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How Project Managers Write Useful Reports

Writing useful reports is part of a project manager's repertoire of good communications skills. Written reports enable a project manager to present factual data efficiently; to choose words carefully to minimize misunderstandings; to provide a historical record of the information that is shared, and to share the same message with a wide audience.

Keep the following pointers in mind to improve the chances that people read and understand your written reports:

  • Prepare regularly scheduled reports in a standard format: This consistency helps your audience find specific types of information quickly.

  • Stay focused: Preparing several short reports to address different topics is better than combining several topics into one long report. People are more likely to pick up the important information about each topic.

  • Minimize the use of technical jargon and acronyms: If a person is unfamiliar with the language in your report, she’ll miss at least some of your messages.

  • Use written reports to share facts, and be sure to identify a person or people to contact for clarification or further discussion of any information in the reports: Written reports present hard data with a minimum of subjective interpretation, and they provide a useful, permanent reference. A contact person can address any questions a recipient has about the information or the reasons for sharing it.

  • Clearly describe any actions you want people to take based on information in the report: The more specifically you explain what you want people to do, the more likely they are to do it.

  • Use novel approaches to emphasize key information: For example, print key sections in a different color or on colored paper, or mention particularly relevant or important sections in a cover memo. This additional effort increases the chances that your audience will see the report and read it.

  • After you send your report, discuss one or two key points that you addressed in the report with people who received it: These follow-up conversations can quickly tell you whether your recipients have read it.

    When you come across people who clearly haven’t read your report, in addition to following the other suggestions in this section, explain to them the specific parts of the document that are most important for them to review and why. Then tell them that you’d like to set up a follow-up meeting with them to discuss any questions or issues they may have regarding the information contained in those parts of the document.

  • Keep your reports to one page, if possible: If you can’t fit your report on one page, include a short summary (one page or less) at the beginning of the report.

Of course, you'll want to communicate with team members face-to-face in informal situations.

Although written reports have quite a few benefits, they also have some drawbacks that you need to consider:

  • They don’t allow your audience to ask questions to clarify the content, meaning, and implication of your message.

  • With written reports, you can’t verify that your audience received and interpreted your message as you intended.

  • They don’t enable you to pick up nonverbal signals that suggest your audience’s reactions to the message, and they don’t support interactive discussion and brainstorming about your message.

  • You may never know whether your audience reads the report!

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