8 tips for pain-free progress reports

Bored man snoozing on computer keyboard

via Flickr user Brandon Heyer

A progress report (also known as an activity report or status report) is requested by those who are interested in the past, present, and future of something you are working on. Unlike a more formal research report, a progress report can be brief, with no need for cross-references or detailed front and back matter. A progress report can even be delivered verbally, although most organizations also require something in writing. Often a template will be provided, but occasionally you may be asked to draft something on the fly.

Planning the report

1. Assume the reader is 100% unfamiliar with your work. Even if your supervisor is familiar with what you do, a future supervisor or different department may not be. Plan to write the report to account for those things that are internalized: things you might (incorrectly) assume everyone already knows. Don’t skip or gloss over the details that your reader needs. This is where a journal (tip #8) can be a lifesaver.

2. Understand the time-frame you will report on. By definition, a progress/activity report is not a summary of your entire project. It covers a specific time segment. Progress reports can be weekly, monthly, quarterly, or some other combination. In any case, the basic format is to explain what you have accomplished and what you still plan to do. Stick to this time-frame so that your content does not become bloated.

3. Define the purpose, audience, and format for your report. Even in a short, informal report, the good old “reporter’s questions” are a fine starting point. Two important things should be considered:

  • What are the special needs or interests of your readers? Do they like lots of detail or just the big picture? Do they prefer graphs and charts? Are they interested in reporting to stakeholders outside your organization?
  • Who else might read your report? In addition to your supervisor and any stakeholders, consider your organization’s executive level, future employers, auditors, and even lawyers. The need for accuracy and ethics is higher than it might appear.

4. Structure your report logically. A structure will help you cover all the highlights. Your employer may give you specific guidance, but a progress report typically contains these items:

  • Introduction
  • Summary and Results of Activities (past, present)
  • Future Activities
  • Conclusion

Some employers also ask for things like expenses and risks to be called out separately. A simple table or bulleted list often does the trick.

Drafting the report

5. Find a quiet time to write your report. (Good luck with that!) If you try to write when you are busy or distracted, you might forget important details.

6. Take a straightforward approach. Write in plain style and keep your page design simple. Avoid long paragraphs if a short paragraph (or list, or visual) will do the job. Brevity is both a requirement and a bonus for progress reports. As we know, most readers prefer short communications, even when the content is important.

7. Proofread! Carefully review, edit, and proof your report. Even though it is tempting to dash off a progress report without taking time to check your spelling and writing style, your supervisor will appreciate the extra attention. And as tip #3 suggests, other people may read your report and make judgments based on what they see.

Going forward

8. Keep a project journal. Depending upon your organization’s tools and customs, you may already be recording tasks at a granular level. But if not, find a way to record your daily activities–in a wiki, an online journal, or even a paper journal. You will save time in the long run.

What other tips do you have? Add them in the Comments below!

Infographics on my mind

Data journalist David McCandless believes that information design is about solving information problems. Visualizing information can help us solve these problems in a beautiful and clear way. In his TED presentation, McCandless visualized topics ranging from CO2 emissions to nutritional supplements (McCandless, 2010).

Because infographics share characteristics of business reports, they can also add a valuable visual component to the basic proposal or empirical report. Because they can be scanned quickly, they also can substitute for a traditional PowerPoint.

For example, the infographic below offers a summary of a simple Team Viewer human resources telephone survey that asked employees about their work-related technology use during vacation. Even though the graphics and colors are simple, this infographic communicates a message that surprises none of us: increasingly, we take our work with us. We can’t imagine being out of contact even for a week.

2013 Work/Life Balance of Americans

Of course, to really get at the heart of this data, it would help to have a break-down of age, gender, industry, and other demographics. We’d need to know more about the intentions behind this survey, and perhaps more about Team Viewer’s motivation and ethos (their product is used for remote desktop sessions). But if we just need a quick bit of data to help us understand this workforce issue on a basic level, the infographic might do the trick. The data are clear and usable.

Finally, it’s hard to talk about data visualization without marveling at the work of Hans Rosling, whose television documentary The Joy of Stats, used augmented reality animation to dynamically present data. In this video, he compares life expectancy and income across “200 countries over 200 years using 120,000 numbers – in just four minutes” (Rosling, 2010). The movement and size of the data dances up and down as the timeline is punctuated by wars, plagues, and economic dips.

Like David McCandless, Rosling believes that having the data is not enough. It must be visually communicated. Rosling’s animation tells the story of the world in all of its triumphs and trials. It’s heartbreaking to watch so-called Third World countries languish near the bottom for the entire 200 years. But it’s also reassuring to see that over the past 60 years, many countries caught up with the prosperity and health of Western countries. Hopeful news, brought to you by the power of stats.

Flippin (2013). 2013 Work/life balance of Americans. Visual.ly. http://visual.ly/2013-worklife-balance-americans

McCandless, David (2010). The beauty of data visualization. TED Talks. http://www.ted.com/talks/david_mccandless_the_beauty_of_data_visualization.html

Rosling, Hans (2010). Hans Rosling’s 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes – Joy of Stats. BBC.  http://youtu.be/jbkSRLYSojo

How to beat writing-induced boredom

Bored man snoozing on computer keyboard

via Flickr user Brandon Heyer

I’d like to think that my students are never bored by my writing assignments, but I know better. Heck, I write for a living, and sometimes I’m bored. I theorize that boredom comes from doing the same thing over and over again–writing instructions, writing emails, posting meeting minutes….All those daily workplace writing tasks get old.

Therefore I was tickled to read Daphne Gray-Grant’s recent post on the subject. I’ve already tried “putting myself in jail” by turning off email, Facebook, etc. and setting a timer. It turns out I’m a very disagreeable prisoner.

My favorite tip, the one I think I will have to try out, is this:

When I worked in daily newspapers, one writer in my department tried to use the word “hilarious” in every story. Why? No good reason. It just amused him. So do the same to your boss. Pick a word that’s unusual for your workplace and fit it, surreptitiously, into your next story.

Next post: how to incorporate “chihuahua” into everything I write for work…:-)

(And be sure to check out Ms. Gray-Grant’s blog at http://www.publicationcoach.com/blog/)


Short reports: audience, conclusions and headings

I sometimes borrow good ideas from Dennis Jerz, who blogs about college writing at http://jerz.setonhill.edu/. He recently updated his advice for writing short reports, and it’s worth passing along. It’s always good to remember that technical or business writing is different from most college writing. The workplace reader usually has only a few minutes to grasp your point, so you’d better make it obvious.

A New Breed of Project Proposal?

Cat in front of computerEven though I’ve done a fair amount of writing and editing for workplace projects, I have never had to write a proposal. However, RFPs (Requests for Proposal) are a different story. Coming up with a set of software specs, helping to evaluate vendor proposals–that kind of stuff is more in line with what I do.

Jonathan Wold’s article in Smashing Magazine provided me with the view from the other side of the desk: the experience of the vendor, writing up a proposal to respond to the trusty RFP. In fact, Mr. Wold would rather not write proposals at all–they simply haven’t been paying off for his company. Instead, he writes a project evaluation, which seems to cover much of the same ground. But here’s the kicker: unlike a proposal, Mr. Wold’s project evaluations come with a price tag.

While I can’t imagine coming up with the scratch to PAY a vendor to respond to one of our RFPs, Mr. Wold’s description of the writing product is intriguing. To me, it’s a great example of breaking  conventional norms in order to serve a communication need more effectively. And maybe it marks a new trend in workplace writing. Judge for yourself:

Stop Writing Project Proposals

PowerPoint Workplace Hell

I’ve noticed an alarming trend in business: the re-purposing of PowerPoint into a pseudo-Word document. I bet you’ve seen this too. Big corporations develop a slick-looking slide design template. Add in the customer’s logo and some boilerplate text, and <!–begin rant–> then just go NUTS! Use the PowerPoint medium for EVERYTHING, even things that would be better served in Excel or Word. The more you can cram onto the slide, the better!! <!–end rant–>

Don’t get me wrong–PowerPoint is not the problem. I like PowerPoint, and I use it a lot. PowerPoint works GREAT as a visual asset to an oral presentation. It even works great for design projects (see Pecha Kucha.) But it does not work as a way to display a complex, tabled/charted teeny tiny report to a room full of people. That’s not sharing: that’s just making things difficult.

My top five rules for PowerPoint:

  1. No more than three bullets per slide
  2. No more than seven words per bullet
  3. Lots of visuals (but only if they add something to your persuasive point)
  4. No more than 20 slides (20 X 20, the Pecha Kucha standard, is kind of nice & symmetrical.)
  5. No reading your slides*
    (*One exception: if words on your slides are important to your presentation, people with visual impairments need the context. But you don’t want a slideshow full of words anyway, right?!)



Three ways a household move is like good writing

Last weekend we helped some young relatives move into their first home, an experience that reminded me of the importance of friends (and muscles.) As the Advil started circulating through my bloodstream, it struck me that the common experience of packing up one’s belongings and moving to a new home is a lot like drafting a written document.

1. Planning. The art of packing a U-Haul is nothing to sneeze at. To make the most of your space (and to minimize re-arranging things), you need to do some serious planning. In writing, the planning step is often skipped, partly because we feel that we can make progress if we just start writing (just fill up that truck!) However, I believe that in about 99% of writing projects, some good upfront planning will actually make the process go quicker. Just sketch out the big picture (the textual equivalent of chifforobes and dining room sets, if you will). The little things can come later.

2. Knowing the neighborhood. I grew up on the West side of Cincinnati, as did our new homeowners. But the new house was on the East side. As I was looking across the back yard, I saw my first ever Lazarus Lizard, a descendant of four wall lizards that were smuggled in from Italy in the 1950s. We don’t have Lazarus Lizards on the West side; it’s uniquely an East side phenomenon. Who knew?

Keep the Lazarus Lizard in mind when you write for a new audience. Even if you have written for similar audiences, it’s a good idea to try to uncover the unique things a new reader knows or cares about. Often a charming or interesting fact is just around the corner!

3. Getting help. My clever young relatives created a Facebook event and invited friends to help them move. We had upwards of 20 people at any given time, in all stages of fitness and age (and did I mention it was 90 degrees that day?) Because of this group of friends, the move went quite smoothly. Sharing our experiences and helping each other made the task more efficient, as well as more enjoyable.

In writing, there are always people who have the knowledge or expertise that you need. Let them help you; and if you are in a position to help someone else, pay it forward.