5 Ways to not write a useful report

Writing a report full of recommendations? Watch out for these 5 classic mistakes.

This is my first of several posts in reaction to Luc van den Brande’s Reaching out to EU Citizens: A New Opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong: there are some good ideas in Brand’s report (some, after all, provide starting points for this and my next followup posts — subscribe to get them all). But noone needs 36 pages to list some good ideas.

Like so many others, Brand illustrates 5 ways to write a report which is both too long and too short, and of little actual use. So this is not an attack on this report, or its author. It is an attack on almost every report I’ve ever read. If you’re writing one, please keep reading for all our sakes.

1. Duh!

Got a recommendation? Great! Now ask yourself: how inane would the opposite recommendation be?

Try telling yourself the opposite of what you just recommended. If your answer is ‘Duh!’, then how useful was your original recommendation?

Congrats for padding your report with two more lines of wasted ink.

For example, imagine you recommended:

“Greater focus should be given to analysing why almost 60 % of eligible voters chose not to participate in the [last EU Parliament] election…”

Now ask yourself: is anyone suggesting we not bother understanding the low turnout?

2. Tell us something we don’t know

If it’s already been said a thousand times, why repeat it?

How many times have you read something like this about social media?

“every citizen today has the capacity to become not only a passive recipient, but also an active producer of information… “

Wow, really? This may have been worth stating 20 or maybe 15 years ago, but in 2017? Noone should get paid to write truisms and commonplaces. And noone should have to read them.

Please tell us something we don’t know.

3. Avoid the bandwagon

Just because everyone is repeating something doesn’t make it true.

Social media also, apparently:

“has more negative aspects, as demonstrated by the rise of fake news, ‘alternative facts’ and myths”
All Aboard

While this falls foul of #2, this particular commonplace happens to be wrong — Euromyths and fake news predate social media by decades.

The report obscures the underlying cause, which social media merely amplifies.

Please be useful: illuminate underlying causes, don’t obscure them with popular fallacies.

4. Don’t duck difficulties by making Hard sound Easy

We know what needs to be done. Be useful — tell us HOW.

Consider:

“In the run-up to the forthcoming elections in 2019, more engagement is undoubtedly needed by organisations at local, regional and national levels, as well as from civil society as a whole, to campaign for Europe together…”

One could just apply rule #1: is anyone saying we need less engagement?

But even if this was insightful, behind that goal lies a packet of real challenges. If Brand spelt out how such engagement could be achieved, I’d read it.

Please don’t duck the hard question: How?

5. Don’t recommend doing what we can’t

A lot of reports — particularly in comms — don’t respect their boundary conditions.

It’s not useful to, say, Monsanto’s comms team to be told that their company shouldn’t produce pesticides because they’re unpopular.

It’s out of scope. They can’t use it. By definition, then, it’s not useful.

‘Spitzenkandidaten’ … could be extended to result in the direct election of a single President of the European Union… An EU-wide electoral constituency should be created for the election of MEPs.

In fairness, this may not directly apply to Brand’s report — he was, after all, appointed by the European Commission President, who can at least influence such matters. But it’s absolutely no use to those responsible for EU communications, as they can’t rewrite the EU Treaty.

Not yet, anyway. “Tail wagging dog” is another post.

In fairness

Having said that, there are plenty of recommendations in Brand’s report I agree with — it’s just that they’re not new, and the report provides no insights on how they can actually be achieved.

Subscribe, below, for some upcoming ideas on implementing two of them:

  • “Implement real, meaningful participatory democracy, providing citizens with the possibility to become protagonists of political action within the Union”
  • “Crowdsourcing may also help increase the dissemination of knowledge…”

If you found this interesting, your Applause will help others find it

Browse previous editions

You’ll find all my posts written in reaction to van den Brande’s report on my Hub, along with interesting reading I curate (almost) every day. Subscribe (left) to get the best of it in your Inbox. Or get just the High3lights from my CuratorBot. He can also put us in touch, or we can connect here.