The challenge of making great ideas shine
Having great commercial ideas is terrific, but sometimes we need to communicate them by writing a report.
This could be:
- A proposal for your Board or management team
- An innovation investment case
- A summary of your research or ideas for a client
- A progress update paper about a project or initiative
- A competitor review or market analysis
Ideally, we would have the opportunity to present our ideas in person, and talk them through, but sometimes that’s not an option. The trouble is that our ideas can lose their sparkle and get lost a little when we explain them in writing.
In this post, I’m going to share some tips and techniques that will really help your ideas shine in your business reports.
Why I’ve written this blog
Because I have spent my career positively disrupting organisations to help them innovate, I have written more business reports than I can count. I have also been the internal customer on the receiving end of many reports, especially in my leadership and board director roles. My experience enables me to produce time-efficient, concise and effective reports that do my ideas – and those of my clients – justice.
Having spent a day recently working with some wonderfully talented innovators to help them improve their business report writing, I wanted to share some solutions to their challenges with you, so that the quality, creativity and commerciality of your ideas can really shine through in your reports.
Creating an innovation investment case, also sometimes called a business case, needs some specific inputs, so I am not going to cover that here. Look out for a blog on writing your successful innovation business case in the near future, though.
Great Business Reports
Let’s start by thinking about the key features of a great business report.
- It feels easy and natural for your reader(s) to follow and agree with.
- It tells a story which keeps the reader(s) interested and engaged throughout.
- It is written in a style which suits the subject and the reader(s).
- It makes your reader(s) feel glad they read it.
- It gives your reader(s) insight, rather than just facts, figures and information.
Challenges and Success Strategies
Here are the top 5 challenges that the delegates on my report writing programme said they found the most difficult, along with my strategy for overcoming each one.
Challenge 1 – There’s so much you could say, you don’t know where to start
Before you start to even think about the detail of your report, take a big step back and think about who your reader(s) are, and what they will want to gain from the time they spend reading you report. Specifically, ask yourself this question, and write down your response:
“As a result of reading my report, what do I want my reader(s) to:
When I share this on courses or in coaching sessions, some people find it hard to differentiate between think, know and feel at first, so here is how I define them:
- Think – is about having an opinion
- Know – is about having facts, knowledge or insight
- Feel – is about having an emotional response
- Do – is about taking action
Here’s an example. I wrote a paper for a client earlier this month that presented my ideas on how they could expand profitably into new markets, based on my customer and competitor analysis. As a result of reading my report, I wanted my client to:
- Think that the growth plan I was presenting was realistic and achievable
- Know that the ideas had been well-researched, and were based on the best evidence available
- Feel that they could trust my work, and also feel confident about the proposed way forward
- Do – endorse the actions I proposed in my report to progress to the next stage of development
Starting with this activity literally takes just a few minutes, and it’s time well-spent because it focuses the mind on the outcome you want to achieve.
Challenge 2 – Blank screen or blank page syndrome
Once you’ve got your outcomes sorted from implementing the strategy for challenge 1, it’s time to dive in. For many of us, facing a blank screen or page can feel quite disorientating and possibly even overwhelming, leading to the notorious writer’s block.
A great way to overcome this, which worked for every single delegate on my programme, is to begin with a mind map.
Mind mapping is a creative technique attributed to Tony Buzan. It helps you to capture your thoughts as they occur in a way that is consistent with how your mind works because it is fluid, flexible and free flowing.
If you haven’t mind mapped before, there is no wrong way to do it. Just do what works for you. Some tips are:
- Start with a blank page, landscape.
- In the middle, write the title of report.
- Then jot down everything that comes into your head as and when it pops in, around your central report title.
- Jot similar things together and join them with wiggly or straight lines and branches.
- Use color and symbols, images and shapes.
Here is a small example of a quick mind map that I created for my Idea Time® business plan report to give you the gist. Yours doesn’t have to look anything like mine, though! 🙂
Early Idea Time® mind map done before writing the business plan report. © The Big Bang Partnership Ltd, 2017.
In a mind map, you capture your thoughts as they come to mind, and structure them on the page in a way that mirrors exactly how the brain operates – in a radiant rather than linear manner. A mind map really does ‘map’ out your thoughts and ideas, using associations, connections and triggers to stimulate and expand your thinking.
Once you’ve completed your mind map, try and fit in a short walk to help to clarify your thoughts.
Going for a walk, especially in nature, can help clarify your thoughts. This photo taken at Clumber Park. © The Big Bang Partnership Ltd, 2018.
Challenge 3 – I never know what goes where
Set up a template for yourself that you can use for all your reports. This will give you a structure up front and save so much time, both now and in the future. Whilst your reports may all be about different subjects and written for different reasons, you can use the same template for all of them, perhaps tweaking some of the headings from time-to-time to suit the specific purposes of each report.
Here is the generic structure that I use. It suits most business reports that I write. The delegates who attend my report writing programmes and coaching sessions come from a wide variety of industries and areas of expertise, and write their reports for very diverse purposes. They have all found, though, that this structure suits their needs well and saves them substantial amounts of time.
- Executive Summary
The purpose of the Executive Summary is to provide a concise and informative overview of the contents and findings of the report.
The reader(s) should be able to glean a high-level understanding of the full document from the Executive Summary, informing a decision whether to read the full report. It should also help the reader to navigate and follow the more detailed argument that ensues.
The Executive Summary is the flagship section of the report and should communicate your actual or planned work on the project in a clear and compelling way.
My preference is to write the Executive Summary right at the very end, using these prompts to summarize the detail that you have provided in the main body of the report:
- Purpose of the report
- Brief context of the report, focusing on the client’s business/context
- Specific objectives
- High-level overview of the approach used
- Key findings/insights
- Concise summary of recommendations and next steps
- Client’s brief/Purpose of the report (as appropriate)
This section is needed to:
- Inform or remind the reader of the purpose and scope of the work that forms the content of the report
- Demonstrate to the reader that you have a full understanding of the brief (if you’ve received one)
- Provide a clear ‘exam question’ for you to check against when you review your report
Where this section appears in a report to a client, as a minimum it should contain:
- A concise overview of the nature of the client’s business (can be a single sentence)
- A clear statement of the challenge/opportunity that is at the centre of the project
- A clear statement of why the challenge/opportunity is of relevance to the client’s business
- The itemized, specific report objective(s)
This section is needed to provide a high-level overview of how you plan to approach / have already approached the project. (The tense depends on whether you are reporting what you have done, or what you are proposing to do in the future, of course).
It is also there to provide an accessible description enabling the reader to skip more detailed and technical content if appropriate; alternatively, to orientate the non-technical reader in advance of reading more detailed sections.
You should include the following key features as a minimum in this section:
- A concise and clear overview of what was or will be done – a process overview. The text could be complemented by a simple visual.
- A high-level explanation of any limitations / challenges or opportunities that have affected the choice of approach. This should demonstrate, where relevant, your innovation and creative problem-solving.
- A concise and clear overview of why this approach was adopted – the rationale.
- A very brief statement of when the work took place or will take place.
- Technical section optional – only use if needed
This section is used to provide the reader(s) with the detailed, technical information on how the work was, or will be, carried out.
It is also there to demonstrate your scientific/technical/academic or legal rigour.
In this section, as a general rule, do NOT include data tables or information that can be included in the appendix. Whilst it is a technical section, the flow of the narrative should not be disrupted without clear justification.
Write up the detailed technical items in a logical, step-by-step format. For each step, include the specific action taken/to be taken and explain why it was or is necessary.
Where you need to use technical words that are likely to be new to your client, make sure that they are accompanied by a concise definition in everyday language the first time that they appear in the text. Where numerous technical terms need to be used, provide a Glossary section.
- Findings / Insights
This section provides the reader with a clear overview of the project. It is the ‘so what?’ section of the report. A powerful technique is to present each key finding or insight as a headline-style subheading to make these important messages stand out. Support each headline with more detailed explanatory text below.
Your conclusions section should round up all the key themes in the report, restating your main argument very concisely. Its purpose is to remind the reader(s) of the most important points.
Your recommendations should flow logically from your conclusions, and provide direction in terms of the actions you are recommending to the reader, and why. My preference is to use bullet points for this section and be brief, clear and specific.
I sometimes lead business report writing workshops for delegates on behalf of the University of York, UK, pictured above. © The Big Bang Partnership Ltd, 2017.
Challenge 4 – It takes me ages, and I never get it right the first time
Using a standard template will definitely help you save time, as well as achieving a consistent quality standard.
An additional top tip is to make sure that you don’t try to create your report and edit it at the same time. Content creation uses a different cognitive function from critical review and correction, so attempting to do both at once makes for a confusing, messy and more time-consuming process for you. Instead, brain dump all your thoughts by using your mind map as a prompt to write against each template heading, not worrying about spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on. Then, leave as much time as you can before you revisit your writing, and then edit and polish as a separate stage.
This particular strategy is one that my delegates rave about the most, and it’s definitely worth a try as I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t help you reduce the number of drafts that you need to produce.
Challenge 5 – My manager always gives me lots of corrections when he or she reviews my work
Once you’re written and edited your report, give it a final review yourself before you submit it to your manager. Use this checklist to help you spot opportunities for improvement before you send it:
- Is it to the point?
- Is your most important point obvious?
- Have you used simple language?
- Will your reader understand?
- Is it brief?
- Have you used the right tone?
- Have you eliminated unnecessary jargon?
- Do your sentences average 15 words?
- Are your paragraphs short?
- Are the spelling and punctuation correct?
- Will your reader know what to do next?
I recommend that you have a look at a range of different reports published by others to get some ideas on presentation, and also identify what you like and don’t like about them. Here are links to some that are in the public domain. A few are quite long, so you might want to skim them and only focus on key sections, such as the Executive Summary.
I hope that you give these success strategies a try. I’m confident they will save you time and effort, as well as help you to communicate your ideas more clearly and make them shine.
As always, I’d love to hear how you get on, and if you’ve got any questions or would like any advice, please leave a comment below or contact me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org.