The first 30 seconds of your report  

How should we start our reports? Answer: we should ‘start at the end’. That is, hit people with conclusions, recommendations. 

Sounds obvious – surely we all do this. No. In reports, many ‘Executive Summaries’ don’t summarise. Here’s a typical one (and it really existed): “This report gives updates on responses to our consultation, outlines developments, and seeks approval for our proposal.”

Here’s another: “New EU rules change what we must do. See the report for the rules and how we must change”.

And another: “We have four options for our new IT. This report looks at their pros and cons, then on page 16 we say which option is best.”  

No. In the first sentence, spell it out. E.g. “Because of new EU rules, we need two more HR people at a cost of £80k a year”. That’s better. Or: “I need £50k to buy system XYZ to help us reduce risk”. Spell it out in the first sentence. Or at a pinch, the second.

There are huge benefits to 'starting at the end'. We give context to help people better judge the comments that follow. We put less of a strain on people’s short term memory. We appear focused and action-oriented. We avoid wasting readers’ time if we’re pushing on an open door – readers see the opening line, then say: “Sounds good… thanks”.

And we spare readers an Agatha Christie novel – many reports and talks introduce four alternatives, give background to each, throw in red herrings, kill two ideas off half way through, then – finally – give the big reveal on the last page. They’re 15-page Magical Mystery Tours. Or - if you prefer a different Beatles track – they’re The Long And Winding Road.

Starting at the end is great. It’s also the bit of my training day where people are most delusional. When I tell delegates: “Start at the end”, some look agog. “I always do that”, they retort. Then later in the day, they briefly look at one of their own documents and realise it’s a Magical Mystery Tour. “Doh!” they think. 


There's much, much more to this topic. Questions ("What if it's bad news?"). Concerns ("But my topic is complex...?"). What if you must follow a template whose first section is: "Introduction", not "Conclusion"?

Also, should we start at the end for talks? What if it's a training day?

Questions, questions. Let's deal with one.

What if readers need context? Give it in the first one or two lines, and maybe even merge it with the conclusion in the opening sentence... like I did earlier: "Because of new EU rules" (there you go, that's the context...) "we need two more HR people etc".  

As for other queries and concerns, my Clarity and Impact book has a 13-page Chapter on it all (called: "Your first 30 seconds", oddly enough).

And if wondering how to work out what to include in your 'first-30-seconds' spiel - and what not to - I've a Chapter on that too (it's just five pages).

And it's free - here it is.


PS Above, I mentioned ‘delusional’… did you hear about the bloke who skipped a Course on “How to address delusional thinking” because he didn’t think he’d learn anything new. And – this one is true – I know someone who attended a Time Management Course that over-ran.


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