How to Write Reports That Drive Action and Inspire Change
Let’s be honest. Research reports don’t have the best reputation. They are important documents that present data, summarise findings and suggest recommendations. But the image you have in your head right now is likely either of dull, drab pages of text, or something very similar spread across an obnoxiously large slide deck (with a few more graphs and charts). Detailed and accurate, yes. Memorable and inspirational? Not quite so much.
There’s no shortage of advice on how to write one of these reports. Much of it even digs into the workflows for organising data and creating compelling stories. Generally, advice can be broken down into a three-stage process:
1. Define objectives — before putting pen to paper, ask what the purpose of the report is. What is the outcome you want to achieve, and how will this impact the story you want to tell? Perhaps these goals will even shape the data you include or the recommendations that you make.
2. Structure your report — ensure that your report follows a logical structure. While this may be impacted by your objectives, it’s generally good practice to include: an executive summary, an introduction, key data points, recommendations and conclusions. Additional or supplementary data can be included in appendices.
3. Tailor for the audience — be sure to keep your readers in mind when writing your report. Consider the knowledge they already have, and what information will be new to them. Write in both a style and tone that is appealing to them. And, where possible, anticipate how they will react. You can use this foresight to strengthen key points, quell objectives and be better prepared for post-report actions.
All of these points are important. But, to take a more philosophical approach — they don’t help us achieve the most common purpose of market research. So let’s take a step back, investigate the role of research reports in business and investigate how we can better serve those needs.
Why Write Research Reports?
To answer this question, it’s perhaps best to start with another. When do we write reports? Broadly, most companies will deploy market research in two scenarios. But we don’t write reports in each. Here’s perhaps the simplest way to characterise the difference:
- Informational: to monitor a regular data point such as customer satisfaction, NPS or brand perceptions. Typically referred to as tracking studies, and best reported via self-serve or curated dashboards.
- Investigational: to answer a specific question, either when results unexpectedly change in a tracking study or when the business has an important decision to make. Commonly served by written or presented reports.
By viewing the role of research through this lens, it becomes clear that the purpose of a research report isn’t just to answer a question. It’s to help a business decide what to do next. That’s important context. Because decisions require a stance. They require an element of persuasion. If insight professionals want decision-makers to make the right choice (or the one that the data tells us is the right choice) — then they must make that case.
Impartiality, information and neutrality aren’t benefits. They are challenges to be overcome. And in order to write good reports, we can’t rely solely on objectives, structure and audience as factors for consideration. Researchers must also parse data, tell the story and inspire action.
How to Write Persuasive Reports
So, let’s look at how to write more persuasive reports that inspire readers to take action. We’ll start with the roles of ethos, logos and pathos. These all modes of persuasion to balance, dating back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. That means ethos, logos and pathos have been at the center of persuasive writing for over 2,000 years.
Ethos — This refers to how an author presents themselves. In order to be persuasive, it’s important to build trust, credibility and authority. That might mean referencing previous works, explaining personal experience or even demonstrating reliable knowledge through relevance and accuracy.
Logos — This is the use of rational, logical arguments. In report writing, to write with logos means to draw a consistent through line to demonstrate cause and effect. It means showing facts and figures, pairing quotes with statistics and creating a structured story.
Pathos — This is your appeal to emotion. Writing with pathos is an acknowledgement that humans are note purely rational creatures. We are persuaded as much (if not more) by feelings than facts. To invoke pathos in report writing involves telling human stories, providing vivid descriptions and building empathy.
In addition to writing with consideration of ethos, logos and pathos — there are a number of modern techniques that have been developed to give your reports a persuasive edge. By utilising these, we can shift the dynamic of reports from documents that are considered alongside personal beliefs, to the drivers of action. Here are four of the most effective techniques:
- Repetition. Not only does this technique serve as a memory aid, but there is a distinct link between the number of times a point is repeated and the relative weight we mentally assign to it. The more times a point is made, the more important readers will consider it to be.
- Questioning. If our goal is to drive action, then reporting cannot be a one-sided affair. Whilst it is the role of the report to deliver information, it’s also crucial to engage stakeholders with relevant rhetorical questions that engage critical thinking.
- Clarity. The easier a narrative is to understand, the easier it is to act upon. It can be tempting to stuff reports with ‘the full picture’ or deliver information as its presented. But complexity breeds inaction. It can lead to analysis paralysis. Instead, be clear with your points and deliver a linear decision-making pathway.
- Timing. Industry doesn’t stand still. Reports reflect a snapshot in time; the longer the gap between that snapshot and resulting action, the less impactful results might be. Keep this in mind when writing your report and emphasise the benefits of timely decision-making based on your findings.
Ultimately, if you take one point away from this article — it’s that research reports are much more than neutral presentations of data. They are a vital part of the decision-making process, and one that provide insight professionals a rare opportunity to guide stakeholders down the path of customer-centricity.
Reports are the moments in which both company culture and carefully applied persuasive techniques can come together to inspire change and drive meaningful action. But it’s up to us to make that happen, and be the voice customers would want to be in that room. Not an impartial one, but a passionate and compelling one.
This blog was originally published on the FlexMR Insights Blog and can be accessed here.