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How report writing courses work

November 2, 2010

One of the certainties of life, in my small world, is that report writing courses don’t do half of what the purchasers of them hope they will do. This is not because they are expecting a magic wand to suddenly make writing skills brilliant for ever and ever – they are a little more realistic than that.

There is often an expectation of improvements that will never see the light of day however. This is because the people who attend the course change their habits for a while but soon revert to normal practice because the lessons they took on board have not reached their line managers let alone the echelons above that. If there is a lack of leadership from on high, and good practices are squashed by old habits, no good can come from a report writing course, however well it was delivered.

Now that I have had my little rant, I will provide a brief outline of the kind of report writing course that works well given the right circumstances.

Group type and size

If a brush-up and reminder of good practices is required, large groups (up to 25) working in groups of four or five for half a day can benefit from a programme that is designed for the purpose. To introduce new skills and break bad habits, individual attention is essential and a group of eight to ten for a full day is ideal.

In my experience, groups of mixed ability and seniority work very well as long as they work on similar projects and therefore encounter similar difficulties. This works only if relationships between levels are open so that more senior people are happy to listen and will not intimidate juniors.

Essential content

The three elements that can make a real difference in a one-day course are: planning, structuring the message and systematic checking.

Planning consists of defining the project clearly so that all concerned know:

1. what the reader expects, knows already and cares about

2. what the intended outcome of this report is (a decision for example)

3. based on the above, what they key messages are and what information, in outline, will be included.

Describing these using bullet points, mind-maps or some other graphical form is a useful way of separating the planning stage from the first draft, which contains complete sentences.

Structuring the message involves looking the high-level logic of the story. An early decision is needed about how to organise the information into a logical pattern to achieve the desired outcome, for example:

Position – there are two administrators in the department, one of whom is on maternity leave; there is a two week back-log of enquiries from customers; one of our performance indicators is that we respond within three days.

Problem – we risk upsetting and possibly losing customers; there is an urgent need for a temporary replacement for the administrator on leave.

Possibilities – either get a temp from an agency (expensive per hour and needs training) or borrow someone from a different department (may pass the problem on to them).

Proposal – borrow someone for a week and monitor the effect on their department closely. Start making enquiries at temp agency as back-up solution.

Systematic checking breaks the ‘final read-through’ down into a number of manageable tasks by asking questions like these one at a time.

1. Did I carry through the intended structure?

2. Is the formatting clear and consistent?

3. Are the sentences well structured and readable?

4. Does the summary summarise the report?

Optional content

There is plenty more that may be useful depending on the needs of the group. Language use and grammar or summarising skills may be high on the agenda for example. The more information that is shared with the trainer about current practice the better – this can include templates and house style, customer expectations or specific instructions from the board.

We want to make the course work for you – and we can do that if we know exactly what you need.

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