Writing reports that get read – and used
“There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.”
The Tipping Point
Last week I had the honor of speaking at the DFW Fraud Conference, hosted by the Dallas Chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. It’s always great to meet fellow CFEs, and I especially enjoyed presenting on one of my favorite topics, Writing Reports that Get Read – and Used. It’s an important topic, too, because you might be an expert researcher or investigator, but if you can’t write an effective report, you’re only doing part of the job.
Besides accurately presenting the facts, reports should be easy to read and digest and should lead the reader to action. They should answer questions rather than creating more. And they should be interesting. A tall order, especially if writing is not your main area of expertise. Taking time to prepare an effective report is worth it, though, because it will add credibility to you, your team, and your findings.
Not sure where or how to start? Here are my top tips for improving report-writing skills:
Be prepared – If you’re working on a deadline, budget plenty of time. Report writing always takes longer than you think. Create some templates and a consistent style. Establish guidelines for handling draft reports, evidence, and other documents.
Know your audience – Reports can wind up in anyone’s hands, but take some time to assess the needs of your primary target audience. How do they consume and use the information? Do they prefer a one-page summary or all the details? Do they require a particular format or template? Ask lots of questions before you start writing.
Avoid too much text – Include only what’s necessary, adding details in an attachment or appendix. Break up content into sections, use lots of white space, and, when appropriate, add a graphic. Charts, graphs, timelines, and other visuals help readers absorb and retain information, spot trends, and connect the dots.
Strive for clarity – You’ve gone through a process to arrive at your conclusions, but your reader has not. Put yourself in their place, anticipate questions, and explain what needs to be explained. Look for gaps that should be filled, and eliminate noise by avoiding jargon.
Make it interesting – Facts don’t need to be dry. You’ve created a story through your investigation (here’s what triggered the investigation, here’s what we found, and here’s where you might want to go with this) – now go tell it. Create tension and anticipation in the report, drawing readers to the conclusion.
Keep improving – Find new ways to improve your writing with each report, and get feedback from clients for future refinements. For CFEs, I highly recommend the ACFE Report Writing Manual, which includes templates and lots of writing tips. And you don’t need a major makeover, since small changes make a big impression.
You’ve worked hard to uncover valuable information that your clients need, but don’t stop there. Keep learning and practicing so you can write reports that get read – and used.