Report Writing

by Clare Forrest

Step two – research your data

Now you know what you want to achieve, you are in a better position to do your research. Without your initial thinking at Step one, you’d probably be floundering, collecting lots of information which wouldn’t necessarily be useful or appropriate. As it is, you can now take each of your objectives and consider what you will need to find out to meet it.

This stage may amount to little more than a review of activities already recorded in the company’s files. At the other extreme, it may involve a detailed investigation carried out over several months. Look at the research jottings below, which show that there’s potentially a lot of work to be done before the writer can move on to the next step.

Typical research jottings

  Jottings

Objective 1:

Examine the current customer retention programme in this company and its ROI.

  • Must pull together all the ROI info we have. A questionnaire to all department managers would be useful too – need some concrete examples. I know some departments do their own thing – need to find out what they do.

Objective 2:

Identify key areas for improvement and/or change.

  • Questionnaire will help here. Need to examine customer files and look for common themes. Need to talk to senior managers to establish their expectations about where they see the business going over the next five years. Useful to talk to a cross-section of staff too.

More often than not, though, you will already have a great deal of the information and/or will find it relatively easy to obtain. In case you’re not used to research, here are some hints and tips.

Research using the internet

No one is in charge of the internet, so you must be careful when using it as a research source. All may not be as it seems. When you use a library or a bookshop, the books, journals and other resources will usually have been evaluated by academics, editors, critics and librarians before you see them. On the internet this rarely applies. It is highly likely that no-one will have edited or otherwise considered the validity of the information other than the writer of the piece and – possibly – the website manager.

You need to develop skills to evaluate what you find. If you don’t, you could find yourself spreading false, perhaps slanderous or libellous, information through lack of proper care. Writers often fall into the trap of presenting statistics, in particular, as true without first checking where they’ve come from.

There isn’t a precise gauge of a site’s honesty, truthfulness or merit. Do consider these areas though:

  • Author
  • Is the author named and do they have credentials?
  • Is there a biography of the author?
  • Does the author have a track record in the field?
  • Can the author be contacted by means other than an anonymous email?
  • Is the writer affiliated to a particular company/institution?
  • Publisher
  • Is the publisher of the page/website identified and can they be contacted?
  • Is the publisher reputable?
  • Timeliness
  • Is it clear when the information was written and/or revised?
  • Is there more than just a date of publication?
  • Is the information up to date?
  • Are hyperlinks to other materials working?
  • Objectivity
  • Is the purpose of the site clear?
  • Is the political/social/ economic perspective of the site clear?
  • If there is advertising on the site, what message is this sending?
  • Is the tone of the writing reasonable and rational?
  • Is the information free from sweeping generalisations?
  • Accuracy
  • Has the information been reviewed?
  • Are the sources of the information listed in a bibliography?
  • Is the information checkable?
  • Is the information error free?
  • Is the information fact or opinion?

Questionnaires and interviews

If you need to collect information from a large number of people, the quickest way to do this is to design a questionnaire which they can complete and then send back to you by email. Alternatively, you could construct a free web survey using a website such as SurveyMonkey. The checklists below will help you to do this. If a smaller number of people is involved, it’s usually better to see them as a group or individually.

Some basic ‘rules’

  1. You should always try to see at least some people face to face, as this will be the best way to find out detail and background.
  2. Do make sure that you ask the same core questions, but in interviews be prepared to follow up on these as you listen carefully to the answers.
  3. Take care to explain to your target groups why you are asking the questions and how the information will be used.
  4. It is a good idea to stress that you will treat what you are told confidentially.

Methods of gathering information by interviews

Whatever the information you need, there are many different interview methods available to you. Have a look at the methods, then the matrix below shows when best to use each one.

Structured interviews

Questions for this type of interview are determined in full beforehand and interviewers must not deviate from them. This method is quick to administer and good for untrained interviewers, but it assumes all questions can be anticipated and it can become rigid. It is probably most useful when medium-to-large groups have to be analysed.

Unstructured interviews

Interviewers ask questions as they think fit. This is very flexible, but the process can be lengthy and it requires interviewer skill to ensure that key points are not missed.

Semi-structured interviews

For these, interviewers decide in advance the main areas to cover. However, they are free to follow up answers when further detail is needed. This ensures that all the areas are covered but there is still flexibility. It requires interview skill, especially to listen, probe and take relevant notes.

Counselling interviews

The interviewers build rapport with the interviewees and encourage them to talk. The interviewers reflect back what has been said, while the interviewees reflect and respond. This is a flexible method and provides both data and feedback. Counselling interviews demand excellent interviewing skills and are probably only suitable for those who understand and can use a counselling approach. Use them when you want to get data on a tricky issue.

Focus groups

These are carried out in small groups (typically eight to ten individuals), facilitated by one or more interviewers against a carefully-planned brief. The interviewers engage the group in a discussion of selected topics of interest in an informal setting. The discussion will be guided by the interviewer to obtain the group’s opinions about or reactions to specific ideas, products and so on.

Questionnaires

These can be used for individuals or groups. The writer plans the questions and sends these to the target group. Questionnaires are useful for large numbers and a quick way of obtaining large sample data. They can also be used for legitimate statistical analysis. Good questionnaires are difficult to prepare and are rigid. People often fail to complete and return them, which can invalidate the sample. See SurveyMonkey for a free online survey tool.

Scale method

The interviewer prepares scales around pre-determined data collection needs – for example, ‘How often are you consulted about changes in working practice? very often / sometimes / occasionally / never’. These can be employed with a large sample and provide a rapid overview that can be used for statistical analysis. It is difficult to prepare scales which have reliable validity and, as with questionnaires, people may not complete and return them. SurveyMonkey is a free online survey tool which uses scales.

Diary method

This is for individual data collection about a specific role or job or task. The person is asked to complete an activity diary over a period. It is time-consuming for the person involved and lengthy for writers to analyse, but can provide useful data.

Matrix of methods

Method
Very
large
groups 40+
Large
groups
20 – 40
Medium
groups
12 – 20
Small
groups
2 – 12
Individuals
1. Structured interviews    
2. Unstructured interviews      
3. Semi-structured interviews            
4. Counselling interviews              
         
5. Focus groups      
 
6. Questionnaires
7. Scale method
8. Diary method        

The real challenge in writing reports comes next, in step three – what to do with all the data you have collected.