Top post: 10 small changes for transforming your client reports

Small Steps Big Changes for client reports

It’s time for another of rerun of a top post for the year. This was originally posted in April 2019.

I’m currently reading One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer, a book about taking small actions to ease into new habits. When we make any sort of change, we tend to aim for a major overhaul, which can be daunting – often preventing us from getting started. Instead, says, Maurer, we should aim for taking just one small step, one slight change that will make a big difference and motivate us to do more.

What I find interesting about this idea is how it can be applied all areas of our lives and work. In investigations, it seems especially useful for moving from delivering just OK reports to delivering reports that get read – and used.

Research and investigative skills mean nothing if we can’t write reports that help readers understand the issues, make decisions, or take action. Sometimes, though, report writing becomes an after-thought, and we rely on our old ways. We rush to deliver and spend little time on appearances or how we tell the story. Finding time for a major overhaul of report templates seems overwhelming, though, so we keep putting it off.

But what if we didn’t have to change everything at once? What if we could make just one or two slight adjustments as a first step? A change here, a change there, and before you know it, clients start noticing, and it keeps you going. But where to start?

Here’s a list of 10 small changes you can try this week that will make a big impact on your client reports. No need to do all, and they’re in no special order, so just start anywhere:

  1. Check for jargon – Use words that make sense to your readers, rather than trying to impress them with your knowledge.
  2. Reduce noise – Eliminate any words or phrases that have nothing to add, and look for ways to cut right to the essentials.
  3. Switch to the active voice – “We searched…” rather than “A search was run…” uses fewer words, increases clarity, and adds impact.
  4. Try a new format – Instead of a text-heavy report, create a spreadsheet or table that makes it easy for readers to digest the details.
  5. Break up text into bite-sized pieces – It’s hard to take in too much information at once. Divide your report into shorter sections that flow logically toward your conclusion.
  6. Add some white space – Use wide margins and increase line spacing to reduce crowding and make text more appealing.
  7. Include a footer – Printed pages can get out of order or misplaced, so help clients keep it together with a document title and numbering on each page.
  8. Try some graphics – With charts, timelines, or network diagrams, it’s easy to spot trends, make comparisons, and get your message across.
  9. Write a one-paragraph summary – Practice distilling your message into just a few sentences so your clients don’t need to hunt for the bottom line.
  10. Get a second opinion – Another set of eyes will provide a fresh perspective and catch errors and ambiguities.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference. Any other small changes that will transform reports?



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4 comments

  • I’m a big believer in making those incremental but purposeful adjustments. Excellent framing of that mindset when it comes to improving your report delivery formats. I reviewed a proposal yesterday for an org applying for funding, and when I suggested some of these things to keep in mind (answers were too text heavy and difficult to “see”) the writer was very happy with these suggestions but was limited largely by the constraints of the online app. Up to 10 uploaded files were permitted so we opted use to build a bigger case. Perhaps if you are dealing with word limits and fields in this kind of writing context, consider using examples of work or visuals for improved readability and visualization in supplemental materials and files uploaded.

  • Thank you, Marcy. I started using a one-paragraph summary after reading your original post in April, 2019. My clients loved it, so I now put a summary in every report I write. Another small change I started using is what I call a distance check. It’s whether a body of writing looks organized from several feet away. It’s my final check after proofreading something I’ve written before sending it to the client. I reduce the document’s size on my screen to 50% and quickly scroll through the pages. By looking at the shrunken version of the report, I get a perspective similar to that of printing the document and hanging it on the wall across my office. That makes it easy to see – at a glance – whether I’ve correctly incorporated many of your 10 small changes like adding some white space and breaking up text into bite-sized pieces. I found that when a document looks good from far enough away that I can’t discern individual words, it always looks good at close reading distance. Aloha!

    • Marcy Phelps /

      Thank you, Sam. I’m glad to hear that the tip about the one-paragraph summary was a success with your clients. And I love the tip about taking a distance check! Thanks!

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