In a CASRO webinar yesterday, John Gilfeather of Koski Research shared 21 tips for writing research reports.
- Prepare an outline. Just like you were taught in middle school, it’s best to organize your work on a single sheet of paper before you start writing. “Don’t assume that questionnaire order is the best way to write the report!” Two good structures are the funnel approach, starting with the broadest issue and working to the most specific, and the conclusion/support approach, leading off with the conclusion and then supporting it with facts.
- Start writing from be the beginning. “The hardest thing to do is to get started.” Just start, John urged, by writing the title page, the introduction, then documenting the first finding and moving on from there. Once all the findings are documented, write the management summary.
- Decide on a format that is clear, logical and obvious to the reader. Be consistent with lettering, numbering of exhibits, indentations, and so on. “Follow your company’s approved format: it’s the look and feel of your firm,” John said.
- Know the audience who will be reading your report. Is it for top management or for researchers? What are their preconceptions? What are the politics? The more political the study, the more you should rely on the data. Is it bad news? That requires more care and diligence. “Don’t revel in the bad news: don’t rub your client’s nose in it, as I have seen some do,” John said. If the news is bad, take a funnel approach to lay out the evidence, to lead the client to the same conclusion you reached.
- Never lose sight of the study objectives. Reread the proposal, and make certain the data that you provide contributes to meeting the objectives. “Don’t report on the Christmas-tree questionnaire, which everyone wanted to hang an ornament on because it there. Report those questions in the appendices.” Additionally, speculations are for conversations, not the report, which they would cast doubt on.
- Have a model to work from – or develop one. Use a product testing or brand equity model for those subjects. Each study should have an internal logic to it, which should be built in to the report and the evidence. “The researcher’s nightmare is being asked to write a report and realizing key questions weren’t included,” John said.
- Learn as much as you can about the subject matter. What are the market dynamics? Who are the competitors of your clients? Talk to other researchers who have studied the topic. “Know the lingo. Misuse of industry terms turns off readers.”
- Read aloud what you write. “One of the things I was taught was to read aloud what you write. It seemed strange to me, but it works. If it sounds wrong, it probably is. If you stumble over words, so will the reader. If you can’t say a sentence in one breath, it’s too long.”
- Check your grammar and spelling. Some common pitfalls include “Majority is/are” (it can be singular or plural, so be consistent), and “his/her” vs. the singular “their”, which can be avoided altogether by using plurals (“Decision makers have their thoughts” rather than “Each decision maker has his/her thoughts”).
- Take pride in your grammar and spelling. Consider using the present tense, which makes the findings sound more immediate. Remember that spell-check programs will not find common errors: “then” vs. “then”, “lead” vs. “led”, “who” vs. “whom”, “further” vs. “farther”. Reach for new words and new ways of saying things. “Have some fun with the language where you can.” But don’t show off new words, don’t write a novel, and don’t write over the heads of your readers.
- Write only about findings that are significant. If a difference is not significant, don’t mention it: and remember that not all significant differences are meaningful or substantial. One government study found that eye color and roof on dwelling were correlated – but it’s a meaningless finding.
- When reporting findings, stick to the questionnaire wording. For instance, don’t say people are concerned when it was a scale of importance.
- “There is no number 13. I don’t like it.”
- Report tables should be so clear that if one blew off your desk and out the window, the person who picked it up would know exactly what it says. Tables get extracted from reports and shared all the time. Don’t let them mislead: provide a title, who answered the question, indication of any dropped base, the sample size, annotated stubs, and the exact question wording.
- Do not use tenths of percents – e.g., 45.2%. “This is a pet peeve of mine, because it looks amateurish and assumes more precision than we can claim,” John said. It’s an overstatement of the results. Be precise about percentage differences and percentage point differences – there is a 10 percentage point increase from 60% to 70%, but there is a 17% increase from 60% to 70%.
- Be careful not to overstate your case either positively or negatively. Averages can be misleading: “The average American has 1 breast and 1 testicle.” Study distributions, look for and work through conflicting evidence, because your client will work through it and ask the tough questions. Make sure you address the identified issue in the report.
- Be clear – say what you mean. A good editor will often ask, “What did you mean to say here?” Write it succinctly.
- Be creative in naming things. Particularly in segmentation studies or quadrant analyses, choose names “that can bring the research to life.” Those names can live on long after the initial research.
- Wrapping things up. “The management summary is the hardest thing to write, but it is your chance to shine.” Summarize succinctly. If you come up with a cool way of saying something, don’t bury that in the detailed findings but include in it the management summary. Sometimes it helps to begin the summary with some scene setting, then describe the meat of the study, then provide the implications of these conclusions. “When it all comes together, there is no feeling like it!”
- When you are finished with your report, have someone else read it. Writers have trouble picking up their own mistakes. “But you are responsible for what goes out. It is your report!”
- Proofread! Proofread! Proofread! “Nothing is more disconcerting for clients than to look at a report with a bunch of typos in it.”
“Some closing thoughts: Writing is work. Writing is a skill. It requires practice,” John said. “When I have had jobs where I wasn’t doing much writing, I missed it and my skills were eroding. You need to write a lot to get good it.”
John continued, “Saying ‘I write best under deadlines’ may be true, but it is dangerous. Sometimes the best writing is done while you are doing something else, letting those thoughts swirl around in your mind, till you realize ‘that is a good way to say it’. Have fun writing. Take pride in a well-turned phrase. Write for your own pleasure.”