You’ve been taught since high school to start with an outline. Nothing has changed with that. However, there are many possible outlines you can follow depending on your audience and what they expect. The first thing you have to decide is what the packaged report will look like.
Will your report be an executive brief (not to be confused with a legal brief), a letter report, a summary report, a comprehensive report, an Internet article or blog, a professional journal article, or a white paper to name a few. Each has its own types of audience, content, and whiting style. Here’s a summary of the differences.
Writing a report is like taking a trip. The message is the asset you want to deliver to the ultimate destination, the audience. The package is the vehicle that holds the message. Now you need a map for how to reach your destination. That’s the outline.
Just as there are several possible routes you could take with a map, there are several possible outline strategies you could use to write your report. Here are six.
The Whatever-Feels-Right Approach. This is what inexperienced report writers do when they have no guidelines. They do what they might have done in college or just make it up as they go along. This might work out just fine or be as confusing as The Maury Show on Father’s Day. Considering that the report involves statistics, you can guess which it would be.
The Historical Approach. This is another approach that inexperienced report writers use. They do what was done the last time a similar report was produced. This also might work out fine. Then again, the last report may have been a failure, ineffective in communicating its message.
The “Standard” Approach. Sometimes companies or organizations have standard guidelines for all their reports, even requiring the completion of a formal review process before the report is released. Many academic and professional journals use such a prescriptive approach. The results may or may not be good, but at least they look like all the other reports.
The Military Approach. You tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, you tell ‘em, and then you tell ‘em what you told ‘em. The military approach may be redundant and boring, but some professions live by it. It works well if you have a critical message that can get lost in details.
The Follow-the-Data Approach. If you have a very structured data analysis it can be advantageous to report on each piece of data in sequence. Surveys often fall into this category. This approach makes it easy to write the report because sections can be segregated and doled out to other people to write, before being reassembled in the original order. The disadvantage is that there usually is no overall synthesis of the results. Readers are left on their own to figure out what it all means.
The Tell-a-Story Approach. This approach assumes that reading a statistical report shouldn’t be as monotonous as mowing the lawn. Instead, you should pique the reader’s curiosity by exposing the findings like a murder mystery, piece by piece, so that everything fits together when you announce the conclusion. This is almost the opposite of the follow-the-data approach. In the tell-a-story approach, the report starts with the simplest data analyses and builds, section by section, to the great climax—the message of the analysis. Analyses that are not relevant to the message are omitted. There are usually arcs, in which a previously introduced analytical result is reiterated in subsequent sections to show how it supports the story line. Graphics are critical in this approach; outlines are more like storyboards. There may be the equivalent of one page of graphics for every page of text. Telling a story usually takes longer to write than the other approaches but the results are more memorable if your audience has the patience to read everything (i.e., don’t try to tell a story to a Bypasser.)
So, be sure that you have an appropriate outline but don’t let it constrain you. Having a map doesn’t mean you can’t change your route along the way, you just need to get to the destination. In building the outline, try to balance sections so the reader has periodic resting points. Within each section, though, make the lengths of subsections correspond to their importance.