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Drawing up the specifications

Sometimes the person writing a report does not have a clear idea of what type of report is required. Clear, agreed instructions are the foundation upon which you build your report. Instructions define the scope of your report and the lines you are required to follow. They outline the areas you must consider and the restrictions you must observe. If you dont obtain specific instructions before you start, you could waste a lot of time and effort.
We can illustrate this important point with an example. Jane Green the newly appointed Head of Administration, asks Peter Smith, a Section Supervisor, to prepare a report on the companys fire precautions. Peter doesnt want to give his new boss the impression that he isnt completely efficient by asking for any further details. So he agrees and goes back to his office, feeling vague about what he is supposed to do. Should he write about:

  • the adequacy of the companys existing fire-fighting equipment?
  • the frequency and extent of fire drills?
  • a review of the alarm system and the instructions given to staff?
  • a survey of fire escapes?
  • consultations with the local fire service?
  • review of the complete fire precautions system and recommendations for improvements?

You can see that the amount of work required will obviously vary considerably between these options. Peter will waste a lot of time if the information he produces is not required.
But rather than risk Jane thinking him inadequate if he asks her questions, Peter decides to do a really thorough job. He decides to carry out a review of the complete fire precaution system. He also investigates the purchase and installation of the latest state of art equipment.
Two days later Jane asks for the completed report. Peter thinks she is an over-demanding boss, because he could never complete such a comprehensive task in two days. Jane thinks he is slow because he should have been able to finish it in 24 hours.
When Peter finally does finish his review and presents his report two weeks later, Jane is amazed because what she wanted was:
How many new fire extinguishers were needed to meet Health and Safety standards following the extension to the company premises, and what was the most competitive price they could be bought for!!!
The message for Peter Smith, and for all of us is:
If someone asks you for a report, make sure you get a proper briefing. If anything is not clear, dont make assumptions, ask questions. If you dont ask questions at this stage you could look a fool later if you produce a report that is not wanted! Asking relevant questions is the mark of a good report writer, not a fool.
Here is a checklist of key questions you should ask and have answered:
A. What is the subject of the report?

  • What angle should I take?
  • Are there any aspects in particular you want me to concentrate on?

B. What is the purpose of the report? (refer back to the previous section)
Inform - Is this report intended to give information?
Influence - Is the report intended to analyse alternatives and make recommendations to the reader to help towards a decision?
Interest - Is it intended to arouse interest or enthusiasm?
Interpret - Is the report intended to analyse facts?
Instruct - Is it intended to give instructions?

C. Who is the report intended for?

  • What do the readers already know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • What are their attitudes?
  • What do you want them to think/do after reading the report?

D. How long should the report be?

  • What degree of detail should I go into?

E. What information is already available?

    • Do you have any information which you particularly want me to include in the report?

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