Three essential questions to help you write a report or briefing paper

Have you ever found yourself totally stumped halfway through writing a paper, briefing or report?

Perhaps you’ve covered all the background and context, made some notes about what you want to say next, but you’re not sure how to proceed. Or worse, you keep going round in circles.

Chances are you’ve not asked yourself these essential questions:

  1. Who is the reader?
  2. What do they already know?
  3. What do they need to know?

Here’s an example:

I had a client who had ground to a halt writing a white paper for her new product. She had plenty of notes on the current state of play and how her training program would address it, but she couldn’t find the right angle. The problem was she was trying to write it for two readers – she was pitching her program at a high level and drilling down to detail in the same document.

Once we worked through the three essential questions, we established that she didn’t need the introduction about the current state of play because the reader was aware of it – in fact that was why they were reading her paper in the first place. We also established that it wasn’t necessary to delve into the machinations of her program; those details belonged in a complementary document.  With those three simple questions, the brief became clear:

Her reader was a high-level busy person such as a CEO (who doesn’t have a lot of reading time).

They already knew they had an issue with staff turnover (so she didn’t need to go into all the stats and facts about how this is an issue for many organisations).

They needed to know that she had a unique way to address this (but they didn’t need to know the details of how that worked).

Here’s another example:

When I ask local government clients whether their document is for councillors or the community, they invariably say ‘both’. But how can that be? Councillors and community members have totally different levels of understanding about the workings of their council. Trying to pitch a document to both is going to get you tied up in knots, and the finished product will possibly bore the pants off both of them.

So if you want your writing to be concise and compelling, try asking the three essential questions before you start (and don’t try to pitch to disparate readers). I guarantee it will help you get to the point (and stick to it) without too much writerly angst.

Happy wordsmithing.

Please feel free to share if you found this useful or know someone who might.