Deciding what to include
Deciding what to include in your report, and gathering and analysing the information, is the most difficult aspect of report. It is also potentially the most rewarding.
Let’s look at ways in which you can minimise your difficulties and maximise the effectiveness of this part of report writing.
Your product is the finished report. Many people find it difficult to produce their best product if they try to write the report from beginning to end, attempting to get everything right in the first draft.
The task becomes more manageable if you concentrate on different parts of the problem at each stage of production. For example, you could start by listing what you need to do and what you know already. Break down a large task into smaller sections: “The best way to eat an elephant is a bit at a time!”
You could picture your report as a problem to be solved and yourself as the detective whose task is to solve it. Here are a number of techniques that you can use to solve your problem:
A. Define the problem
As your starting point you will have the terms of reference from the person who has commissioned the report. This gives you the parameters within which you will work. You should refer back to the notes you took at your briefing interview with the report’s commissioner, and extract the essential points. Just jot down the key words on a sheet of paper.
B. Find the focal point
Here is a way to help you find the focal point of your report. It’s called Nutshelling. This is a technique to help you find the overriding theme of your report. You simply try to state the essence of your material in a few sentences. Imagine you are writing a statement for someone who knows nothing about the subject of your report. We have used the Flexible Hours report, which you can find, at the end of this course for the example. The purpose of this report is to address concerns about staffing levels outside of core time when flexible hours are introduced.
C. Keep on course
All reports are intended to answer a question, so you can make sure you are still on course, if you keep asking yourself: “Does this activity help me to answer the question that is the purpose of this report?”
D. Make notes
Make notes and rough drafts before you try to reach conclusions about the final contents and shape of your report. This will help you to clarify and improve your understanding as you collect material.
At this stage, don’t worry about appearance, structure, order of contents and grammar, or even whether or not all the information will be included. Your aim is to capture ideas and then sort them out.
How many ideas can you keep in your mind at once? Space in our short-term memory is limited. We can’t keep all the ideas for a report in our heads at once. If you try, the ideas will get jammed up and start crashing into each other - and your stress level will rocket!
Try using the following techniques:
- Brainstorming - a technique for generating ideas. Brainstorming allows you to think about a subject freely and laterally (outside of your usual boundaries). You may not reach the best conclusion unless you are able to go beyond “conventional wisdom” and think laterally in your search for ideas. Brainstorming lets you drop all the rules and preconceptions which govern the way we think.
Rules for Brainstorming:
- set a time limit - say 10 minutes;
- write the subject down;
- let your mind run free and jot down all the ideas you generate;
- don’t censor any ideas no matter how crasy they seem.
After your “brainstorm” you can decide which of your ideas will work and which won’t. You can sort out the overlapping ideas at this stage too.