The Supper Club - Logo

Quick tricks that will transform your report writing

We've all been there. The deadline's looming and all you have so far is some data, a few charts, a flashing cursor or a blank piece of paper. It can be frustrating and stressful to write, especially when writing isn't what you enjoy but something you just have to do as part of your job.

And it's a situation made worse by the fact that the way we typically write reports doesn't work well, either for those writing or reading them. And if this traditional method of structuring business reports doesn’t work for the people who read them, a new way of writing them is needed.

This was the headline takeaway from ‘Swim, Surf and Dive’, an event held last week for Supper Club members with Chris West, founder of Verbal Identity and best-selling author. West specialises in helping businesses use language more effectively.

He recommended members follow some key reading principles and try one of two frameworks depending on need: the SCQA technique when writing short to medium-length reports or the Pyramid Principle for longer documents.

1.Situation, complication, question, answer

West explained that SCQA is one of his favourite frameworks, useful in almost any situation. It complements the findings of researchers (published in the journal Scientific American Mind) that people respond more favourably to narrative forms of information than to dry facts.

Ideally with SCQA, the story begins as far forward as possible and puts “an indisputable” piece of information at the centre to focus the reader’s attention. The next point places an obstacle to success in the way. As Chris says: “Our minds quest for an answer to a complication.”

A question then heightens the stakes before the writer gives a solution as the answer. As West adds: “The skill is in framing the question in such a way that your recommendation is the perfect answer.”

Responding to the way people read

The name of the event, Swim, Surf and Dive, was inspired by the way most of us tend to read. People are used to surfing quickly across headlines and swimming around any sub-headings for a bit more colour, before diving deeper into specific paragraphs for detail.

But West says that people have got used to writing headlines that focus on section titles and date ranges. What works better is to give a headline that tells a story. “So instead of Sales Report Q3, you can say ‘Sales have grown by 23% in Q3’.” This approach, says Chris, increases the chances of readers slowing down and consciously consuming the report.

2.Pyramid Principle: Reversing the script

While as writers we tend to show how we arrived at our conclusions chronologically, for the reader this is a boring and forgettable experience. Far better, West says, to begin with a recommendation that must then be justified through analysis and finally backed up with facts.

This “one, simple, overarching message” lies at the heart of the Pyramid Principle, beloved framework of management consultants in the 1990s made famous by Barbara Minto’s book.

Using a memory test, West was able to back up the research finding that people are generally unable to remember more than seven things at once. This means that the stakes are high indeed when you need to disseminate information in a complex report. But in offering one recommendation before all else, a writer can grab attention. As he says: “The first thing someone reading is going to say is ‘Why? How can you be so sure?’”

He demonstrated on screen how to plan a set of arguments using the pyramid. The main question was shown at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the main answer or conclusion. In the next pyramid layer the writer inserts three different arguments, each of which is supported in the next layer down by three pieces of information. Every answer should address the question ‘So what?’

In this way, grouping a set of 10 or 12 pieces of information, West says, “helps people remember the key points”.

West went on to demonstrate the framework’s effectiveness with two exercises using sets of simple data for attendees to organise into an argument. The idea was that by taking up one of the two frameworks, members would in future be able to get away from the “double think and anguish” that writing can cause.