Report writing: be clear about what you want!

report writing

Not being clear about why you’re writing is a mistake business writers make all the time. In presentations. In emails. On website landing pages. And, most of all, with report writing.

But it’s a mistake that will sap your report writing of all impact. By which I mean your power to persuade. Because the goal of all business writing – including reports is to persuade.

That’s why it’s vital you start every report you write with a persuasive purpose in mind. And by purpose, I don’t mean informing, updating or (worst of all) impressing your readers.

Informing, updating and impressing people may move you closer to your ultimate, persuasive goal. But the secret to persuasive report writing is being clear what that goal is. Knowing from the start what you want your report to do.

The three acts of persuasion when writing a report

Every successful piece of business writing involves three acts of persuasion:

1: persuade your busy reader to give you her attention.

2: persuade your busy reader to stick around.

3: persuade your busy reader to act as a result of your words.

Let’s start with number three. The need to persuade your reader to act is as true of a report as it is of a sales letter.

After reading a great sales letter, a reader knows exactly what to do (buy now!).

Similarly, after reading your report, your reader should be in no doubt about what you want her to do.

In sales writing, it’s known as the ‘call to action’. I like to think of it as your ‘big ask’.

Report writing and a simple method to determine your ‘big ask’

Your big ask is the thing you want your reader to know, feel or do after reading your report. Big asks that focus on the last of these three – do – are most powerful of all.

With any report, you’re effectively making a sale, even if no money is changing hands. Your big ask is where you make that sale.

So before you start drafting your report, write the following words down on a big piece of paper:

‘After they’ve read this report, I want my reader to [INSERT BIG ASK HERE]’

Make your big ask as specific and action-filled as possible. Pin down the action you want your reader to take by using a verb (in other words, a doing word).

Here are some examples of the kind of big asks you find in reports:

  • Introduce the CRM software I’m recommending
  • Adopt my proposed compensation scheme across the firm
  • Agree to my suggested strategy for the operations team
  • Provide the budget for the comms plan I’m presenting in the report
  • Lend me £1,000 to start my crocheted cardigan business
  • Award my firm the contract for design and branding for the project they’re tendering
  • Name my company the UK’s number-one Widget maker in the 2015 awards
  • Feel reassured we’re managing the trust competently
  • Hold on to/buy more shares in Snazzy Widgets plc
  • Notice how they all start with a verb?

    Now you’ve established what your big ask is, let’s turn to the other two acts of persuasion – grabbing your reader’s attention, then keeping it.

    To succeed in each of these, you’ll need to keep your big ask front of mind.

    Report writing that grabs your reader’s attention

    Don’t make the number one report writing mistake I see even experienced report writers make: burying big asks like the ones above in irrelevant detail. In boring background blurbage. In self-congratulatory corporate chest-beating.

    You’ve got a very short window of time to catch your reader’s attention. And your big ask is your reader’s reason to read. So it needs to zing out.

    It needs to be right up there early on in your executive summary. It needs to be clear from your headings and subheadings. And it definitely needs to be the first line in any section marked ‘Recommendations’.

    Report writing that keeps their attention and persuades them to act

    To keep your reader’s attention – and, ultimately, persuade your reader to act – everything else you say must be geared toward getting your reader to comply with your big ask.

    So ditch any information that doesn’t support your big ask – it’s irrelevant and will only weaken your argument. Instead, support your argument by answering questions like these:

  • What are the reasons my reader should comply with my big ask?
  • What are the benefits of complying with my big ask?
  • Why should the reader care about my big ask?
  • What’s the emotional pull of my big ask?
  • What are the risks of not complying with the big ask?
  • What are the risks of complying with my big ask – and how can they be overcome?
  • What else needs to be done to make the big ask happen?
  • What do we need to let go of if we’re going to make the big ask happen?
  • Another reason to pin down your big ask before writing a report

    The great thing about pinning down your big ask before you start any report writing job, is it helps you clarify your thinking.

    By knowing what your purpose is – and being able to answer the questions that support your big ask – planning your report is going to be so much easier.

    So you’re happy and your reader’s happy. Win win!

    p.s. Check out my post Executive summary: how to wow your readers, where I explode some myths about most important section of any report. In the meantime, let me know in the comments how you approach your report writing. And do you find it helpful to think about the ‘big ask’ in relation to report writing?

    Enjoyed this post? Pop your email in the box below and I’ll make sure you’re one of the first to know about my new online course – a step-by-step guide to report writing.

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    2 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

    1. Hi Clare, great piece here!

      Just recently my colleagues showed me a letter we were writing to solicit contributions from highly influential (and insanely busy) people – and the “big ask” was buried under three THICK paragraphs about our organization’s founding, mission, vision… The next time this happens I’m just going to send them this article.

      I do have one question – you wrote that “your big ask is your reader’s reason to read” – do you consider that the same thing as the “hook” to get readers to read further, and thus place it at the very top of a report?

      Or do you rather open with something to get them interested (say, writing about the challenge they’re facing), before introducing the big ask?

      Many thanks!

    2. Clare Lynch says:

      Thanks for your comment, Podium Wisdom. I love your real-life example of a buried ‘big ask’. That temptation to open with the self-involved, self-congratulatory bumf is all-too familiar. Great question about the distinction between the big ask and the ‘hook’. I think you’re right – the most powerful ‘hook’ is the reader’s problem or challenge and the ‘big ask’ offers a way to address that challenge. To some extent, then, your ‘big ask’ is also your ‘big answer’!

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