You know that feeling you get when a colleague or supervisor asks you to review a report they’ve written? If you’re like me, you usually develop a sudden urge to sharpen some pencils, or reload your stapler, or… do anything but read that report.
That’s because most reports we’re forced to read at work are flat-out boring. They’re dense, lifeless documents written as though their authors expect them to be dumped straight into a file cabinet forever and read by nobody. And often, these reports are so visually unappealing that this is exactly what happens to them.
What an opportunity for you!
If you’re asked to write a report – for your department, agency, task force, or whomever – use the opportunity to make a positive, lasting impression on your readers. You might be writing on a dry work-related topic, but your report can still be powerful, memorable and full of life.
Here are some tips for writing standout reports – tips proven to win over readers by the most successful copywriters in history.
Make your title an attention-getter
Direct-mail copywriters – the writers most knowledgeable about what works and doesn’t work with readers – have found that five times more people read headlines than the ads and articles themselves. Your report’s title is your best chance to catch your readers’ attention – and to make your case.
You intuitively know the value of a well-worded title, which is why you wouldn’t spend hours drafting the perfect email and then send it without a subject line.
So let’s say you’re asked to write a report on your agency’s attendance at a symposium last year – and to make a case for or against sending staff this year.
You could write the standard report headline, something like:
“Agency Attendance at Continuing Process Improvement Symposium – a Discussion of Value Derived from Last Year’s Attendance and Resource Allocation Suggestions for This Year’s Convention”
Feel like sharpening some pencils?
Why not write a title that’s powerful and pulls your readers in? Nobody ordered you to write a boring, lifeless headline. Try something like this:
“Three Reasons Our Agency Must Attend This Year’s CPI Symposium”
Include plenty of subheads
Another great technique, proven successful by the great advertising copywriters, is to sprinkle your report with bolded subheads.
These have the advantage of breaking up your text visually. It’s simply easier on your readers’ eyes if, as they skim or read through your report, they see a subhead in bold standing alone every few paragraphs.
Subheads also give you a second chance to tell your story. In fact, a well-written sequence of subheads throughout your report can tell an abbreviated version of your entire story. This means more people will grasp the highlights of your case – particularly the skimmers who read only your headline and subheads (more people than you might realize).
Using our symposium attendance example above, some of the subheads sprinkled throughout your report might look like this…
Staffers who attended last year’s Continuing Process Improvement Symposium reported an average 18% efficiency improvement, according to agency surveys after the show
(Your next couple of paragraphs will describe the details supporting this subhead.)
Total cost to send eight employees from across the agency would likely be recouped within one month, assuming comparable efficiency improvements agency-wide from last year’s show
(You’ll then write out the details supporting the claim in this subhead; you might also include a graph or chart to illustrate the point.)
Ad copywriters have also scientifically tested data on images in documents. Turns out, about five times more people will look at an image in an article or advertisement than will read the rest of the copy.
You know this intuitively as well. When scanning a document, our eye gravitates first to illustrations, photos, graphs or charts – anything visual.
Images give your reports some real advantages. First, they break up the text and make your report visually more inviting. (Note: your bolded subheads have a similar effect – and the effect of using both subheads and images can be a tremendously powerful and effective report.)
Second, images help the visual learners among your readers. Some people can read page after page of explanation and still won’t comprehend or be persuaded by your points as clearly as they will after viewing a single chart.
There’s yet another value that images bring to your reports, which leads me to my next tip….
Include strategically written captions with your images
One reason to include images in your reports is that they present an opportunity to write powerful captions that help make your case.
Again, we learn from the legendary ad copywriters that about four times more people will read an image caption than will read the rest of the text of an article or ad.
This makes sense. We are drawn visually to an image in a document, and then we immediately look for some text to orient us – to tell us what the image means. That leads us to the caption.
Using our symposium example once more, if you included a bar graph illustrating attendees’ self-reported efficiency improvements based on what they learned at the show, your caption under the graph would be a great opportunity to highlight how valuable the show will be again this year.
A graph caption in a typical report would read like this:
Above: agency attendees’ self-reported efficiency gains attributable to CPI Symposium, 2010.
Feel like reloading your stapler?
Instead, use the opportunity your graph’s caption offers – four times as many readers as the rest of your report – to make your case and grab your readers’ attention. Like this…
Our attendees at last year’s CPI Symposium learned such valuable work strategies that they report almost 20% more efficiency on the job today – a compelling case for investing in attendance at this year’s show.
Bottom line: include images in your reports specifically so you can write powerful captions under them.
So there you have it: headlines, subheads, images, and image captions. These elements of your report will be read many times more than the rest of your report. Few people realize the power of treating these elements as the mini-salespeople that they can be for the report itself. In fact, many of your colleagues probably don’t even include many of these elements in their reports.
But you can. And your reports will be much more powerful and memorable as a result.
Get the sense that this marketing company has a lot to teach you about how to market your business?
Here’s a brilliant insight I received from a judge years ago, when I served on a jury.
Moments before our trial got underway, the judge issued the jury this warning: As you hear this case, he said, make every effort not to write a narrative in your mind of “what happened.”
“He’s guilty,” “she’s really the victim here,” “these people are all crazy and neither side deserves any money” — these are all narratives, and they’re all detrimental to a juror’s ability to fairly hear a case and weigh the evidence presented. The moment you write a narrative, you immediately and permanently become incapable of learning anything new.
The judge said he had seen this happen so many times that he could tell not only when a juror had written a narrative mid-trial but in whose favor the juror had decided. The signs: The juror would take notes in her court-provided journal only on those points that favored her position. She would pay close attention only to witnesses testifying on behalf of the party she favored. And she would appear completely disinterested in testimony that tended to undermine her narrative.
This insight has broad and valuable application for our lives. As soon as you write a narrative, it becomes your reality. So be careful.
If you’re unhappy in your career, and you tell yourself, “I’ve tried everything to find a better job,” you’ve written a narrative. You’ve told yourself you’ve exhausted all ideas and so there simply is no better job for you. So you’ll stop trying. And indeed you won’t find a better job.
Our narratives are self-fulfilling prophecies.
Anytime you say or think, “I’m not smart enough to try that” or “This party is boring,” guess what? You’ll be right.
Watch your narratives.
The Sky is Not the Limit, by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The universe is awesome — bigger, older, hotter, colder, quieter, emptier and more violent than we can comprehend. Yet so few people take any interest in the cosmos. As Dr. Tyson puts it, so few of us ever “just look up.”
This book puts the universe in its proper place — the most thrilling and awe-inspiring subject of all time.
Whatever you’re writing, the key to making it a successful and well-received document is to cut away every syllable that doesn’t give your reader new information, advance your case, or clarify your position.
Cut, cut, cut. Be ruthless.
How many words and phrases could you remove from the following sentence without losing any clarity?
In order to make Tuesday’s upcoming staff meeting as productive as it can possibly be, I would ask that you please submit any ideas or questions for discussion topics as soon as possible, preferably by the end of the day today.
You might be thinking, “Come on, Robbie! We’re talking about a few extra words here and there. What’s the big deal?”
How many emails do you read in a typical week at work? How many reports? Meeting agendas? PowerPoint presentations?
Think of the dread you feel every time you see a new email from your colleague who uses five times as many words as necessary to make his point.
Don’t be that colleague. Make your writing lean, to the point and not a word longer than it needs to be.