The monthly report is very often the neglected Cinderella of business storytelling: time-consuming and dull for its author, and skim read (if at all) by its audience.

I am always secretly thrilled when someone on a training course picks this as their ‘live project’ because I know they are going to leave the room with a brand new perspective on their monthly ‘chore’. It is all about really thinking about your audience and what they would like to know. I call these ‘unspoken questions’, i.e. the internal monologue that is going on in everyone’s brains all the time. When we start to think about these questions it can completely change our perspective on what information is important and critically, how we present it.

Lets take Richard who ran several teams of back-end programmers for an on-line services business. When he started to think about the unspoken questions on their minds this is what he came up with :-

For his teams

  • How is our progress compared to the other teams?
  • What are the other teams up to?
  • What happened next with that project we were working on?

and for senior management

  • Do I need to know this?
  • Do I need to do anything based on this?

The process helped him see that his report didn’t tell the story of the week but just served up the numbers which were an effort to analyse. He could also see how he could quite easily turn this into something his teams would want to read (and probably senior management would too).

Measuring productivity Richard told me, was not that straightforward, because sometimes you could make quick progress on a project when it was known territory but other times you could hit a tough problem that could take a week to get past. These however were the breakthrough moments that ultimately delivered the new and improved services that kept their business ahead. So his action plan leaving the training session was…

  1. Present weekly progress in an ‘infogram’ which allowed the teams to compare themselves against each other
  2. Introduce a monthly award for ‘toughest nut cracked’ to recognise the perseverance of teams as well as their productivity
  3. Where appropriate give short account of the progress/success of ongoing projects initiated within the department
  4. Send with a covering note to senior managers inviting questions

It is also a good exercise to think about other titles we could give the monthly report to inject energy and purpose back into the exercise. I worked with an insights team a few weeks ago who where in despair at the low take-up rate of their reports – here are a few titles we came up with. Remember you have to take it almost too far at the ideas stage to come up with something fresh and engaging in the end.

Subject: How we did and where we are going

Subject: A useful summary of our month for busy people

Subject: Will you get your bonus?

Subject: The month in 140 characters

A report is only worth creating if people are going to read and use it so be brave and have a go at thinking about what your audience really care about and see where that takes you!