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How to Write Better Reports and Memos

How to Write Better Reports and Memos

We all spend a lot of time writing memos and reports. And many of us get the feeling that nobody reads them. That could be because we don’t write them with the readers in mind. But with a little up-front planning that takes your readers into account, you can increase the chances that your memos and reports will be read, rather than just filed away.

1. Got a Purpose?

The explicit purpose of writing memos and reports is to convey vital information, so begin with the end in mind. What do you want your readers to think after they’ve finished reading? For example, maybe you want the maintenance team to explore greener cleaning supplies. By deciding at the outset what you want your readers to think and/or do, you improve the focus of your writing and the likelihood someone will be influenced by what you have to say. Here’s an example:

THINK:
What do I want the reader to think?
DO:
What do I want the reader to do?
  • We can reduce our company’s impact on the environment by using more environmentally friendly cleaning products.
  • Greener products are worth exploring.
  • Investigate greener alternatives to the cleaning products we use the most.
  • Create a cost comparison between current and green products.
  • Make recommendations for more environmentally friendly solutions.

Tip: Afraid your readers won’t read to the end? Pop these bullet points up front in a quick summary under an Action Items heading.

2. Anticipate and Answer Your Readers’ Questions

Readers are a curious lot. Even if they read what you’ve put in front of them, most will have questions and won’t be satisfied unless you have answers. Predicting and answering those queries in your text eases your readers’ concerns about your point of view. As a result, their own views and values are less likely to distract them from your message. This puts you on a faster track to achieving your goal. Here’s another chart that helps guide this line of thinking:

READERS:
Who will read this document?
QUESTIONS:
What questions will the reader have?
  • Maintenance staff.
  • Why should we change products?
  • Don’t green products cost more?
  • Is it worth it to change products?
  • What products are out there that are reasonable substitutes?

Tip: Answer explicit questions explicitly in a FAQ or attachment that accompanies your document.

3. Focus Your Content

With these next two charts, you can map out the ideas and details that will most effectively convey your information. First, figure out the most important thing you want your readers to know. This is your main idea. Then, think of three to five key details that will support it. Go back to your Readers/Questions chart to see what’s relevant to your readers. You don’t have to answer the questions directly -- or even address every one -- but consider them as you jot down your details. Here’s another example:

MAIN IDEA:
What’s the most important thing
I want the reader to know?
KEY DETAILS:
What evidence, examples or explanations support the main idea?
  • Our company should reduce its environmental impact, starting with the use of greener cleaning supplies.
  • This is a relatively easy way to reduce our impact.
  • There are many environmentally friendly cleaning supplies on the market worth exploring.
  • A review of the available products and their costs will help us understand how we can be greener.

Tip: Worried about skimming? Don’t. Put these bullets at the front of your document, like an executive summary, under a Key Concepts heading.

Start Writing

With all this thinking under your belt, you’re ready to start writing. You can always start with your Main Idea and follow it with your Key Details. Simpler concepts may require only a sentence or two to explain. More complicated ones might require an entire paragraph. End with your Think and Do.

Investing more time in thinking before you start to write will not only make your work go faster, but it will also help you be more effective in getting the results you want. And that includes getting coworkers to look forward to reading your writing in the future.

[Steve Peha contributed to this article. Peha cowrote Be a Writer and Be a Better Writer with Carmichael Lester. The charts in this article are based on the Content-Purpose-Audience Strategy © Copyright Teaching That Makes Sense Inc. 1995–2007. Used with permission.]

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