PPLLAANNNNIINNGG LLOONNGG RREEPPOORRTTSS Edwin G. Sapp, Instructor
University of Maryland University College
It is axiomatic in business today that (1) no one has time to read anything, and (2) no one has time to write anything. As a consequence, the opportunities to write long reports are less frequent than in former times AND their perceived usefulness has diminished as managers have less time to read anything (thus less experience in comprehending lengthy missives). However, long reports are still necessary and thus their proper preparation is more critical than ever.
That said, there are some specific “rules of the road” that will assure that a necessary long report you prepare will be read, comprehended, and acted upon. And it is these “rules of the road” you will find in the pages that follow.
A business-oriented long report is not a novel to be curled up with in front of a cheery fire on a cold winter’s night. It is a document with a purpose. Business writing is designed to inform or persuade. In fact, even “informational” writing usually has a bias and thus is a “set up” designed to persuade the reader to act or refrain from acting. So, it is safe to say, that all business writing is designed to persuade.
So, how do you persuade a busy person?
In cold call sales, successful sales people use the AIDA principle. Not an Egyptian slave princess from a Verdi opera, AIDA stands for ATTENTION INTEREST DESIRE ACTION. So the long report must first capture the reader’s Attention, then pique his or her Interest, leading to a Desire to act, and ultimately to reader Action (obviously designed to be POSITIVE action) on the proposal contained in the long report.
Through this entire machination, Mary Poppins was right: “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” And so tone is a critical component of an effective long report.
The structure has to satisfy four audiences: (1) the reviewers (gate keepers) on the way up to the targeted decision maker, (2) the decision maker, (3) the person or committee the decision maker asks to check portions for accuracy and impact, and (4) the group or individual called on to actually implement the proposal.
None of these “audiences” will likely read the document once-through cover-to-cover. Often they will be interrupted or have to go back and re-read portions they consider critical. As a result, long reports are presented in segments introduced by headers and contain a series of expected sections.
Also, because most long reports must be read progressively by a series of reviewers before they get to the ultimate decision maker, the very first component of a long report is either a Letter of Transmittal or a Routing Slip. This single sheet of paper shows the coordination route, forwarded comments, action required from the ultimate reader (the decision maker), and provides a one or two-sentence description of what the report is about and why the reader is reading it.
The illustration on the right of this page, depicting a GSA Routing Slip, is typical of the type of component used to ship copies of the report up the chain of command. Typically, the routing document is attached to the decision maker’s copy, and other copies are included the resulting “package” so that each reader along the way can keep one for a resulting conference call or meeting.
With these principles in mind, begin assembly of a long report with the Letter of Transmittal or Routing Slip, and follow with an attractive Cover Sheet (or Title Page), one that invites the reader to open the report. The Cover Sheet should contain an appropriate title, the name and title of the person or group to whom the paper is addressed, the name of whom it is from (including the author’s position), and the date of preparation, plus any appropriate illustration. Immediately show appreciation for the reader’s limited time (on the next page) by providing an Abstract with key words (for a TECHNICAL report), or an Executive Summary (more personal, includes persuasion) that provides a synopsis of the issue, background, required action, and recommended implementation steps. This is a half-page summary of what the report contains, lacking the proof for each claim that examples and external citations will offer in the report.
Next follows a Table of Contents with section headings and the page each section begins. Following the Table of Contents will be a List of Illustrations containing only the title of each illustration and its page number. These sections are included to aid the reader in RE-locating any passage needed for follow-up review or discussion of any point in the paper. Hence the titles MUST be accurate and the page numbers precise.
Finally, we come to the BODY of the report. This is a series of text sections addressing these expected elements: an Introduction, a Statement of the Problem, the Background, a Proposed Solution, and an Implementation Process. Your actual titles may vary as driven by the specific situation. Usually these segments are supported by external research and documentation — and may include graphic selections to illustrate points. The most effective graphics serve to illustrate key points and should never be “cute” “clip art” selections that fail to move the message forward. Graphics are always sourced either as by “author” (you) or “author, derived from [some other source],” or from some original source.
The Routing Slip is for a Decision Maker INTERNAL to your organization.
Use a Letter of Transmittal if the Decision Maker is someone OUTSIDE your organization.
After all of these components comes the Works Cited (MLA) or References (APA) page. This page lists the researched works ACTUALLY USED in the report or proposal. [A Bibliography is a list of documents readers might find useful, but were not actually used in the creation of the report.]
This is an exploded view of a non- technical, MLA citation-supported report or proposal. Simply substitute References for Works Cited and Abstract for Executive Summary for an APA- structured technical report or proposal.
GETTING THERE AND BACK AGAIN
Bilbo Baggins discovered that “getting there” can be quite an adventure in itself – and then there is always the return trip – in this case creating each component and submitting an assembled “package” that connects all the dots in the requested manner.
There is no “correct” way to write a long report, but there are some ways that not only will NOT work but are guaranteed to give you writer’s block and double the time required to do the task.
Preparing a Letter of Transmittal or Routing Slip, blank Table of Contents, List of Illustrations pages are not only logical tasks to begin your effort, but highly commendable “no-brainers.”
You might think that, logically, you should write the Abstract/Executive Summary after you have written the body of the paper. However, the opposite is true.
You should write the Abstract/Executive summary before you have written the body of the paper.
The reason for this approach is that, if you create a half-page pattern of the final report in advance (a draft Abstract or Executive Summary), you will discover every logical hole and need for adjustment before investing hours trying to discover why your composition of the body of the report is not working.
So, write the Executive Summary or Abstract first, then compose the segments of the report, then return to the Executive Summary or Abstract and adjust it to fit the new reality.
Likewise, references usage needs some re-thinking. In high school you most likely prepared a researched report to demonstrate you knew how to do the research. In business, the only research required is that which either proves there is a problem, the impact of the problem, or there is a solution, and that the solution has worked for others. In other words, the research boosts your credibility as a problem solver. Here is where research fits in this process:
Use the Letter of Transmittal if the Decision Maker is EXTERNAL to your organization (or to you as an individual; use the Routing Slip instead is the Decision Maker is INTERNAL to your organization.
So, in a business setting, research is only required when the boss does not see the problem or recognize your solution as being correct (those circumstances merely require a note on a notepad, not a lengthy, researched report).
In the academic environment, if you are requested to produce a researched report, you need to seek a situation where research is actually required: i.e., problem denial or solution doubt, or both.
Finally, create the alphabetically-ordered Works Cited or Reference page; then double check the actual body of the report you have now written. Every source listed on the Works Cited/Reference page must be used at least once in the text.
Now, doesn’t getting there seem a bit easier? Remember that “by the yard, it’s hard; but by the inch, it’s a cinch!