5 steps to write better report commentary – How to write a style guide

  • Do you find your reports read like they were written by people competing to make different points?

  • Do similar sections vary wildly in length, depending on who wrote them?

  • Do the readers come back with basic questions that should have been covered in the commentary?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” then it is worth creating a style guide for the contributors to your report.

A style guide can be a very simple document. It normally has the following parts to it:

Some examples – particularly for tone and complexity

Lead by example. It is much easier to show someone what you mean by giving them a sample, rather than trying to explain it to them. Better still, give several examples.

A detailed description of a “target reader”

Who is the “archetypical” reader? It is always best to picture a specific individual, rather than a group. If you cannot name that reader then you need to provide a detailed description of they type of person who will read the document. What is their role? What level of decisions will they be making based on the information? What is their background knowledge, attention span and information capacity?

A list of “questions we are trying to answer”

The more clarity you have about the questions your report/dashboard is trying to answer, the better the chance you have of succeeding. If you are not clear, then now is the time to talk to your report/dashboard readers and ask them!

Give tips

Short sentences? Use of jargon? Key for TLAs (three letter acronyms)? Use of passive or active voices? Tackle these points specifically, giving as much clear guidance as you can.

 A target length

Physical space for commentary is normally tightly defined in a report. Unless there is a very good reason to change that, the target length should be clearly defined.  The word count  is normally fine for guidance. Copy and paste the text into Microsoft Word to save the tedium of counting by hand.

Quality control

Some contributors will be fine, hitting the right mark every time. Others will need some quality control. Make sure you allow enough time and include a toll-gate to pick up any issues that you expect to come up. If you find yourself having to intervene every time it might be worth thinking about a long-term fix.

If there is still an issue…

If none of these tactics work there may be another issue, aside from style. Does the person writing the commentary fully understand what they are writing about?