I have been hired for a small consulting gig and need to write a report. The people reading this report are not scientists, but rather process engineers and in general people with a more business-like mind set.

I have experience writing academic reports, but not reports for the corporate world. At the moment I am writing the report avoiding as much technicality as possible, and assuming the reader has a limited understanding of the very detailed methodological and theoretical aspects of the work. Besides this, are there any differences in writing style that I should observe? For instance, should I cut down on the use of references and so on?

  • 1
    Why are you asking academics what business people are expecting? – user9646 Feb 23 '18 at 13:41
  • Because it led to a very useful answer by JeremyC that helps us understand the structural differences between academic and business writing? And thus illuminates the nature of academic writing? – Phil van Kleur Apr 29 '20 at 7:36

Having written edited and supervised the writing of consultancy and similar reports to earn my living for many years, I am now getting used to writing for academics. The crucial point of difference is that a consultancy report demands decision and must be tailored to make it as easy as possible for the decision-maker, who may well not be an expert in the subject matter, to understand what you are saying he or she must do, and why. In contrast, an academic paper is intended to show other experts in your field how clever you are.

You need to find out if there is a house style with which you must comply. If not, I recommend the following approach.

In a consultancy report you must assume that the reader is very busy indeed and will not necessarily read all of it. You have to be very direct, right from the start. A busy reader will be asking these questions: What's the report about? What question does it address? What's the answer? Why is that the answer?

It's your job to answer them as soon as they occur to the reader. That means that you should avoid structures that postpone important material to the end, such as:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Terms of reference
  4. what we did
  5. Who we saw
  6. Findings
  7. Conclusions

Instead use a pyramid structure:

  1. Situation: starting point, general area report is about. No more than a few sentences. Nothing new or surprising goes here. For example: Your present system is set up to make black automobiles.

  2. Complication: What has triggered the consultancy study. Why you were hired. For example: Your sales are declining.

  3. Question: That is the question that would come naturally into the reader's mind having read the situation and complication. For example: what can we do about it?

  4. Answer: A few sentences that summarise your answer to the Question. For example: Start producing cars in a range of colours, for which the necesary technology can be acquired in six months.

  5. Reasons. Why that is your answer, set out in a logical manner with increasing detail as the text proceeds.

  6. All the stuff about terms of reference, who you saw etc. goes in appendices. References are most unlikely to be wanted.

Much more detail on this style of writing, that is widely used by leading international consultancies, can be found in various books by Barbara Minto.

Good luck.

  • Great answer. Interestingly, the structure you outlined for the consultant report mirrors exactly the structure of the legal briefs I had to write for a paralegal course. The imaginary reader for those assignments was the busy lawyer I was to imagine I was working for. – aparente001 Feb 23 '18 at 19:34
  • @aparente001 I am glad and rather surprised that the legal profession has grasped these points. You must have had a very good course. – JeremyC Feb 23 '18 at 22:27

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