very moreish. Visit and learn about a planet of possibilities.

Monday, 17 December 2012

How to cope with major communications problems

Giles Emerson 121212

I’m offline at the moment and have been in that strangely isolating state for about 24 hours. I’m writing to you from this island of non-connection to the outside world and wondering whether I am being liberated from the usual mesh and mash of online technology, or just screwed by the system.

The truth is very much the latter. I’m being screwed, despite or perhaps because of a little over five hours on the phone, blessedly still connected, with fully pregnant waits between calls, to the mighty and over-systematised British Telecom. Hail thee provider of all my daily services, bringer of bread to the mouth of my babes; hail thee great one, to whom I am grateful for the continuance of the lifeblood of my business and thereunto for the untold small and large joys of my life deriving from the drops of credit and creditability that flow through the thy powerful portals of communication. Yea! Etc.

Here am I, very little I, unable to conduct normal business because so much of it depends on sending messages and finished pieces of work down the line to my beloved clients. Yet here, oddly am I also, an emerging moth perhaps discovering freedom and the light wing of aloneness (coyly discounting the fact that I can, of course, use my mobile to check emails if worst comes to worst).

On the one hand, you see, I have to count to ten every time I try to make another call, ineluctably dodging and weaving through the various menus offered by BT’s electronic gatekeepers of Business Customer Support; inevitably listening to the repeated recorded message telling me how valuable my call is to BT and that lines are very busy; quizzically listening to the message bobbing and re-bobbing in the silent flow that says “if you have a problem with broadband, why not try our online service at” – that little slash word so suggestive of the nearby bathroom cupboard; inscrutably awaiting that surprising moment, often after more than 20 minutes on hold (provided I’ve not simply been cut dead after the same amount of time and have had to start the whole process again) when someone real answers.

Then I stutter into an explanation of why I, little I, long way off I, one of millions I, many ‘I’s doing the same thing, am trying to talk to you, real human you in your chair, with your earphones cuddling your furrowed and concerned brow. How easy then, with all the initial frustration tampered down, just to say, “I wanted to wish you merry Christmas” rather than to start again on the whole long, immensely boring telephonic saga of what has gone wrong, and to recount, again, the numbers and even first names of the previous customer support operatives I have spoken to and what I said and what they promised to do about it; and how many times just this morning, over a three-hour period I have been told that a manager will get back to me. But he hasn’t, once.

And on the other hand, how tempting it is to leave it all behind and walk off into the dark but even-saddled night of isolation, two obliquely-parted fingers lifting to the breeze. No regrets, just a slow walk to Christmas, all obligations shorn from the otherwise heavy burden of guilt and anxiety that surrounds this season, courtesy of rush and bustle coupled with the pre-empted hope of diving toward sweet evening tide with its cosiness of friends and laughter. Ah yes, isn’t this more tempting than the need to send this piece of work, this article, this report, this letter, this urgent list of names, this addendum to the accounts, this response to you and them and to the world, all slipping over themselves as priorities change and the door to connectivity remains barred. Tempting…

But to stay out of the battle, not to play the cross-man, be the cross-man on the phone demanding rights and repairs, is only possible for a flicker of time and space; perhaps for just long enough to splurge this homage to you, world, my old friend and the things that belong to you, and all the good things that we are and could be were it not for the puddle-strewn, systemically auto-jammed, fat-glistened oesophagus of communications that we little men do peep myopically along in search of the pill we feel we have swallowed already, far too many times. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Language is confusing
By Giles Emerson 24/11/12

About 20 years ago a revered client in a government scientific laboratory up in East Kilbride told me about two scientists keenly discussing a project. Talking in the language of their discipline they inevitably used shorthand in the form of acronyms and mutually understood jargon to make themselves clear, one to the other.

We have all slipped into acronyms and tribal or cultural jargon in our language: from ‘radar’ to ‘posh’, from ‘OMG’ and ‘ROFL’,  from ‘value creating propositions’ (sic) to ‘delivering deliverables’. As technology struggles in vain to slow down to meet the current ‘temporal mass’ of the human psyche’s ability to cope with flying words (the point where it has some commercial or other application, however temporary), far too often these terms are confusing, even between scientists having a banter.

According to my client, “one of the scientists referred to MAP, meaning Manufacturing Automated Protocol but the other took this to mean MAP, or Microprocessor Applications Program.” I was then told that the mistake was an easy enough one to make at the time but the confusion compounded when, in the course of the conversation each scientist all but simultaneously realised his own mistake and, out of courtesy, adopted the other’s MAP reference.

When I heard this story, particularly given the nice idea of the loss of map references in communication, I was triggered to write an article called ‘Trapped in the Word Jungle’, which was published in The Times. I subsequently wrote several articles on the subject for The Times and The Independent. Most of them were tongue in cheek, but some of them were quite angry.

In the mid-90s one section of an article I wrote for The Independent’s ‘Glossary’ section (when holiday-sitting for journalist/broadcaster Thomas Sutcliffe) went thus: ”How did we get to the state in which we no longer flinch at expressions such as ‘natural wastage’? There must be a kinder and more grateful way of referring to people who are retiring early or leaving a job for other reasons. Natural wastage is probably as welcome a term to the naturally wasted, as ‘ethnic cleansing’ is to the ethnically cleansed. Let us murder, kill, rid ourselves of, but let us not ethnically cleanse.” That was written in about 1996. Ouch!

Looking at what’s happening today, you will forgive me for not trying to evaluate the numbers of confusions that abound in all parts of our life – inevitably, therefore in business and government attempts at good communication. There’s just too much mess of words and poverty of expression around and it is richly compounded by laziness and a dependence on emails; all of which is mounted from the rear by the weakest of all e-animals, otherwise known as ‘social media’, a source of confusion that is already muddling itself up with a plethora of activities loosely embraced in ‘digital communications’.

Thankfully, the monuments of our age that I feel sure descendent historians will keenly examine as representatives of our strange period of history, will be the things that actually remain: some buildings in the mud, some books in casks.  It’s an interesting subject to chew on or to dally about in a hangover debate.

I wonder whether anything of a digital kind will remain, however cleverly we store it for future reference. ‘Ether’ and online communications, and the servers that support their distribution and storage, are as ephemeral as a sneeze in terms of the passing of time. And they have a way of getting up our nose only to block it until the next sneeze occurs.

To return to the slippery present, I am of an age myself where I am angry enough to write about things in a way which might, hideously, be called ‘passionate’. Yet I’m young enough to be truly hungry for the next paid work and have a longish way to go before I can retire sufficient to enjoy a few things that are genuinely left to enjoy in the retirement sense. What’s age got to do with this, you might ask?

Well, when I think of my continued gibbering at the stupidity of things, I wonder at how so many old people manage as well as they do. Perhaps they live on adrenalin fired by anger. If not, how do they sustain themselves, intellectually and otherwise on the poor fare that is served up to them in the form of modern (or relevant and accessible modern) communications?

Just as I revere my long-since otherwise employed former client, I hope that old people can just about get by revering their memories, giving and unwritten two fingers to the world at large. Fortunately for us all, we do have some contact with old people who still have the energy and optimism to be angry out loud. These prize exhibits will usually find the chance to tell us things about the past that have shaped and liberated all of us: free as we are to wander into our own wimpish and unnecessary fires.

But how many of us less-wrinklies truly listen, or have time to listen, or to ‘do’ the imagination that goes with good listening when the email in-tray is, once again, “tipping its bucket into the maelstrom”.

Having said all of which, thank God for weblogs!

Copyright: Giles Emerson 20th November 2012/also The Times (dtbd)

Thursday, 1 November 2012

How scary is change?

Hands up those of you who are a little bit scared of technological ‘progress’? Ah, I see a few shy hands in the air. I don’t really wonder why this is because, personally, I’d put myself in the petrified rather than scared category. Those of us older than 40 have seen the most phenomenal advances in what has become doable since the advent of the web, email and broadband, and we are only just catching up with the many profound ways new hardware and software affect the way we work, alter our skills and throw new light on what we do for a living.

No matter how slow or recessionary the economies of the western and emerging world might become – and we may see much worse yet – we will not see a commensurate slowing down in the rate of delivery of new technologies from the usual giants, and from some new ones. Nor will we see a diminution in the take-up of these tools for work and play. I choose my words carefully here because I am doubtful about how much a Tablet or iPad, or more traditional laptop bought for work purposes is devoted solely to that purpose. It seems that just about every interaction we have from the age of about 11 or younger until we shuffle off our virtual coils involves us examining a screen, flicking adeptly on an app, or otherwise surfing the ether.

Perhaps what startled me into this line of thought was the consideration that so many people are now shopping online that the independent high street shop is likely, quite seriously, to become either a thing of the past or a shop front only – somewhere where passers-by can see goods on display but will not be able to buy them until they get out their gadgetry or are sitting in front of their home screens. We are seeing the move towards e-books and the ructions this is causing among major publishers. How soon will it be before our proclivity for surfing the web, using increasingly sophisticated technology, truly alters the nature and landscape of our towns and cities.

What is noticeably lacking in all these things is personal interaction. Just as people used to prefer the convenience of the telephone rather than a face-to-face meeting, today they prefer to text or email rather than do either of the latter. Human interaction recedes, even within the domain of an open plan office but also in ways which might have longer term social effects. I live in a beautiful rural area and there are plenty of children hereabouts but they seldom romp and play in the woods. More often they are attached to a smartphone or a games console and, too often I think, they live in their own virtual worlds.

We are so profoundly affected by the revolution in communication that we are probably unaware of how much it has become the thing we do rather than a means to an end in pure communication terms. People can and do spend entire days emailing each other, sometimes unwittingly doubling and trebling their workloads as they pour what amounts to too much information, much of which is unread (and much unreadable), into each other’s online in trays.

But it is very difficult to take stock of the way we work and of our relationship with technology when we are passengers on an increasingly fast-moving train. I am ambivalent about this. I personally love technology when I’m on top of it and using it effectively to support work and social activities. At the same time I feel that it gnaws insidiously into the fabric of things; that we are in some ways a slave to it; that it is divorcing us from our real natures and from natural things; that it creates barriers between ourselves and others, making us reclusive; that it supports progress in what appears to be a visionless and, to some extent, value-debased society; that perhaps it is a toy we distract ourselves with as we hurtle towards the fallen bridge.  

As a result of the enormity of change that has occurred, primarily because of the use of email, broadband, internet and related devices, we are probably still in the aftermath of the first stages of a revolution and have no cognisance of the size of the wave that takes us along. Inevitably, we are still slavishly exploring novelty rather than making use of tools. And in technological terms we are spoilt for choice, tearing open our presents and discarding the toys before they are fully out of their packages.

Much of our relationship with technology is possibly down to the fact that we don’t really have full understanding or control of it – or at least few of us do. Yet we seldom admit even to ourselves that we are basically confused about the real effectiveness and the direction of travel of this technology, while we all want to appear technophiles and show our commitment to the glorious revolution and the brave new world. But are we wearing the emperor’s clothes? Is there a way of standing back, regaining control and setting a purposeful course?

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Do you need a copywriter?

Too often it appears that the answer to this is “no thanks, we can do it ourselves”. And too often the result is poor presentation, mixed messages, inconsistency of tone and voice and a confused reader. Poor writing will bury your message and put potential customers off, while good business writing will sell, persuade and inform. When we are looking after our existing customers or seeking new ones, selling, persuading and informing are fundamental objectives.

I’m writing this out of a sense of frustration. Every single day I come across websites that, with a relatively small outlay to a top professional copywriter, could be rewritten so that the ducks are all in order. This would mean that the clichés are summarily dismissed, the spelling and grammar is correct, the words flow logically and the copy compels you to act. Not only this, but you get an impression of the company itself – a character, a feature, a sense of vision even without even having to spell this out.

 Lamentably few websites come near this mark and, to me, this is a wasted opportunity. I’ve seen websites that show pictures of products with almost no explanation of why they are special, what they really do, why you should buy them here from this company rather than anywhere else. Virtually all the basics of communication are missing. I’ve seen countless others where the messages – particularly the ones sitting right up at the top of the pile on or near the home page – look as if they’ve been pulled from a vast, coagulated common fund of business prose.

If, by chance, you really want your website to describe what you do, represent your values and sell your products and services, my advice is to find a professional copywriter. You might otherwise waste a lot of time and money.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Seven golden rules of writing

There are seven ‘golden’ rules that will help you to write more simply and clearly:

Rule 1:             Use familiar words - favour Anglo Saxon rather than other derivatives, such as French. e.g., ‘send’ rather than ‘transmit’, ‘carry out’ rather than ‘implement’ (or at least as an alternative to ‘implement’, which is one of those words that crop up in reports and business writing time and time again).

Rule 2:             Avoid words of three or more syllables as far as possible unless they are in common usage. They tire the reader.

Rule 3:             Avoid clichés - they are often too loose as expressions and can be misunderstood.

Rule 4:             Avoid professional jargon - your reader may not be an expert in your field. If you need to use a professional word which is standard for you but may be obscure for others, explain it.

Rule 5:             Keep your average sentence length to between 15 and 20 words. This does not mean that every sentence must be 15 to 20 words long – that would be boring. People need variety and short sentences can provide real impact when required. If the average is substantially higher than 20 words, the readability of the document drops alarmingly.

Rule 6:             Sentences should contain one thought or idea. Paragraphs should contain sentences about related thoughts or ideas. Start a new paragraph with a new idea or concept, or one that leads on from the last idea. Sometimes long paragraphs are inevitable because of the density of closely related ideas. But try to keep paragraphs short, with an average of four or five sentences.

Rule 7:             Be consistent. There are many different house styles – look at spelling styles: organise or organize, focus or focuss, benefiting or benefitting; be careful when presenting numbers: three and 13, or 3 and 13?; make sure you use headings and sub-headings consistently. Inconsistency throws the reader and can make a text hard to understand.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

A short bitch about websites…but not yours, of course

A great deal has seriously not changed where writing is concerned. 

Believe me, in the current fast-passing age of Cloud, Tweet, Flirt, Spurt, Jot, Slot and I’ve Already Got techno-comms joy – as we tear open the next present and throw away the paper, for that three-second endorphin hit – little changes about the way we express ourselves. It’s mostly blunt and clumsy and that’s the way it’s been for about 30 years in my (time for a short slurp) vey vey humble sperience.

You try to tell someone something compelling and interesting about a service or a product, so you draw in your breath and you huff and you puff and you put on your account manager’s hat and you write some rather boring, samey prose about your excellent wotsits.

But don’t take this personally. It’s been a hard day. Among other things I was asked to rewrite some of an otherwise okay website for a client in the silliest short time possible and when I saw what I had to deal with I reached for the wooden spoon. This implement is useful for a little auto-smacking to keep me from crashing into the screen as I wonder what to do with the dusty pot-pourri of words picked from the usual bag.

Truth is, I’d prefer to chew packetfuls of dry biscuits than read a typical website and like most of us I only read what’s really necessary to read, although the best stuff is usually missing. Tell me how and why it works, for example; why I should have it; the difference it would make to me as a customer, as a business, as a potential subscriber. Don’t tell me everything is top quality or how good you are at delivering or how friendly you are; sell the idea to me; persuade me…tell me a story even that lulls me awake.

A lot of people writing websites think they are doing these things and sometimes they push a little daring tongue into a cheek but it is usually an unnoticeable and half-hearted attempt, except to the keen eye. Be rude and daring – you’ve never had so much freedom to be ballsy – and none of this sentence refers to lewdness, only to inventiveness, gutsiness, belief in what you are saying.

Then there’s unnecessarily poor writing, misspelling, lack of punctuation, duplication of words and phrases, all kinds of nasty things crawling about the page. Sometimes the writer decides to put something in upper case, then it’s in lower; then it disappears altogether and turns up as another thing altogether with a new pair of trousers.

And no one seems to understand anyone else’s point of reference. This is perhaps because we are in such a cross-cultural melée, a trans-global technospeke sort of world, where the weight and emphasis of a thing cannot be easily judged because it is only representative of something in a shadowy way. Even reference to the ever-commoner tweet is a thin-sounding idea lacking weight. It is a fleeting, bleating and momentary thing and another bloody tiresome doobrey to check up on if you’ve the faintest wish to do so.

I ask myself, do I want to be part of a world where – so I’m told – a single well-piped tweet can attract thousands of followers? There is something almost bacterial in this kind of swarming and it’s all so ephemeral but without any of the prettiness attached to that word. And all of the cousins and imitators of the tweet hovering round the social media bouncy castle are even more flittery in their gatherings, but not so visible in the waning light.

I’ve scarcely started and I’m already turning pink. One criticism I haven’t mentioned – of a great many when it comes to writing this sort of tired blather (and I mean mine not ‘theirs’) – is mixing metaphors. Metaphors are frequently mixed but only when one notices they are metaphors; mostly they are clichés and bits of homely wisdom that are so flaccid with use that they scarcely blink from the pillow. As to actually mixing this stuff, look at the verbal cupboards I’ve been throwing open with abandon in the kitchen and science laboratory and rubbish pit of words – just in this short diatribe. Mixing? Hardly! I’ve been chucking the stuff out like spaghetti when you open the bag by the wrong end.

But really, in writing – especially when some one is doing it with a bit of gusto and faith – I’d rather see a load of jumbled metaphors than the same lousy contenders smeared onto the sentence.

There, I feel better now. I’ll get back to the job in hand.

Actually, on review, that first sentence is not so bad after all…hmmmm…now there’s quite a useful turn of phrase…Is it the dimness of wine that I’m feeling or do I truly believe these people’s deliverables may be delivered; that their people are their greatest asset; that they will tailor their service to suit their clients requirements? …SMACK! 

Monday, 12 March 2012

Report-writing: how to do it successfully

Part 1: The road map

What is a report?

No help from the dictionary here (Oxford English at least) – for the simple reason, I suppose, that the notion of a written report for business, government, professional and voluntary sector organisations involves too vast a range of subject material to embrace adequately in a single definition.

So, for the purposes of this piece, what I mean by report is a written communication which lays out and explains an assessment, strategy, financial review or summary, feasibility study, government or corporation ‘white paper’, proposal of any kind, results of an inquiry, judgment (in the legal sense, hence the spelling without an ‘e’), research results – and pretty well any other sort of business.  

Having written all of these kinds of reports, and quite a few others, for multifarious clients, I know as you do that there is a big difference between most of them. I also know that – thankfully – there are templates of a sort for putting together, say, an annual report giving the financial and corporate results of a company, as against a written report supporting board decision-making about the advantages of buying one chain of restaurants over another.

So are there principles that all reports share?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that all reports require a lot of clear thinking about content and structure; the first to ensure clarity, the second to ensure ease of reference.

No, in that the content, structure, style of writing and purpose can differ so wildly between types of report that they may as well be different animals, or hail from different planets.

I would like to look at the ‘yes’ side of the above answer and offer some observations on how we should think about content and structure.

So how do I assemble ideas about content?

The answer is to marshal your thoughts. And the way you do this is to start with a question. The question is “What do I want to achieve?” The more complex the nature of the thing you are writing, the more levels there will be to the answer.

So, take a piece of paper and write down all the answers you can think of – and if you are working with colleagues, so much the better, they will definitely help by adding more answers.

Sometimes the answer is simple – or there is one dominant answer, for example:
  • To provide information to enable decision-making
  • To show company results
  • To influence the board to go ahead with this project
  • To sell more products or services to this or that target audience
  • To explain implications of this or that strategy to the main board
  • To show how to clear a path through these obstacles
  • To explain how we can make more profit while reducing costs, increasing customer numbers and maintaining levels of employment for the next year.

You notice that the last one just started to get a little more than simple because there were a number of layers to it. Never mind, what is important here is that your report effectively hangs upon one or more propositions about what you want to achieve. It’s your report and you are clear about the desired outcome – so this is the peg upon which you hang your content.

Sometimes the answer is more complicated. Part of the reason for this is that you don’t really know what the priorities are. You have been asked to do something which is causing you a headache and even with the help of colleagues you are a little unsettled about what the real objective of your report is. In this case:

  • If you are in a position to get further clarification from someone who seriously does know, or appears to know the answer, do so now. Choose three or four of the main reasons why you think the report is being asked of you and then ask the question: “Can you identify the biggest priority – or have I not covered the field?”

  • If you are not in this position but you have to ‘wing it’ – a position occupied by many otherwise over-busy people in all kinds of organisation – set out to write the shortest possible report covering the most obvious reasons for writing it.

For the time being, at least, stick to your guns and put your objective or objectives for writing the report clearly at the top of the piece of A4 paper. Do not – please do not – at this stage think you have enough to get you started directly on the computer.

This is just a mapping exercise. You might not look at this bit of paper more than once when you do actually put your report together, but believe me this bit of scribbling will set the right direction of travel and save you some frustrating hours tangling yourself in niceties you don’t need to think about.

Of vital importance, realise that the thing that you’ve just written down about what you want to achieve by writing this report is seldom the same as the bit in so many reports that calls itself ‘Objectives of this report’. I’ll unfold this a little. The thing you want to achieve may be “to influence the board to go ahead with this project” but your ‘Objectives of this report’ will certainly not explicitly state your desire to influence the board to do anything.

The report’s ‘objectives’ are, let’s say, to lay out and to explain aspects of the projects costs, feasibility, implications on company strategy, perceived obstacles and ways of overcoming them…and other stuff, so that the board can make a decision. If you write an intelligently constructed report, the Board will not only make the decision you want but will congratulate itself for doing so – and probably ignore you for stating the obvious so clearly. Never mind that. You never wrote ‘I want to impress the board and be recognised for doing this so brilliantly’ as your foremost objective. On the other hand, one person or two on the main board might just notice the clarity of the report and how the right pieces seemed to have assembled themselves with distinction. This may do you some good.

What comes next? Yes, of course, the content itself.

We are still on the mapping exercise so scribble down some of the subject areas you wish to cover – all of which support your objective as written down at the top of the paper. Don’t go into details about each section yet – see if you can do this with just a few headings and some doodles. If you are doing this in a group, you’ll quickly fill the page and make clear what the key areas are. 

Now you can assemble your priorities. What comes first? What’s most important? You’ll realise that some sections of content are actually subsets of others so you can group those accordingly. You’ll also notice – depending on the nature of the report – that you have more detail than you require, for example supporting data and metrics, or other reports or letters that have informed your thinking or that you wish the audience to take into account. These will probably be best placed in the appendices – more on that later.

As you assemble outline content you may find that the list of content – once tidied up a little – is almost looking like a structure for the report. But be careful here. You do not necessarily want to put your most important content first because it might require supporting arguments which can only be set out by including some of the other content beforehand. Imagine you are telling a story, a narrative, in a way that not only holds the audience but which enables them to judge where you are going. But you are not aiming to thrill your audience, diving and weaving between plot and character to make them second guess you. You want them close all the time – your job is clear explanation. So look for a logical sequence. This is normally a three-stage process depending on each area of content: scene-setting; current position including options, pitfalls and opportunities; and solutions or indications of the most appropriate way forward.

As a pointer about content – if you are using the report to persuade or influence be very careful about assumptions. If you make them and don’t qualify them, they’ll be spotted quickly and this often discounts the base of genuine evidence you are building up in the report to support your argument or to provide an explanation of a circumstance or situation. If you are looking at something a little nebulous like market trends and forecasts, do state clearly that these are assumptions and be very careful, if at all possible, to qualify and explain where and how you obtained these types of information – and choose credible sources. Do not base your argument half on assumptions and half on reasonably ascertainable fact – you want as much of the latter as possible and as little of the former.

A good rule is that assumptions and forecasts are generally wrong. But don’t follow that rule too closely otherwise you’ll decide that nothing is ever worth doing because, who knows, we may all be dead from a cataclysmic event tomorrow or next month. If we are making and selling energy efficient cars, we have to assume that there are people out there who want to drive them and will continue to do so. But if we are basing our reformed business model on the assumption that China will have at least 8 per cent growth per year for the next fifteen years, or that we will live in an entirely bookless world within a decade, we are unlikely to achieve our aim of influencing the board’s decision.

So focus your content on the doable and the knowable and leave aside the distractions from these arguments. On the other hand if your report is entirely about possible future trends affecting local, regional and global markets, you can have a field day…but put your best-shot assumptions in a line of priority.

As an ancillary point of the same kind, do not write what you perceive your intended audience already believe or what you think they want to hear. That will be your perception and you may not have the wisdom or experience of your audience, or you may not be as stupid as them. Trying to gauge people’s emotional response to your ideas is not a good way of creating, prioritising or embellishing the content of a report. Write what you know.

What about structure?

You have a list of prioritised content on your paper, and you have subset information. The task now is to get the ducks in order – you need a series of headings that do justice to the main sections of content you have decided upon.

So think very carefully about the content headings you have written down and make sure the headings don’t overlap. For example, you might have written down ‘sales teams’ and also ‘recruitment needs’; and you may have written down sales overseas’ and also ‘leading product lines’. Let’s say you are looking at the current progress of the sales of five product lines in 12 different countries. Is it best to look at this progress country by country or product by product? Which way will lead us to the telling information most quickly and effectively? Which is going to involve the least amount of duplication? If the trading situation affecting sales in each country is the main thing of interest then you will probably need 12 sub-headings under ‘sales progress’, one for each country. If it is purely about product line popularity and demand for each line, it is probably easiest to lead with five sub-headings representing the product lines.

Once you’ve sorted that out, you might want to think about whether you place your information on sales teams and recruitment needs as one section heading and then you might wonder whether you place this before or after the section on product lines/countries…and so on. The point is, do the thinking now rather than allowing yourself to be tied into knots when you commit to writing on screen.

Gradually the scribble becomes a road map. Make a slightly neater written copy as a guide taking only two-thirds of the page from the left margin. In the right margin area make notes about your sources. You may need information from a letter, a colleague, other reports or another document. Write down what you need next to the proposed subject headings.  

Now you can move to the computer…and you will be ready to start writing a report that is worthwhile and constructive. Every minute you’ve put into this preparation time will pay itself back tenfold.

Next time we can look at some simple report formats…