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Advanced Report Writing

Advanced
Report Writing
A guide to researching, structuring
and delivering complex business reports

Put it to them briefly so they will read it,


clearly so they will appreciate it,
picturesquely so they will remember it and,
above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light

Joseph Pulitzer

Advanced Report Writing

Contents

KEY LEARNING OUTCOMES .....................................................................................6


Course Overview ............................................................................................................... 6

INTRODUCTION...........................................................................................................7
Definitions ........................................................................................................................ 7
Approaching your report ................................................................................................... 7

CHAPTER 1 - OBJECTIVES.......................................................................................8
Purpose............................................................................................................................ 9
Scope ..............................................................................................................................10
Generic purpose...............................................................................................................10

TYPES OF REPORT.................................................................................................. 12
Monitoring & Controlling Operations ................................................................................12
Implementing policies & procedures...................................................................................12
Sales & Funding Proposals...............................................................................................13
Documenting work in progress ..........................................................................................13
Reports for Guiding Decisions ...........................................................................................13
Reports to analyse and interpret ........................................................................................14

READERSHIP ............................................................................................................ 14
How reports are read ........................................................................................................16

CHAPTER 2 CONTENT......................................................................................... 16
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The need for research........................................................................................................17
Research Purpose .............................................................................................................17
Time Dimension ...............................................................................................................19
Research Setting...............................................................................................................20
Qualitative and Quantitative Research ...............................................................................20
Qualitative Data Collection................................................................................................21
Methods for Collecting Qualitative Data .............................................................................22
Qualitative Data Collection: Six Characteristics...................................................................26
Primary and Secondary Data Sources.................................................................................28
Finding the Data ..............................................................................................................28
Lateral Thinking about Sources ........................................................................................29
Meta-Analysis ..................................................................................................................29
The importance of focus....................................................................................................31
Arranging and sorting your materials ................................................................................32
Post-it notes .....................................................................................................................32
Mind mapping.................................................................................................................32

CHAPTER 3 STRUCTURE.................................................................................... 34
Finalising objectives .........................................................................................................34
Level of Appeal ................................................................................................................35
Ideas/Key issues ...............................................................................................................36
Selection..........................................................................................................................36
Structure of the argument..................................................................................................37
Making the structure clear.................................................................................................39

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Visual evidence ................................................................................................................39

CHAPTER 4 - WRITING............................................................................................ 40
Plain English...................................................................................................................41
Active vs. Passive sentence construction ..............................................................................42
Jargon and technical terms................................................................................................42
The Fog Factor.................................................................................................................43
The power of the positive ..................................................................................................44
How to check if your report reads well................................................................................44

CHAPTER 5 - LAYOUT............................................................................................. 45
Format ............................................................................................................................45
Style................................................................................................................................46
Flow................................................................................................................................46
Subheadings....................................................................................................................47
Page layout ......................................................................................................................47

CHAPTER 6 - PACKAGING AND DELIVERY ......................................................... 51


Final reflection.................................................................................................................51
The structure in detail ......................................................................................................51
The Title .........................................................................................................................53
What else does packaging need to cover? ............................................................................53
Delivery method and follow-up..........................................................................................54
Chapter summary.............................................................................................................55

CONCLUSIONS......................................................................................................... 55

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GLOSSARY OF TERMS ........................................................................................... 56


FURTHER READING.................................................................................................. 57

All materials Whitehorn Consulting Ltd, 2007

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Advanced Report Writing

Key Learning Outcomes


This course aims to help delegates write very high quality and sophisticated business
reports.
By the end of this course, delegates will be able to:

Recognise how reports fit with other influencing activities as a strategic process

Ensure that a report writing brief is correctly interpreted and developed

Establish the correct scope and depth for a document

Define precise communication objectives in relation to the reports audience

Develop a research strategy

Structure the argument effectively

Use a style of plain English that improves understanding and raises level of
interest

Produce an effective and attractive layout

Package the report with an interesting title, executive summary. Contents page,
etc.

Course Overview
The main topics covered are:

Definition: Defining the key issues to be covered and the 'question' being asked

Communication objectives: precise objectives for what we want the readers to


know, feel and do

Research methods: primary and secondary

Report types and structures

Principles of plain English

Principles of page layout and document design

The role of supporting elements such as the executive summary

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Introduction
Report writing is a vital and extremely taxing part of every manager's working life. They
tend to be very important at decisive moments - preparing budgets, securing funding for
new staff or equipment, proposing changes in the way activities or carried out, or
obtaining new business.
Whether we like them or not, we need the skills to identify:

when a report is needed

the argument to be communicated

the format it should take

who should read it and how they will respond

the information that should (and should not be included)

when and how it should be delivered

A report is a very powerful weapon when used correctly. At other times it is useful for
nothing more than leveling a wobbly table, or helping your senior management get some
sleep during board meetings.

Definitions
A report can be defined in a number of ways:

To present with conclusions and recommendations, etc.'


`A formal or official presentation of facts'
`A loud noise, esp. one made by an explosion'
The latter definition is worth bearing in mind. Unless your report makes an impact, it will
probably have failed.

Approaching your report


There are six main stages in report writing, which are covered in this manual. They are
summarised below.

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The chapters in the writing process


Chapter 1
Objectives

Establishing the brief

Gathering & organising our data

Chapter 3
Structure

Creating a clear argument

Chapter 5
Layout

Chapter 2
Content

Creating an attractive document

Chapter 4
Writing

Accurately, briefly, clearly

Chapter 6
Packaging & delivery
Completing the process

We will now take a closer look at what is involved at each stage.

Chapter 1 - Objectives
The key first step is to agree the brief. Listed below are the 10 key questions you need to
ask when commissioned to write a report.

The 10 point brief


1.

Whats it about? (topic)

2.

Why do we need it? (background/overview/links)

3.

Whos it really for? (decision makers)

4.

What will or should happen as a result? (what decision


should take place, the purpose)

5.

What should and shouldnt it cover? (scope/breadth)

6.

How long and how detailed should it be? (depth)

7.

What resources are available? (help/information)

8.

What format and style should it be in?

9.

When is it needed by?

10.

Why me!

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The brief helps by making certain:

What information you need to find and include

How your argument is defined and what it is intended to achieve

How you could structure your document

Whose fault is it of the brief is unclear? The report writer or the report commissioner?
The answer will usually be: Both. If you have any doubt as to what is required, it is vital to
check. Seeking clarification does not show weakness. It shows commitment to doing a
good job.

Purpose
In any report, what is more important the question or the answer? Think about this for
a moment. Many writers opt for the answer they say things like: Surely, the answer
is more important? If Ive got the answer, the problem is solved.
On the contrary, the question is more important, because you can have a question without
an answer, but you cant have an answer without a question.
The framing of the question is more critical than any other part of the report
writing process.
If it is framed well, it can in fact lead you through to the answer. Certainly, a well-framed
question can immeasurably help you to avoid dead-ends, side-alleys and irrelevance. A
well-framed question acts as a criterion of relevance and irrelevance.
Answering the question of why you are writing needs to be done at two levels. Firstly,
what is the context or terms of reference? In other words, why does this issue warrant a
report? The reasons could be any of the following:

An accident has occurred that needs investigation

A new potential client has requested a proposal on how our organisation can help them

An existing system is nearing the end of its useful life

However, while the context justifies the investigation, we also need some clarity as to
what we are supposed to achieve. What will the report produce?
Returning to the above examples:

An accident has occurred that needs investigation the cause identified and
recommendations made to prevent a recurrence

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A new potential client has requested a proposal on how our organisation can help them
a detailed and costed proposal for a PR campaign

An existing system is nearing the end of its useful life an analysis of the options for
replacing it with specific recommendations

Scope
Having established purpose and context, it is also important to define the scope of your
report. Scope describes what is 'in' what is 'out'. As with any project, the scope will
inevitably creep as work progresses. So it is better to be narrowly focused from the
beginning.
Not only that, but the more breadth you try to cover, the less depth of detail you will
achieve. In most cases, your report will be more valuable if it is focused and deep rather
than very broad and shallow.
EXAMPLE
A report on the topic of communications in an organisation would pose enormous
problems of scope. The writer could include written, spoken, electronic, internal,
external, supplier, customer.... the list is endless. It would be vital to establish what the
communication issue was (e.g. poor feedback from clients) to then narrow down scope to
create a useful document (e.g. analysing client communications and how to improve
them).
MUSCOW is a useful acronym for establishing scope. Ask yourself what the report
MU

Must cover

Should cover

CO

Could cover

Wont cover!

Make sure that you clarify the scope early on in the report to avoid misunderstanding and
false expectations.

Generic purpose
Here are the general contexts for a report:

T o monitor and control operations (e.g. volume of business, productivity statistics,


etc.)

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T o help implement policies and procedures (e.g. course manuals, compliance guides,
procedure manuals)

T o comply with legal or funding requirements (e.g. returns to industry or government


bodies)

T o obtain new business or funding (e.g. sales proposals, grant applications, capital
expenditure requests)

T o document work in progress (e.g. project updates, appraisals, minutes of meetings)

T o guide decisions on particular issues (e.g. to comment on plans or proposals)

T o analyse and interpret (e.g. essays, investigation reports)

These are generally good reasons, but sometimes we may also find ourselves writing
reports to:

Delay a decision that could be taken on the available evidence

T o add to the bureaucracy and red tape that already binds and limits us

T o provide peripheral and marginally useful information, purely for the sake of
completeness

T o demonstrate our own abilities as part of a learning programme

So regardless of the stated reason, you have to ask yourself (and the person who has
commissioned the document) the following questions:
Another way of looking at purpose is to consider the problem you are setting out to
solve. If your report does not define and solve a problem, then it is unlikely to be very
helpful.
The problem can be that of identifying the key performance indicators and finding a way
to regularly monitor achievement. It may also be the opportunity created by a new
export market and how the organisation should address it. A report without a problem is
like a murder mystery - without a murder. It is unlikely to attract much interest. Most
managers are concerned to read about problems - but only if potential solutions are also
offered.
EXAMPLE
A recommendation to improve customer service levels will only find genuine favour if
you can show that current service levels have caused customers to go elsewhere, or the
service offered by competitors is actually giving them a competitive advantage.

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Types of report
Having established the purpose of a report, it is a relatively short step to identify a
suitable basic type of document.

Monitoring & Controlling Operations


Typical documents:

Plans (short term to 5 year) - provide internal co-ordination, set


goals, motivate and establish available resources

Operating Reports - providing hard data on sales performance,


production, financial health,

Personal activity reports - sales call reports, expense reports

Format:

Direct order

Standardised format or pre-printed form

Quick to assimilate

Regular

Focused on figures

Implementing policies & procedures


Typical documents:

Procedure manuals

Position papers (corporate policy)

Issue comments (the house view, possibly in magazine format)

Format:

Stylised

Authoritative, but persuasive

Written with concern to the knowledge and attitudes of readership

Tone a matter for judgement

Mouthpiece for senior management

Periodic, or periodically updated and revised

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Sales & Funding Proposals


Typical documents:

Sales proposals

Grant applications

Capital expenditure/new resource requests

Format:

Recognised general structure

Objective tone, but persuasive

Written with concern to the knowledge and attitudes of readership

Length and format varies in proportion to scale and complexity of


application

aimed externally/upwards

Documenting work in progress


Typical documents:

Project updates

Minutes of meetings

Legal case updates

Building project progress reports

Format:

style varies from pre-set to free form

periodic rather than regular

indirect order

concise, objective

Reports for Guiding Decisions


Typical documents:

Research Reports (new business opportunities, new processes, new


product development)

Justification Reports (internal proposals frequently following on from


research reports and designed to seek commitment to implement
new initiatives)

Trouble-shooting reports (Answering 4 basic questions - how did we


get into this mess? How bad is the damage? What should we do
about it? How can we stop it happening again?)

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Format:

Event driven

aimed upward

Analytical and detailed

Direct order

Reports to analyse and interpret


Typical documents:

Essays (in almost any subject where the author is describing or


analysing)

Investigative Reports (analysis of a critical incident where the


document will set out primarily to describe and interpret, but may
then go on to guide decisions)

Format:

Event driven

aimed upward or to a tutor

Analytical and detailed

balanced argument

Readership
`I can't write without a reader.
It's precisely like a kiss You can't do it alone'
John Cheerer
Reports may only have one author, but they will have many readers. The person
commissioning the report may not be the most important reader. He or she may not
even read it at all.
Once again, you have the need and right to develop clear answers to the following
questions.

Who are the intended primary readers?


Chief Executive? Board? Your immediate manager? Staff? Clients? Regulatory body?
Funding council? Tutor?
As you can imagine, the motivation and purpose of each of these potential readers will
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vary. While you will inevitably worry about everyone into whose clutches you beautiful
document falls, keep in mind the important readers - the ones for whom you are really
writing. If you have not thought about who they are, you are bound to say the wrong
thing.
If a document is being produced for two parallel audiences, there may be some conflict to
resolve. For a report that is designed to be assessed academically and used for business
purposes, some writers are tempted to write two versions. This is to be avoided. It is a
waste of time and also misunderstands the nature of how reports are read.

Who are the secondary readers?


Colleagues? Staff? Senior management? Future employers?
Do not forget about the effect your report may have on the secondary readers. If you are
laying blame, or making contentious remarks, consider the extent to which you may need
to defend/justify them in the document. All too often, the written word comes back to
haunt us. Once written, it can never be retracted.

What do you know about your readers?


What are their motivations? What is their attitude going to be to your document? What
do they already know what do they need or want to know? Are they familiar with the
subject area you are covering?
If they are likely to be unfavourable, you need to work hard to persuade them both in
advance of and within the document. Take care not to assume that your readers will be
familiar with technical language. If you need to use jargon, make sure your first usage
include a short bracketed explanation. E.g.

"Overuse of TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations) can be very frustrating for the reader
unfamiliar with the subject"
When thinking about the readership consider carefully their:

level (in the organisation)

background (attitudes, cultural perspective)

outlook (are they objective, or do they see the world only from their
department)

Views (what are their views are on the subject of the report?)

level of knowledge of the subject

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How reports are read


Reports are not novels. We are not meant to read every word. And even if we do, it is
seldom in the order the author might expect us to. The intelligent reader follows a
complex process when reading reports. This generally involves answering the following
questions:

What is the title? What is the report about, is it important/urgent/relevant for me to


read?

Who has written it - is this a credible or interesting source?

How substantial is the document? A very large document may put off some readers so it
is important to provide an easy entry point. T hey may flick through it to try to obtain
a feel for the argument.

Where shall I start? Some readers will read the Executive Summary. Others may go
straight for the Contents page and then flick to an interesting section

Does the section tell me anything interesting? Many readers will read only the first
paragraph of a section/chapter. T his is why it is important to introduce each section
strongly.

Do I need more detail? If the report is large, additional data may be contained in
appendices. Signpost these rather than packing the body copy with detail is therefore
advisable.

Do I agree with the report? T he reader will rapidly decide whether they are sympathetic
to your argument

Chapter 1 review
Weve established

T he purpose of the report

T he type of document needed

Who is going to read it

Now we need to find and make sense of the data to go into it

Chapter 2 Content
If you steal from one author, its plagiarism;
If you steal from many its research
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Wilson Mizner (1876 - 1933)

The need for research


For any report to be worthwhile, it must tell the reader something they dont already
know. To achieve this, you have to research the subject to provide new data, new proof
or new explanations.
A report is only as good as the factual material contained within it. No amount of lyrical
argument and creativity can make up for a lack of solid information.
How much research you choose to do depends on:

T he importance of the report

T he overall objectives

T he time/resources available

T he level of detail required

The research phase is best entered into as soon as the scope and purpose of the report is
decided. Gathering information is a slow process, there will be plenty of obstacles in the
way. Most reports have a deadline, if they don't they probably are not worth writing. So
start data gathering early.

Research Purpose
The purpose of your research can be exploratory, descriptive, explanatory or policyoriented. These categories are not mutually exclusive; they are a matter of emphasis. As
any research study will change and develop over time, you may identify more than one
purpose. (Robson, 1993:41). These four types of research are discussed below.

Exploratory Research
Exploratory research might involve a literature search or conducting focus group
interviews. The exploration of new phenomena in this way may help the researchers
need for better understanding, may test the feasibility of a more extensive study, or
determine the best methods to be used in a subsequent study. For these reasons,
exploratory research is broad in focus and rarely provides definite answers to specific
research issues.
The objective of exploratory research is to identify key issues and key variables. For
example, one outcome might be a better system of measurement for a specific variable. If
you define your study as exploratory research, then you need to clearly define the
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objectives. Calling your report exploratory is not an excuse for lack of definition.
EXAMPLE
An example in the business environment might be an exploratory study of a new
management technique in order to brief a management team. This would be a vital first
step before deciding whether to embrace the technique.

Descriptive Research
As its name suggests, descriptive research seeks to provide an accurate description of
observations of a phenomena. The object of the collection of census data is to accurately
describe basic information about a national population at a particular point in time. The
objective of much descriptive research is to map the terrain of a specific phenomenon.
A study of this type could start with questions such as: What similarities or contrasts exist
between A and B?, where A and B are different departments in the same organisation,
different regional operations of the same firm, or different companies in the same
industry. Such descriptive comparisons can produce useful insights and lead to hypothesisformation.
EXAMPLE
A detailed set of data on the profile of clients would be an example of this type of report.
By understanding the customer better, sales and marketing management will be able to
take better decisions on new product development.

Explanatory Research
Explanatory studies look for explanations of the nature of certain relationships.
Hypothesis testing provides an understanding of the relationships that exist between
variables. Zikmund (1984) suggests that the degree of uncertainty about the research
problem determines the research methodology, as illustrated in the Table below.

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Exploratory Research

Degree of Problem
Definition
Possible Situations

Descriptive Research

Explanatory Research

Key variables not

Key variables are

Key variables and key

defined

defined

relationships are defined

Quality of service is

What have been the

Which of two training

declining and we dont

trends in organisational

programs is more

know why.

downsizing over the past

effective for reducing

ten years?

labour turnover?

Would people be

Did last years product

Can I predict the value

interested in our new

recall have an impact on

of energy stocks if I

product idea?

our companys share

know the current

price?

dividends and growth


rates of dividends?

Source: Based on

How important is

Has the average merger

Do buyers prefer our

Zikmund, 1984:35.

business process re-

rate for financial

product in a new

engineering as a

institutions increased in

package?

strategy?

the past decade?

Policy-Oriented Research
Reports employing this type of research focus on the question How can problem X be
solved or prevented?
For example, the writer may wish to investigate such problems as high rates of labour
turnover, how the firm can prevent collusive fraud, how to introduce an e-commerce
operation in the company and so on.
With such policy-oriented theses many writers make the same mistake as politicians
they define a policy and then look for evidence to support it. This is the Got policy.
Will make it travel! approach. Note that policy-oriented research requires explanatory
level research to back it up in a conclusive manner. Policy-oriented research requires a
theoretical foundation.

Time Dimension
Cross-sectional Research
One-shot or cross-sectional studies are those in which data is gathered once, during a
period of days, weeks or months. Many cross-sectional studies are exploratory or
descriptive in purpose. They are designed to look at how things are now, without any
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sense of whether there is a history or trend at work.

Longitudinal Research
Research carried out longitudinally involves data collection at multiple points in time.
Longitudinal studies may take the form of:
Trend study looks at population characteristics over time, e.g. organisational
absenteeism rates during the course of a year;
Cohort study traces a sub-population over time, e.g. absenteeism rates for the sales
department;
Panel study traces the same sample over time, e.g. graduate career tracks over the
period 1990 - 2000 for the same starting cohort.
While longitudinal studies will often be more time consuming and expensive than crosssectional studies, they are more likely to identify causal relationships between variables.

Research Setting
Research can be conducted either in contrived or non-contrived settings.
A non-contrived setting is the natural environment in which events normally occur.
Field studies and field experiments are examples of non-contrived settings. A field study
is a study carried out in the natural environment with minimal interference from the
researcher. Field research appeals to those who like people-watching. Studies of
corporate boards, organisational committees and work-teams are often based on field
research. A field experiment is research into a causal relationship set in the natural
environment with some manipulation of the variables.
By contrast, the contrived setting is the creation of an artificial environment in which
the events are strictly controlled. The researcher is looking to establish a cause effect
relationship beyond any reasonable doubt. For this reason, the study participants will be
carefully chosen and the stimuli manipulated. Many social psychological studies use
artificial teams or activities as in leadership studies.

Qualitative and Quantitative Research


Data collection methods can be classified into qualitative and quantitative methods. This
is a conventional classification as a distinction it can be helpful to writers, but it can
also be misleading, as we will see.
A useful way to distinguish between the two methods is to think of qualitative methods as
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providing data in the form of words (or maybe visually), and quantitative methods as
generating numerical data. However, it is a mistake to assume that there must be a strict
black and white dichotomy. Quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection are
often employed in support of each other on the one research project. The qualitative
researcher may use historical numerical data to support a particular finding, for example.
Similarly, qualitative data can provide rich information about the social processes in
specific settings.
Various methodologists (e.g. Neuman, 1994:317) have tabulated the differences between
qualitative and quantitative research as shown in the table below.

Differences between Qualitative and Quantitative Research


Quantitative

Qualitative

Objective is to test hypotheses that the

Objective is to discover and encapsulate

researcher generates.

meanings once the researcher becomes immersed


in the data.

Concepts are in the form of distinct variables

Concepts tend to be in the form of themes, motifs,


generalizations, and taxonomies. However, the
objective is still to generate concepts.

Measures are systematically created before

Measures are more specific and may be specific

data collection and are standardized as far as

to the individual setting or researcher; e.g. a

possible; e.g. measures of job satisfaction.

specific scheme of values.

Data are in the form of numbers from precise

Data are in the form of words from documents,

measurement.

observations, and transcripts. However,


quantification is still used in qualitative research.

Theory is largely causal and is deductive.

Theory can be causal or noncausal and is often


inductive.

Procedures are standard, and replication is

Research procedures are particular, and

assumed.

replication is difficult.

Analysis proceeds by using statistics, tables,

Analysis proceeds by extracting themes or

or charts and discussing how they relate to

generalisations from evidence and organizing data

hypotheses.

to present a coherent, consistent picture. These


generalisations can then be used to generate
hypotheses.

Qualitative Data Collection


Qualitative methods of data collection focus on all relevant data whether immediately
quantifiable in a standardized scale or not. It is important to note that it is not just nonPage 21

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quantitative research. As defined by Hakim, qualitative research provides the:


individuals own accounts of their attitudes, motivations and behaviour. It offers richly
descriptive reports of individuals perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, views and feelings, the
meanings and interpretations given to events and things, as well as their behaviour;
displays how these are put together, more or less coherently and consciously, into
frameworks which make sense of their experiences; and illuminates the motivations
which connect attitudes and behaviour, the discontinuities, or even contradictions
between attitudes and behaviour, or how conflicting attitudes and motivations are resolved
in particular choices made. (Hakim, 1987:26)
Qualitative data is particularly useful when it comes to defining feelings and attitudes. For
example a staff attitude survey would be meaningless without some qualitative elements.

Methods for Collecting Qualitative Data


Qualitative data collection methods include observation, participant observation,
interviewing, focus groups and case studies.

Observation and Participant Observation


Observation is the systematic observation, recording, description, analysis and
interpretation of peoples behaviour, (Saunders et al, 1997: 186). This method can be
loosely structured or tightly structured with precise coding methods of behaviour patterns.
Traditional time and method study of worker behaviour involved precise coding and
timing of work patterns. In participant observation, the researcher participates to some
degree in the lives and activities of the people being observed. Saunders et al (2000: 229)
summarise the advantages and disadvantages of participant observation as shown below.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Participant Observation


Advantages

Disadvantages

Good at explaining what is going on in particular

Can be very time consuming.

social situations.
Heightens the researchers awareness of

Can create difficult ethical dilemmas for the

significant social processes.

researcher. E.g. the problems of confidentiality


and openness does the researcher tell people
they are being observed?

Particularly useful for researchers working within

Can be high levels of role conflict for the

their own organisations.

researcher (e.g. colleague versus researcher).

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Can afford the researcher the opportunity to


experience for real the emotions of those who
are being researched.
Virtually all data collected can be useful.

Source: Adapted from Saunders et al, 2000:


229.

Interviewing
Data can be collected by using unstructured and semi-structured interviews (qualitative
research) or by using structured interviews (covered under quantitative data collection
methods). When using semi-structured interviews, the researcher may encourage an
informal conversation covering certain themes and questions. These questions may vary
from one interview to the next, and the order in which questions are asked may vary also.
Semi-structured interviews are primarily used in explanatory research to understand the
relationships between variables, perhaps as have been revealed by some prior descriptive
research. Additionally, semi-structured interviews are used in exploratory studies to
provide further information about the research area.
Unstructured interviews, sometimes called in-depth or non-directive interviews, are
designed to explore in depth a general area of research interest. Interviewees are
encouraged to talk freely about events, behaviour and beliefs in relation to the research
area. Such interviews are used in exploratory research to find out more about a particular
event and seek new insights.
As for other data collection methods, more than one type of interview might be
incorporated in the research design, as shown in the following examples:

Unstructured interviews to identify variables to be tested in


questionnaire or structure interview;

Semi-structured interviews to explore and explain themes identified


through a questionnaire;

Combining within one interview one section of factual, structured


questions and one section of semi-structured questions designed to
explore the responses from the first section;

Using semi-structured and unstructured interviews to verify findings


from questionnaires. (Saunders et al, 2000: 245-6)

Interviews are useful in the following situations:

where there is an exploratory or explanatory element to the research;

when you want to know the meanings which respondents ascribe to


various phenomena;

where it will be important to establish personal contact;

where the researcher needs to exercise control over the nature of


those who supply data;

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when there are a large number of questions to be answered;

when questions are complex or open-ended;

when the order and logic of questioning may need to be varied.

Focus Groups
These are excellent research tools. Focus groups are forms of group interviews but
there are differences. You will probably be familiar with the term focus group from
market research reports as they are used often to test reactions to new products or new
politicians.
A focus group usually consists of 6-15 people. (If the group is too large, then it tends to
break up into sub-groups and control is difficult). The researcher acts as a facilitator
rather than an interviewer.
The facilitator starts with a clear theme communicated to the participants and a set
agenda of items. The group then works through the items, but the facilitator should also
be prepared to pursue novel issues as they arise.
Focus groups should be taped (audio) or videoed. Videoing can be more difficult and
intrusive but is often worthwhile. Permission of the participants should always be sought
for taping/ videoing.
It is vital to make sure that everybody talks. If you wish to use focus groups across an
organisation as a primary method of research, then a pilot focus group should be tried
first learn the problems!. Some of the advantages and disadvantages are summarised in
the table below

Advantages and Disadvantages of Focus Groups


Advantages

Disadvantages

A dynamic focus group will generate many

High level of skill of group leader/researcher is

ideas, helping to explain or explore concepts.

required to facilitate and manage the discussion.

They will help to tell you why the organisation is

Otherwise the discussion degenerates into

as it is.

waffle.

Bottom-up generation of concerns and issues,

Where focus groups are conducted within an

which can help to establish survey variables.

organisation, participants may be concerned


about confidentiality.

Can offer credibility to research where issues of

Some participants may be inhibited because of

bias are associated with interviews.

the group.

Relatively quick and easy to organise. Cheap on

Dominance by one, or some, participant(s) of the

time compared to participant observation, etc.

discussion.

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time compared to participant observation, etc.

discussion.

A snowballing effect can occur as participants

Problem of groupthink tendency to express

develop ideas triggered by other participants.

views that satisfy others in the group, but which


may not be valid outside the context.

Source: Adapted from Saunders et al 2000: 268; also Zikmund, 1991:82-84.

Case Studies
The logic of case studies is that all cases start the same and then a sample of six cases is
taken that represents the extremes of possibilities or critical incidents. What you are
trying to say is that if this phenomenon doesnt hold under the best conditions, it wont
hold anywhere else. Whereas if we maximise the favourable conditions for X to be X and
its not, then we know that in all other conditions it wont be either. Given these
characteristics, case studies are not chosen on the basis that they are representative.
It is not the case that case studies are a qualitative research method in some black and
white sense. Instead, many case studies collect large masses of quantitative data
performance data, profitability data, employment data, marketing data, etc. for a specific
organisation.

Traditional Advantages and Disadvantages of Case Study Method


Advantages

Disadvantages

Holistic

Researcher Bias

depth of analysis

observation bias

realistic

interpretation bias

attention to context

cannot see everything going on

extensive range of variables

researcher presence may change case


acceptance by subjects

Longitudinal

Historical

develop history of case

organisational and economic change may make

details of process
causation and interactions

case out of date and irrelevant; e.g. a study of a


best practice firm that is now bankrupt and
closed down.

situation as it happens

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High Internal Validity

Low External Validity

more complete understanding

low generality

direct observation of situation

little control over phenomenon

multiple sources of data

comparative analysis difficult

triangulation of data (see below)

representativeness of case

meaningful to subjects

difficult to replicate

Adaptive

Costly

questions can be changed as case develops

research time

methods can be changed

volume of data

data sources can be changed

analysis of data
problems of access

Source: based on Yin, 1989 and Booth, 1995

Triangulation of data
This refers to the fact that an issue can be addressed by three types of data for example,
interview data, organisational documents, and organisational statistics, plus crosschecking interviews.
Triangulation involves asking whether the data from the various sources leads to the same
conclusions. If it does, then we will have much more confidence in our argument.

Qualitative Data Collection: Six Characteristics


Neuman (1994:319) identifies six characteristics of qualitative research: importance of
the context, the case study method, the researchers integrity, grounded theory, process
and sequence, and interpretation.

Context
Qualitative research assumes that data belongs to a larger whole, in which the historical
and situational context can affect the meaning of the data collected.

Case Study Method


Case study method focuses on one case, or perhaps a small number of related cases, from
which the researcher seeks a lot of detailed information. However common as we have
noted, case study research frequently involves quantitative data and case study method
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should be seen as both qualitative as quantitative.

Researchers Integrity
The immediacy, direct contact, and intimate and detailed knowledge provided by
qualitative research is sometimes offset by questions concerning researcher bias. Bias is a
potential problem given the researchers role as participant in the research drama and the
copious amount of information generated through qualitative research, only some of
which will make its way into the research findings and report. It is important, therefore,
for checks to be incorporated into the research design. Such checks can include
confirming evidence from several participants, maintaining detailed written notes, crosschecks with other, related research, and a well-presented and argued report.

Grounded Theory
Grounded theory is grounded in data which have been systematically obtained by social
research. (Abercrombie, et al, 1984:97) In quantitative research, data is collected to
test hypotheses. Qualitative research begins with a research question and often little else.
Theory develops during the data collection. This more inductive method means that
theory is built from data or grounded in the data. There is need for effective theory at
various levels of generality based on the qualitative analysis of data. Without grounding
in data, that theory will be speculative, hence ineffective. (Strauss, 1987:1)

Process and Sequence


Qualitative research recognises that the order in which events occur, and when they
occur, is significant. This is similar to the recognition of the context in which events are
recorded.

Interpretation
Textual evidence, rather than numerical data, is paramount in qualitative research. The
significance given to data and the way in which the data are presented are dependent on
the researcher. Interpretation is three-fold:
First-order interpretation: the researcher learns about the meaning of the data or
action for the people under study.
Second-order interpretation: the researcher understands the significance of the action for
the people under study.
Third-order interpretation: the research assigns general theoretical significance.
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Primary and Secondary Data Sources


We have already discussed case studies and survey research methods. These are primary
data sources you are generating new data. Primary sources are self-generated and consist
of experimental designs, case studies, survey data, focus groups, participant observation
data, and so on.
Another route that you, may wish to pursue is that of using existing materials or
secondary sources.
Secondary sources can be various - company records, archives, trade union materials,
census data and government sources. Much economics research is performed as secondary
data analysis of the multitude of time-series data sets that most governments maintain.
Secondary data occur as raw data or processed. If raw data is available, then the data can
be reworked. More often, however, only published reports are available.
For international studies, secondary data analysis is the most common type of study
performed. Similarly, many longitudinal studies involve secondary data analysis. (Hakim,
1987).

What are the advantages of secondary data analysis?


The advantages typically listed are:

Relative speed and low cost;

T he research domain can be defined precisely prior to the study. In other words, the
issues of sampling frame, sample and response rates have already been sorted out for
you. For example, if you use census data the research domain is explicit.

T he possibility of generating longitudinal data sets by comparing data across the years.

T he possibility of generating comparative, international data sets.

Finding the Data


Economists have persuaded governments to collect all their data for them - financial
statistics, trade statistics, labour statistics and so on. The view of nearly all economists is
that if you want data, then switch on the computer. Management researchers are not so
lucky. Many firms do not keep good archives and material is discarded with each new bout
of restructuring. Consequently, good data requires searching. So, who keeps good data?

Social science archives. Most countries have social science archives where collections of
large surveys are stored as input data. T herefore the data can be re-analysed. For
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example, in the UK the main social science archive is housed at Essex University
accessible on the Internet at http://dawww.essex.ac.uk

Industry associations

Professional associations

Media sources. T here are limitations to media sources, but they should not be ignored

Management consultancy companies

Academics themselves. Most academics generate more data than they can use and
analyse in a limited timeframe

Financial data sources: Bloomberg, Reuters, etc.

Lateral Thinking about Sources


It is easy to think along the following lines: This is my defined research focus so where
are the relevant sources of data? The notion of relevance or appropriateness creates a
mind-set that may not be helpful.
It is worthwhile to consider alternative sources of data which may have been set up for
completely different purposes but which will yield unique insights, or represent a source
that nobody has used before, or used in that way.

Meta-Analysis
Frequently, when we write reports for an organization, we are involved in meta-analysis
it is just never called that. What is meta-analysis? It consists of the re-analysis of a
collection of research studies that have been subject to analysis separately, but not
together. According to Hakim (1987:19) ..the aim of meta-analysis is to provide an
integrated and quantified summary of research results on a specific question with
particular reference to statistical significance and effect size (that is the size or strength
of the impact of one factor on another). Meta-analysis usually requires quantitative data
able to be subject to statistical analysis. Meta-analysis by definition should be
comprehensive all the available studies in the field.
In order to understand the inherent limitations of meta-analysis, it is useful to consider a
specific example. A well-known study published in 1982 by John Kelly was a metaanalysis of job redesign experiments in organizations. Job redesign is the reshaping of jobs
and task sets in order to improve labour productivity and/or job satisfaction. Kelly
examined a series of research studies in the specific area 195 studies in total.

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Are the Advantages of Secondary Data Analysis Real?


Look back at the purported advantages of secondary data analysis. They were cost,
relative speed, clarity of research domain, possibility of longitudinal data and the secondhand clothes argument. Let us consider these points in the light of the discussion.
Cost Cost is normally a definite advantage. Generating longitudinal data from scratch is
usually impossible, and, if possible, could easily cost $250,000 upwards. Secondary sources
may also provide geographical and international spread. However, until investigated this
cost advantage should not be taken for granted. The supply of data from data archives
can be costly and requesting special tabulations from government survey sources can be
very costly. Many company data sets are extremely useful, but commercial data providers
can charge up to $65,000 subscription per year.
Relative Speed This is a definite advantage of most, but not all, secondary data theses.
Library-based or Internet-based research is usually much faster. For example, with
longitudinal data, a set of well-run surveys could take six years to obtain coverage plus the
analysis time. This is impossible for all thesis writers.
Clarity of Research Domain As we have seen with meta-analysis, this may be true only
in part. As the data sets already exist, then it is true that you can evaluate them prior to
use. However, there are serious issues of sampling frame and the known population,
measurement bias, and lack of reliability.
Second-Hand Clothes - Secondary data are dirty and you can only blame your older sister
up to a point! You may have to clean up the data, check it against other sources and
contact organizations to clarify some issues. This can be very time-consuming. In
addition, second- hand clothes are dated; the data available to you may be 10 years out of
date. You need to address the question of whether you need current data.
One often-unrecognised disadvantage is that you lose out on the training advantage of the
research process - doing interviews, framing a questionnaire, and handling SPSS or other
statistical packages. Your research craft training is diminished. This may not be
important to you, but the issue should be recognized and assessed.

Reflection
The balance between theory and fact in reports is often misunderstood. The role of
theory is to provide a model of the world that assists in decision-making. But for the
theory or model to have strength it needs to be underpinned by hard data. This also
enables the implications and outcomes to be quantified.
It is vital for you to allow time for the research phase to sink in, for the mass of ideas and
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information to swirl about in your mind. From this is likely to emerge patterns and ideas
that will form the basis for your conclusions and recommendations. Don't be afraid to toy
with a range of ideas at this stage.
If you are working on your report with others, this is the time to brain-storm ideas and
jointly make sense of what you have. A team can be a genius, while the individual
members are just ordinary people.

The importance of focus


Under-focus
A n example here is of a study of a specific sector, such as the service sector, the banking
industry, or mining. The most common problem is for the writer to research everything
ever written on that industry and generate 400 pages of descriptive material. What do
you do with this material? There is no obvious limitation, government reports and
newspaper reports continue to flood out so the thesis goes on forever. Expansion
becomes infinite and there is too diffuse a focus. This is what Howard & Sharp (1983)
called under-focusing.

Over-focus
A manager starts by saying they will look at reengineering, or the learning
organisation or knowledge capitalism a current, topical, management term. The
problem in this case is that the writer spends all their time trying to define the term what is meant by reengineering? A series of attempted definitions follow; the writer
produces ten agonized papers trying to define the term. Of course, the term is just a
current buzz word used by management consultants to sell a package. But the writer
project becomes more and more introspective and ends up becoming too narrow. This is
what Howard & Sharp (1983) called over-focusing.
At the end of the research phase you will have generated a lot of data. Do you include all
your research material in the report?
While this is tempting, the answer is no.
Select the data which is relevant to:

T he reader

Your argument

Your level of appeal (about which more later)


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Arranging and sorting your materials


Preparation helps us to identify what our report is really about, who it is for, to research
and gather relevant information and to become masters of the subject. However, by the
end of this first stage all we are likely to have is a large pile of confusing notes, some of
which may be capable of illuminating the problem, some of which may also form part of
the solution. Below are two useful techniques to help with this part of the process.

Post-it notes
In the case of all lengthy arguments, a useful technique is to formulate sections and put
title and key points onto small Post-It notes. These can be laid out on a desk and shuffled
around until you are confident that the argument flows logically.
It is much better to do this rather than simply start writing in the hope that you will
automatically create a logical flow.

Mind mapping
Alternatively, mind mapping is a useful technique. Developed by Tony Buzan, it is a
useful way to bring your conscious thinking into line with the organic way the brain
actually works.

Presentations
Reports

To do Holiday planning

Filing systems
Shopping

Lists
Organising information
URGENT!
Mindmapping!
Idea generation
Reading

Group
brainstorming

Note taking
Individual

Lectures

Committees

Meetings

self
review

Problem
solving
6 hats

Personal
goal-setting

analysis

A mind map:
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Organises data and highlights issues

Generates concepts/themes

Provides a structure

Simplifies and clarifies

Aids memory

In the centre of a landscape sheet of paper, draw the name of the topic you are mind
mapping inside an icon or simple picture that sums it up. For example, if you were mind
mapping a new computer system you might put it inside a stylised VDU.
Select key words and print them in upper case letters. Each word or image must be alone
and on its own line radiating out from the central topic. Words that might spring to mind
regarding the computer system could be applications, users, hardware, suppliers
etc.
In the centre the lines are thicker, organic and flowing becoming thinner as they radiate
outwards. It is useful to use images, symbols, codes and dimension throughout your Mind
Map rather than just words.
Each line should then branch as associations appear to the main topic. So for
applications, you might then see word-processing, order processing, stock control,
etc. Additional ideas may emerge that fit other branches so add them accordingly. Some
ideas may fit more than one area of the map so you can make lateral connections too.
This is why Mind Maps are also called spider diagrams.
Use colours and emphasis to show associations between related topics in your Mind Map.
The Map must be enjoyable to look at, muse over and easy to remember.
Here are some instructions for how to get started.
1. T ake a sheet of flipchart paper. T urn it to landscape and pay it on a table.
2.

In the centre draw the name of the topic you are mind mapping inside an icon or
simple picture that sums it up. For example, if you were mind mapping a new
computer system you might put it inside a stylised VDU.

3. Select key words and print them in upper case letters. Each word or image must be alone
and on its own line radiating out from the central topic. Words that might spring to
mind regarding the computer system could be applications, users, hardware,
suppliers etc.

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4. In the centre the lines are thicker, organic and flowing becoming thinner as they radiate
outwards. It is useful to use images, symbols, codes and dimension throughout your Mind
Map rather than just words.
5. Each line should then branch as associations appear to the main topic. So for
applications, you might then see word-processing, order processing, stock control,
etc.
6. Additional ideas may emerge that fit other branches so add them accordingly.
7. Some ideas may fit more than one area of the map so you can make lateral connections
too. T his is why Mind Maps are also called spider diagrams.
8. Use colours and emphasis to show associations between related topics in your Mind
Map. T he map must be enjoyable to look at, muse over and easy to remember.
Remember, the Mind map is not the report or event the structure of the report. But it is a
very good way of categorising and connecting the information you will need to cover.
Once you have grouped your information, the key steps are to prioritise the information
into a logical order, based on:

Importance

relevance

Chapter review
By this stage we have:

Researched our data

Organised it by mind mapping or other techniques

Sorted our data for relevance

Now we need a structure to our argument

Chapter 3 Structure
What is the difference between organising and structuring your report?
Organising groups your data but structuring creates a logical argument. Structuring make
your report easier to writeand easier to read.

Finalising objectives
A useful technique at this stage is to summarise the purpose of the report in a single
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sentence. For this document, this could be:

`To provide a simple manual for defining and writing business reports, with an
emphasis on the need to research and create a strong central argument and choose an
appropriate format and style.'
Hopefully, this then reminds the writer of the scope of the document and lends help to
the all important question of a TITLE. The Title should be capable of communicating
the angle you are taking as well as the subject. The title should attract the reader and give
them a hint of the excitement (sic) to come.
More deeply, it is useful to break your communication objectives into three areas:
COGNITIVE: what do we want the reader to know?
AFFECTIVE: what do we want the reader to feel?
EFFECTIVE: what do we want the reader to do?
In any report then, I will generally want my reader to:

know key facts and theories and options for action

feel the issue is important, that the analysis and recommendations are sound and
valuable

Accept my conclusions and take the recommended action

Do not be afraid to state your communication objectives in your report. They help your
reader see the relevance of the report. They also help them make the decisions and take
the actions you need.

Level of Appeal
In terms of winning an argument, there are three options for establishing the level of
appeal:
1. to the readers intellect
2. to the readers emotions
3. to the readers habits of thought
Experience shows that an argument that fits the readers current beliefs will be likeliest to
be accepted. However, if your recommendations run counter to your readers views, then
the next best option is to appeal to their emotions. Sadly, an appeal purely to the
intellect is least likely to win acceptance.

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Ideas/Key issues
A strong central idea is vital to the report. A myriad of small observations and
recommendations does not make for a worthwhile report. Even if you decide to make a
large number of recommendations, it is best to group, or theme, them so that they can be
seen to contributing to a strategy. In all cases, there has to be a key issue to define and a
unique angle or solution to recommend.
EXAMPLE
For example, a handbook for arranging terms and conditions for overseas secondment
could easily become a tedious list of details about National Insurance, currency, housing,
etc. While these are necessary they are unlikely to cover all eventualities.
Therefore a strategic principle is needed, which they will fit inside. This could be a
recognition that overseas secondments are vital to an international company and we
should ensure that the ex-patriot is rewarded sufficiently well to make it worthwhile for
them to go, but not so generously that they do not want to come back!

Selection
Finally, use your evidence to answer the question you are addressing specifically and avoid
simply writing on the right theme in a loosely conceived way.
Since some of the implications of the subject will not become apparent until you have
done quite a lot of reading and research, do look back at the exact wording of the question
in the case of an assignment every now and then and check that your work is still on
target.
When you have spent a long time researching information, an effort for which you are
justifiably proud, it is very tempting to litter your report with all the data you have
gathered. Unfortunately, this is like refusing to throw away old and tatty Christmas
decorations and putting them up, despite the fact that they obscure a select number of
lovely, fresh new items.
Not only will you obscure your central idea and argument, you also run the risk of some
of the data being seized upon by hostile readers as evidence against your case.
There are three rules:
1. Discard truly irrelevant information
2. Consign to appendices or footnotes that information which the sceptical may want to
evaluate for themselves
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3. Place a reduced emphasis on data that, while important, may be unhelpful to winning
your argument. Don't miss it out altogether. If you do, you will be considered either
ignorant or cynical.
This applies whether you are producing a short statistical report or a lengthy business
case. In both cases, brevity and relevance are equally necessary. In a short report that
helps keep it short. In a long document, they ensure it remains crisp and that the reader
remains conscious.
EXAMPLE
A report recommending the purchase of a new piece of equipment should identify the
features and benefits that the equipment will need. You would want to show how the
preferred supplier's offering is appropriate, but not provide detailed specifications for the
many competitors that do not meet standards. You may choose to name them and
identify why they have been rejected though, to avoid defenders of those suppliers
suggesting you have not considered them at all.

Structure of the argument


Having revisited your objectives, developed your idea and selected your materials, now is
the time to consider the structure of your argument. For a simple one page statistical
report, you will just want to decide the order in which the data should be displayed in order
to make sense to the reader.
The structure of a report obviously needs to reflect its purpose. However there are some
useful options to consider.

Order of importance
If you are discussing seven issues, it may be best to deal with the most important ones at
the beginning when the reader is guaranteed to be at their most alert.

Urgency
In a similar way to order of importance, here the report is structured in descending order.
Beware urgency is not the same as importance!

Simple to complex
In a report designed to instruct or provide detailed information, it makes sense to
introduce the reader to simpler issues and then move on to the more complex.

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Global to specific
In the same way as simple/complex, this approach starts from a helicopter view before
focusing in on detail or specifics

Chronological
A narrative description of a series of events. This is of limited value on its own - as the
infamous Starr report on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky proved.

Comparison/contrast
A balanced analysis of two alternatives with the objective of providing a summary of
strengths and weaknesses. This is fine as far as it goes. But in business there is a general
desire to be able to act upon the considered findings and so you will usually be asked to
draw conclusions and make recommendations.

Direct vs. Indirect


This simple concept is very important. A direct argument states the conclusions and then
provides the supporting evidence. An indirect argument analyses the evidence and then
moves forward to the statement of conclusions and recommendations.
The decision as to which structure to use is dependent on the likely reaction of the reader.
If the reader is likely to be sympathetic to your argument then a direct style is a safe
option. If they are likely to be negative or challenge your interpretation, then you may
prefer to amass your evidence and lead them to the conclusion.

Problem/solution the 5 Ps
For longer, proposal style reports, a good general structure adopts a mnemonic known as
the 5 Ps.
Position
- where are we now and why are we writing this report at this time. This is another way of
describing context or terms of reference.
Problem
- identification, research into and summary of the problem (or opportunity)
Possibilities
- consideration of options for solving it, with the acceptance and rejection of the weak
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alternatives, via the use of assessment criteria


Proposal
- your central idea and recommendation/solution.
Price
- no solutions are achieved without costs being involved - in terms of resources, time or
staffing. Without a clear cost/benefit analysis, you will guarantee only one outcome : no
decision and the instruction to go away and do now what you should have done in the first
place!

Making the structure clear


When it comes to writing up, make sure your organic structure is communicated to your
readers. Dont hesitate to use subheadings to label the sections. Explain your structure in
the introduction. Use a contents page to provide a route map for the reader.

Visual evidence
When a graphic artist sets to work designing the layout of a magazine article, an
advertisement or product carton, they take a long look at the non textual elements. In
other words, they look at the pictures, diagrams, tables and charts. They position them
and then flow the text around them. Text is like water, it will go anywhere. But pictures
need to be displayed properly and laid out to entice the reader in.
The same is true of reports. DO NOT write the report and then look around for Clip
Art graphics or other visuals to tart it up. Locate your visuals first and then work around
them. If you have a clear diagram or key sets of tables and graphs, make the most of
them.

Remember: a picture is worth a thousand words.


If you are having trouble with your structure, there are four options that can help clarify
issues:
1. T alk it through with a colleague
2. Write the argument down without referring to your notes
3. Write out the section headings only
4. T ake a break to allow yourself space to think and reflect

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Chapter review
Weve established

Our precise objectives

T he level of appeal

T he structure of the argument

Now we need to start writing!

Chapter 4 - Writing
Never fear big long words
Big long words name little things.
All big things have little names;
Such as life and death, peace and war
Or dawn, day, night, hope, love and home.
Learn to use little words in a big way.
It is hard to, but they say what you mean.
When you dont know what you mean,
use big words.
W Stark and E B White

How does poor writing make us feel?


Typical reactions include: Unwilling to respond; Uncertain as to what to do; Confused ;
Bored; Patronised, or even Angry.
What makes writing poor? The typical weaknesses are:

Unclear purpose

Jargon and technicalities

Excessive length

Dull, flat language

Impersonal style

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Plain English
Any writer appealing to a contemporary audience would be wise to remember the key
principle of the plain English movement. Your document should be:
read and understood the first time
This means that we should

select words the reader understands

use strong, vigorous words

prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar

prefer the short to the long

use specialist vocabularies where appropriate (and with explanation)

Nobody writes perfectly; we all have weaknesses. However, there are some simple
guidelines. Here are nine guidelines that you may find useful.
1. Create a focus first. Avoid limp-wristed or weak starts like: T he real point here is
., It is no coincidence that . As an aside, note that .
2. State relations, correlations, basic data, etc. then qualify. The opposite path is to start
with a hesitant string of qualifications, before getting to the point. In this case, the
point is usually lost.
3. Keep it brief. Length is not a virtue. T his is true for: Sentences, Paragraphs, Sections,
Chapters all of them.
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4. State, and re-state conclusions. Always ask yourself what is the key message here? Keep
the key message up front. In connection with this, put in summarising paragraphs and
sentences In summary, there are three major points.
5. Use linkages, e.g. So far, I have discussed one explanation. In the next section, I will
discuss . T he order of text, the flow of argument, may be clear to you but is it to
other people? Linkages make it clear. T hey are pathway signs.
6. Use charts, tables, figures and write around those. T his is particularly good advice if
English is not your first language or if you are not good at structuring your material.
7. Dont be afraid to use images, metaphors, etc. T hey can communicate very well and
enliven the text.
8. Examine the style of key authors whom you admire What do they do? How do they
do it?
9. Check spelling and grammar. Use Spell and Grammar checks, but do not accept
everything the computer tells you it sometimes gets it wrong, or pushes you to a
format that you did not intend.

Active vs. Passive sentence construction


Verbs are the strongest part of speech, and they are at their strongest when used in the
active rather than passive voice.. When verbs are in their active voice, they show their
subject doing the action; when verbs are passive, they show the subject being acted upon.
As a general rule, put action into your verbs:
EXAMPLE
ACTIVE

`The CEO has approved the new budget'

PASSIVE

`The revised budget has been approved by the CEO'

The active sentence is shorter and more vivid.


Documents produced using Microsoft Word for Windows can be checked for readability
using the Spelling and Grammar option contained under Tools.

Jargon and technical terms


Do not use jargon unless:

An alternative would be inaccurate

An alternative would confuse the reader

T here is no alternative
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Dont use it to

Make yourself look important

Make the report seem more important

And if you do use jargon

Explain the term the first time you use it

Provide a glossary of terms in a large document as part of the appendices

The Fog Factor


The fog factor is a term given to the readability of a document. It is basically a function
of length. Generally speaking, you will reduce the fog if you use:

short words

short sentences

short paragraphs

However, you need to be aware of the need to balance this against variety and changes of
texture. Short sentences get boring. Short words can be crude. Do not be afraid to vary
sentence length and use carefully selected vocabulary when you need to be precise.
Avoid talking around the point. For example,
Roundabout

To the Point

In view of the fact that

Because

During the time that

While

At the present time

Now

Better to be clear and direct, rather than pad out sentences.

Paragraphing
Likewise, short paragraphs aid understanding.
Each paragraph should contain a single idea, then develop it and draw it to a logical close.
While paragraphs may be short they should usually be more than a single sentence.
Remember that variety stimulates the readers attention.

Bullet points
Use bullet points with care. Bullet points are for making largely factual points, lists or for
summaries. The one danger is that they imply that each bullet is of equal calibre. This
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could dilute your argument as it demotes the important to the same level as the trivial.

Concrete vs. abstract


Concrete words are simple, vivid and frequently factual. Abstract words may hint at
meaning, but are open to interpretation.
EXAMPLE
`a good profit' could mean anything, but a 22% net profit is absolutely clear. `Improved
efficiency' is fine, but a `25% increase in output from the team really tells us something
that we can work with.

Tone of Voice
Be very wary of allowing a less than objective tone of voice to colour the report. This
does not mean that the writer cannot allow personality to show through. However, an
apparent distaste for the subject, or lack of enthusiasm for the ideas, will only distract the
reader from the argument.

The power of the positive


People buy positives. If you tell a child:
Dont touch the wet paint
They hear:
Touch the wet paint
So emphasising the negative tends to have very poor results Instead, look for ways to
encourage the reader to think positive.
Rather than talk in terms of what could go wrong if we do nothing, write about the
benefits that will be gained and the risks reduced as a result of positive action.

How to check if your report reads well


After you have been working on a document for long time, it is hard to judge how well it
reads. Here are some tips to help:

Ask a colleague to read it

Read it out loud to yourself

Read it into a tape-recorder


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Chapter summary
By this stage in the process we will have:

Adopted a plain spoken English style

Given our words life through active sentence construction

Emphasised the positive

Shortened the document where possible

So now lets make sure it looks as good as it reads

Chapter 5 - Layout
Format
By this stage, you will have a very clear of the format of your document. For simple
reports, this may be a pre-printed sheet into which figures are placed by hand. For regular
text based reports, it may be a set of topics that you will always want to write against.
For the more complex, business case report, the format will be unique on each occasion.
However, the basic 5 Ps outlined above should be considered for lengthy one-off reports
and dissertations.
EXAMPLE
A weekly project update report could take the following format:
Section One

New projects

(clients, objectives, tasks to be completed, timescales, responsibilities)


Section Two

Existing projects

(current situation, next steps, progress against critical path)


Section Three

Any other issues

(staffing, potential problems, etc.)

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Style
Form and content go hand in hand. A short factual report will be light on text and
commentary, strong on figures and short observations.
A lengthier report will form more of a narrative, with the writer taking the reader on a
journey - out of the wilderness (the problem) and into the promised land (the solution).
As you can imagine, you can only get away with a sentence like that in a document of
this format. On a one-page report to the Chief Executive it might look a little strange.
Although the subject may be technical, always try to avoid descending into technobabble. Even the most ardent enthusiast for a technical subject needs to come up for air
from time to time. If you need to use acronyms, make sure you explain them for a less
knowledgeable audience.
The importance of a concise style cannot be overstated. British Prime Minister, Winston
Churchill instructed his civil servants as follows:

To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too
long.
This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.
I ask my colleagues and their staffs to see to it that their reports are shorter.
The aim should be reports which set out the main points in a series of short, crisp
paragraphs.
Let us have an end of such phrases as these, It is also of importance to bear in mind
the following considerations. Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which
can be left out altogether or replaced by a single word..
Reports drawn up on the lines I propose may at first seem strange. But the saving in
time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove
an aid to clearer thinking.

Flow
As already stated, the more contentious your recommendation, the more you need to
consider the flow of your argument. Sometimes, it is better to take an indirect approach ,
building up an argument slowly rather than rushing straight in with the proposal. A
conservative readership may have great difficulty accepting your recommendation if they
are presented `in your face' On the other hand, a gradual logical build-up may lead the
horse to water and make him drink.

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Subheadings
Subheads help to divide up the report and signpost stages. In a very long document, rather
than simply use plain headings like `Background' or `Introduction', you may wish to add
or amplify. For example,
`Background: Increasing competitive pressure'
Such headings will give the reader an expectation of what the main theme of the section
will be.
Only legal or contractual documents benefit from complex numbering of paragraphs and
sections.

Page layout
Running
header
Report writing

Small font
with
generous
line spacing

Page
layout

Page layout
Headings, as above, are best in clear sans
seraph faces, while body copy is easiest to
read in seraph faces such as Times (11pt).
Other rules are:

Large
margins
for notes

Put plenty of space around the text


and between paragraphs
Use headers and footers to identify
document and page numbers.
Use bullet points or numberssparingly

Page
numbering

Section 1 Page 5

In the age of readily available desktop publishing, it is very easy to produce an overstylised mess. Some useful general rules of typography can be summarised, and illustrated,
as follows:

Put large margins into your document, the outside margin should be
larger than the inner on facing pages.

Use no more than two typefaces (sans seraph faces such as


Helvetica make for good headings, seraph faces, such as Times New
Roman, make for readable body copy)

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Never use capitals for more than a VERY SHORT section; they give
emphasis but
are very hard to read. The same is true of
underlining. Italics work best for captions, quotations or short
phrases. In all cases, the aim is to contrast a small section with the
rest of the standard text. The contrast is lost if it is overdone.

Use a small typeface rather than one that is too large.

Headers and footers are worthwhile to remind the reader of the


subject of the document and the author/department, along with page
numbering.

Line length should be no more than approximately 40 characters

Leading- the space between lines - can be increased to improve


legibility. This makes the text look airier and gives room to the
reader to make notes, remarks or underline key passages.

Widows and orphans should be avoided. A widow is when the last


few words or line are on the next page. An orphan describes the
beginning of a sentence or paragraph occurring at the bottom of a
page.

Be consistent. Development of a house style to documents, or at


least within the document greatly aids readability and credibility.

Avoid gimmicks and frills, such as fancy bullet points or drop


capitals or shadows. They may be acceptable in advertising
material, but unworthy of a serious report.

Left justification is less tidy than full justification but avoids the
problem of words that are
spread
automatically
to
fit
the
space.

The latter

only looks clumsy and thin.

Tricks and Tips


The US Consultancy, Shipley Associates, are speciliasts in proposal writing. They have
some interesting concepts that are applicable to the report writing process.
Action Caption
A short informative statement against a graphic which provides additional information
about the content of the graphic that will help the reader draw the right conclusion.
Advantage
An advantage is in the opinion of the seller, a benefit or possible benefit to the customer.
They may arise when the customers issues are unclear to the seller and the seller makes
assumptions about customer issues.
Benefit
A benefit of an offer will resolve a customer issue. To claim a benefit, there must be a
feature of the offer that clearly allows the benefit to be realised.
Compliance Checklist

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A list of specific customer requirements. The list is often generated by splitting complex
questions into separate requirements.
Compliance Matrix
Also called a response matrix. The matrix is a road map that enables the evaluator to use
a reference that points to specific proposal responses for each compliance item. The
matrix may also contain a summary response.
Discriminator
A unique feature of an offer that supports a benefit. Commonly, a weak discriminator is
where the feature is only different to one other competitor rather than all competitors.
Executive Summary
A short summary of the main points of the offer aimed at the senior level decision
makers in the customers organisation.
Feature
Features are tangible aspects of the offer. They are normally measurable and
demonstrable.
Hot Buttons
Singularly important issue or set of issues that are likely to drive decisions, usually
associated with customer buying decisions.
Issues
Issues are the concerns of the customer that require resolution by the bidder. Issues may
be emotional and not articulated in the customers requirement documents.
Motivators
A subset of issues that relate to the fundamental reasons behind the customers need to
make a purchase. Sometimes called motivators to buy.
Proposal Outline Plan
A structure for the proposal that is usually derived from the customers requirements
documentation. The outline may be annotated to show writing responsibilities, page count
estimates and so on.
Requirements Checklist
Similar to a compliance checklist, but can be self-generated when there is no written
customer requirement. Is often used as a tool to monitor progress.

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Storyboard
Conceptual planning tool used to help writers plan each section before drafting text;
contains assignments, bid request requirements, strategies, preliminary visuals, and
contents
Theme Statement
A short articulation to the customer of the main point in a proposal section. Typically,
the theme statement would link a discriminating feature to a benefit.
Value
Essentially, what the offer is worth to the purchaser. It is rarely fully quantifiable by
purchasers.
Value Proposition
An attempt to specifically address how aspects of the offer impact on the customers
business.

Quotations and References


All quotations should begin with a single quotation mark and end with the same. As a
general rule you should give the source of the quotation in your text. In a similar way, you
should use either footnotes or endnotes to reference the ideas and concepts of authors
you have read and used in your report.

Bibliography
If you have referred to books or other sources, do reference them in a short bibliography.

Chapter summary
By now, we have:

Created an attractive page layout

Made good use of visual aids

All thats left is to check its complete and deliver it to our readers

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Chapter 6 - Packaging and delivery


Final reflection
Inevitably, we leave writing the document so late that there is little time to re-read and
revise it prior to delivery. This is, of course, a mistake. It is helpful to let the first glow of
authorship subside, and to reflect on the inappropriateness of some of the examples or
ideas. Remember, once it has been written and delivered it cannot be retracted.

What does packaging cover?

Cover

Executive Summary

Contents page

Appendices

Printing

Accompanying paperwork

The structure in detail


If your document has the following sections, take care to make sure that you have
covered the following points of detail.
Title page

Title of the report

Author/department

Who it has been produced for

Date

Confidentiality/copyright notes (as appropriate)

Logo (if going to an external audience)

Contents page

All main headings listed, including appendices

must include page numbering

use the Word Table of Contents tool for this.

Executive Summary

One page (or 10% of the overall document length)

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Summarises the problem and solutions in a few short, convincing


paragraphs

Designed for the hard of reading, and capable of convincing on its


own

Usually written last!

Introduction (Position/context)

Authorisation (who it is for)

Terms of reference

What the document is about

Why it has been commissioned

Scope

Objectives of the document (not of the solution)

Basic organisation of the document

Background (Problem)

Brief history of the problem

Places subject into a strategic context, illustrating its relevance

Ensures all readers are abreast of the facts

May be condensed into the introduction in shorter reports

Objectives (of the solution)

What the solution must achieve to be worthy of the name

Primary and secondary objectives

Pitfalls to be avoided/special considerations

Research methods used

Criteria developed for evaluating solutions

Constraints

Acknowledgement of sources and support

Method

Summary of Findings

Key research data

Detail should appear in appendices

Careful of corporate sensitivities

Possibilities

Short review of options

Dismissal of unworkable or inappropriate solutions

Conceptual argument for solution

Detailed description

Proposal

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Implementation (Price)

Cost/benefit analysis

Timescales and implementation

Conclusions

A reminder of the problem

Brief description of how the proposal solves it

Restatement of the main benefits

Call to action (varies depending on nature of document)

Positive tone

References/bibliography
Appendices

The Title
A good title is crucial to your report being read. An effective title is crucial to attracting
the reader. It should be memorable and eye catching but genuinely encapsulate the subject.
A newspaper headline is a good example. While we would not recommend going too far in
the direction of puns and shock tactics, the quality newspaper sub-editors will work very
hard on constructing effective titles.
Contents page
Once again, much easier to do using modern word processing software, a detailed contents
page:

Summarises content

Conveys level of detail/scope

Illustrates structure

Assists navigation

What else does packaging need to cover?

Acknowledgements

Appendices

T hanks to anyone who has helped

All supporting material that doesnt belong in the main text

Bibliography
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All written sources of information

Sources

All non-published sources of information

Delivery method and follow-up


A report of almost any length will be best accompanied by a note or memo. This alerts
the reader to what it is about, why they have been sent it, what they are expected to do
and gives you an opportunity to encourage them to read it.
If the report is designed to generate a decision, then remind people of the timescale. Be
prepared to follow it up - by telephone or in person - to check it has been read, clarify
any points arising, and look for the action that you hoped it would inspire.
If your document is going to a group of decision-makers, then your best strategy is to
create an occasion to hand over the report, such as a short presentation. But the art of
giving effective presentations is the subject of another story.

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Chapter summary
In this chapter we have:

Given the report an attractive cover

Developed a catchy title

Created an effective summary

Provided a useful contents page

Checked spelling, grammar & readability

Presented it in the most effective way

Conclusions
We have set out to show that any subject can be treated effectively by:

identifying the key issues

creating a structured solution

presenting it clearly and simply

remembering the needs of the reader

To write well is not the result of a natural gift. It is about good preparation, logical
organisation and having a basic set of skills. No-one expects to win the Booker prize by
producing a decent report. However, provided they have identified the objectives of their
communication, then achieving those is enough reward in itself.
A report is only a means to an end. Never in business, should it be regarded as an end in
itself.
Dont write a report if there is a better way. If you have to, be clear about your objectives
and your reader. Make sure you are saying something new and saying it clearly. Follow up
your hard work, it cant achieve your goals on its own

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Glossary of Terms
Axioms: the highest level hypotheses; statements that are assumed to be true or selfevident. They are assumptions which only imply but never are implied.
Deductive thinking: working down the ladder of generalisation or abstraction. Building
conclusions based on a set of generalisations, axioms or existing theories.
Hypothesis: a statement specifying interrelations among sets of variables or concepts.
Inductive thinking: building a more general conclusion from a set of particular
observations.
Scientific Method: a circular process of testing of ideas. The aim is to explain phenomena
through objective evaluation of hypotheses.
Theory: A theory is a structure involving a set of hypotheses and a relation among those
hypotheses called implication or deductibility, so the set of hypotheses are logically
connected.
Case study method: focuses on one case, or perhaps a small number of related cases,
from which the researcher seeks a lot of detailed information.
First-order interpretation: the researcher learns about the meaning of the data or
action for the people under study.
Focus Groups: an interviewer-facilitated group discussion.
Grounded theory: theory built from data which have been systematically obtained by
social research.
Observation: the systematic observation, recording, description, analysis and
interpretation of peoples behaviour.
Participant Observation: the researcher participates to some degree in the lives and
activities of those people being observed.
Qualitative Research: provides data primarily in the form of words.
Quantitative Research: hypothesis testing primarily based on numerical data.
Second-order interpretation: the researcher understands the significance of the action for
the people under study.
Semi-structured Interviews: based on a set agenda of items with open discussion covering
certain themes and questions.
Third-order interpretation: the researcher assigns general theoretical significance.
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Unstructured Interviews: explores in depth a general area of research interest.


Interviewees are encouraged to talk freely about events, behaviour and beliefs in relation
to the research area.

Further reading
Business Communications, A Cultural and Strategic Approach. Rouse, M J and Rouse, S
(Thomson Learning, 2002)
The New Fowlers Modern English Usage. Burchfield, R. (Oxford University Press, 1998)
The Seven Deadly Skills of Communicating, Jay R. (International Thomson Business
Press 1999)
Business Communication Today, Bovee C and Thill, J (Prentice Hall, 2000)
Communication for Business: a practical approach, Taylor S (Addison-Wesley, 1998)

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