As a consultant, your reputation will rest on the quality of your reports. Because even if you’ve done a great job in every other aspect of the project, your client will ultimately be unhappy if you fail to deliver an excellent report.
Reports are the only tangible legacy of the project, so you want that legacy to be a positive one that strengthens rather than diminishes your reputation.
Every now and again I meet someone during the course of my work who says, “Oh yes, you’re the author of the Hackett report”. I couldn’t be certain how many “Hackett reports’ are out there, but it’s a fair number. And while they haven’t always shown an organisation in its best light, I’m confident that they are all well written and have delivered value for the client in terms of their recommendations.
When you transition from employment to consulting, writing project reports from scratch is not necessarily something you will have done before. And writing as a public-sector consultant is very different from writing as a public-sector employee, so you’ll need to let go of some previous habits.
Over the years I’ve heard many stories from clients about reports produced by consultants that they were very dissatisfied with. The worst scenario was a client who had to engage another consultant to totally re-work a report. No matter how many times they went back to the original consultant for edits, it was just not up to scratch and couldn’t be released without a polish up. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how likely it would be the client would re-engage that consultant or refer them to colleagues.
So risk producing poor reports at your peril – hone your skills with my top tips for writing a consultancy report.
The 7 essential rules of writing a consultancy report
Good reports don’t ‘just happen’. They are crafted with skill and care. Here are the seven essential rules I stick to when writing a consultancy report.
1. It provides answers to the client’s problems
Seems so obvious, but the client came to you with a problem [or a set of problems] that you were tasked with finding solutions to. I’ve seen too many reports that forget that these problems should be the central focus. Don’t disappoint – make sure your report clearly specifies those problems, outlines your findings in relation to these problems, and provides your client with some sensible answers.
2. It has a logical flow
The report should tell a story and, like all good stories, it needs to flow logically and take the reader on a journey. That journey starts with context, moves on to identify the problems, then provides your findings, and finally your recommended solutions. [See the next section for a logical report structure].
3. It speaks to the report’s intended audience
When you are writing your report, it’s easy to forget that the client is very unlikely to be the same as the report’s audience. You need to find a way of speaking not only to your client, but also to a broader audience that may include internal and external stakeholders. The trick is not to assume too much or too little knowledge when you are writing.
4. It includes concrete recommendations
At the end of the day, it all comes down to your recommendations. The project has all been about solving a set of problems for your client and a report without recommendations will definitely fall short of their expectations.
5. It takes account of political sensitivities.
This is a critical aspect of public sector report writing. Because no matter what sector of government you work with there will be issues that are highly emotive for the community, highly contentious for the government and pose potential risks for organisations delivering services on the ground. You need to write the report in a way that takes account of any such issues in order to minimise any potential risk to your client.
6. It is succinct and written in plain English
If you’ve just come from the public sector into consulting, you may well bring some writing habits that will not serve you. The language of bureaucracy and the use of weasel words may prevail in government, but as a consultant, you should rid yourself of these tendencies. Use short sentences and brief paragraphs. Write things simply, as you might speak it, and don’t be tempted to wax lyrical.
7. It uses a neutral and unbiased tone
I stress the term ‘tone’ here. I’m certainly not suggesting the content of your report should be neutral and unbiased – on the contrary; you should as they say, ‘provide frank and fearless advice’. But in terms of the overall tone of your report, it must avoid using laden or emotive language.
My report structure/template
Many new consultants struggle with how to structure a full consultancy report. To help with this, in logical order, here are the six sections that are in my report template. Replicate this structure for your next report, and you’ll be on the right track.
- Executive summary [Succinct summary of overarching findings and a list of recommendations]
- Introduction and background [policy and operational context, impetus for the project, consultancy terms of reference (TOR)and project methodology]
- Factual/contextual information [e.g. service model, staffing profile, activity data]
- Findings [your diagnosis, what you found against the TOR]
- Recommendations [Actions you advise the client to take]
Top tips for shaping recommendations
In developing recommendations, you are doing a final layer of analysis to figure out ‘what next’ for the client. Recommendations need to be:
- Actionable – they must advise the client what to do – what steps need to be taken.
- Specific – vague or ambiguous recommendations are not helpful; the more specific and detailed the better.
For example, instead of recommending:
Governance mechanisms are improved
Try this instead:
Governance of the service is strengthened by:
- Delivering annual induction and training to all board members
- Revising the procurement policy in line with current legislative requirements.
The first is just vague and not helpful – the second tells the client exactly what actions need to be taken.
- Achievable/doable – when shaping recommendations, don’t reach for the sky and recommend your ultimate ideal solution. Because reports that include unattainable recommendations will very likely sit on the shelf gathering dust. You’ve worked in organisations, so you understand the complexities of implementing change. What’s required is a measured and considered process, so make sure your recommendations aren’t pie in the sky but are achievable and doable for your client.
- Tested with the client for acceptability – before you include recommendations in your report, test the waters with the client first. Discuss possible recommendations that arise from those findings and gauge what’s likely to work for the client based on where they’re at and what they have energy for. Remember, there is always more than one way up the mountain.
Advice about preparing Executive Summaries
Too often, writers think of the Executive Summary as an afterthought – just a quick summary. But as we all know, in many cases this is the only section of a report that will be read in full. So it’s an extremely important component of the report, and you need to spend time shaping it to make sure it passes the test of ‘if this is the only section a senior person reads, does it include the essential key messages and information?’
Here is my advice:
- Make sure the Executive Summary tells a shortened version of the whole
- Pay attention to logical flow – the same thing applies here as to the full report in that the Executive Summary must have a logical flow from context to problem to findings to solutions.
- Provide only the overarching findings. The body of your report should outline the ‘evidence’ for your findings. But in the Executive Summary, leave out the detail and just include the big picture in terms of what you found.
- Include the recommendations. If this is the only section someone reads, you definitely want them to know what actions you have recommended to the client.
If you’ve swapped public sector employment for public sector consulting, don’t just presume you already have report writing skills in hand. Instead, invest in developing those skills. Because producing sub-standard reports will damage your reputation and potentially compromise your success as a consultant.