I’m frequently asked to review engineering reports, and I’m continually baffled by how many engineers want to take their readers on a journey instead of getting to the point. They write documents that you must read every single word to work out what they’re trying to say. But having a final reveal is never a good thing in any technical document.
Engineering reports should be like bad movies – you need to give the ending away at the beginning.
People watch movies to be taken on a journey; managers read reports to get information.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try and make engineering reports enjoyable – you should. But you need to understand the audience, which is not a typical movie-goer. And while you may be proud of your research and analysis, no one wants to read an extensive report on how you got there.
Getting reports right is important. Managers will quickly work out which engineers give them the best information in the easiest way, and these engineers are the ones that managers remember when it comes to promotions, special assignments, and raises.
So here are some tips on writing better reports.
Simple question, right? But I’m constantly amazed by how often this crucial question is forgotten by engineers.
A report is written to provide information about a decision that needs to be made. If this isn’t the case, the report is a waste of time. For example, a manufacturing company may need to decide whether to extend the warranty period of a consumer product. So, let’s break this down into what information the decision-maker needs to know:
Writing this out helps make it clear in your mind as the author, but it’s still too “high-level”. We need to break this information requirement down further:
Now we’re getting somewhere. These key factors meet our “high-level” information needs, but we need a little more:
Now we’re cooking. You could go further if you wanted, but you see what I mean. By doing this, you know the hierarchy of the information your report needs – you will need this later.
This is the first aspect that makes an engineering report good; your manager is focused on making a decision, not reading a long report.
Haven’t I just worked out what I want to say?
No. Everyone wants to say something regardless of who is listening – it’s human nature. You need to work out what you want to say and leave it out if it isn’t information the reader needs.
For example, you may want to:
I hear many of you saying we need to have formulas and historical reviews in reports for due diligence. And you might be right but put them as annexes or appendices.
As with everything in life, there is a balance to be struck. Knowing your own tendencies ensures you don’t make the report all about you.
BLUF stands for “Bottom Line Up Front”. It means that the reader knows exactly what you are recommending after they read the first page, or ideally, the first paragraph.
It took until the final scenes of “The Sixth Sense” for the audience to realize that Bruce Willis had actually died and was a ghost (apologies to those yet to see the movie). This makes for a great movie, but it won’t help a manager who is pressed for time and needs to make quick decisions.
While your report may need to be long to contain all the information you identified in the first step, the manager who is reading it may be busy and not have the time.
The BLUF needs to address the high-level information requirement.
In the case of extending our product’s warranty period, we need to answer, “How much money will my organization make or lose with this decision?”
If this is not clear in your first paragraph, make it clear.
Too many executive summaries explain the sections of the document they cover. For example, they say that the engineering report includes a literature review, followed by a data analysis, and finally, recommendations. But it doesn’t tell us what the report is trying to say.
The executive summary should allow the manager to make a decision. If they can’t, you need to rewrite your summary. Hollywood trailers may leave you wondering if the four teenagers will survive their weekend alone at Murder Lake – executive summaries shouldn’t. (The teenagers all died horrible deaths, by the way.)
When writing a technical document (and let’s face it, they’re not “fun” reads), don’t use lots of big words and long sentences. The simpler, the better. For example:
It can be concluded, based on analysis of historical and actual test data, that the median estimate of the increase in profit based on extending the warranty by one year will be 15%.
This is a horrible sentence. There is no need to say things like “based on analysis”; it’s assumed that anything you say is based on analysis. Instead, try:
Extending the warranty by one year will increase profit by 15%.
Hollywood movies tend to be 90 to 120 minutes; there is no such guidance for an engineering report. If you can say all that needs to be said on a single page, do it!
Simple rule here, and it follows from the previous point. If your manager knows the consumer product well, don’t include a detailed explanation of its design. Even if your manager doesn’t know the product well, will explaining the different modules help your argument about extending the warranty? It might make your report feel more “complete”, but as Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker:
“Bury your feelings deep down.”
Including material that makes you feel better dilutes your key message. Engineering reports are not textbooks. You aren’t trying to educate the reader – you are trying to help them make the right decision. Where Hollywood scriptwriters can elicit audience responses based on dramatic speeches, this doesn’t help your report. Remove the dialogue.
This is where tip #1 is important. A reliability engineer may not understand how warranty periods impact sales. We know that products with longer warranty periods are more attractive to customers, but how many additional sales will this translate to? This is where the marketing department needs to help.
Let’s say that you’re a reliability engineer writing this report, but you can’t speak to the marketing team; you still need to work out whatever information you can. For example, you might be able to calculate that:
Increasing the warranty by one year will likely need an 8.8% increase in sales to be cost-neutral.
Brilliant! This means the manager knows that if his marketing team estimates a 12% increase in sales, they should extend the warranty period. Conversely, if the estimate comes back at 4%, then the warranty period should stay the same.
While many Hollywood franchises are trying to create the need for sequels, your engineering report shouldn’t. If you don’t have all the information, make the “sequel” concise and clear by focusing on what they need to know and how to interpret the information.
As a rule, movies need a definitive resolution. We need to know if the romantic leads work through their issues and live happily ever after. Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to always beat the bad guy, and there can’t be any doubt about this.
In the real world, this isn’t always possible – reliability engineers deal with uncertainties. We won’t ever know the true reliability of a consumer product because we don’t have that much data. Even so, we don’t throw our hands in the air and give up.
So, we need to communicate it. We may need to say things like:
Increasing the warrant by one will likely need an 8.8% increase in sales to be cost-neutral. A 9.1% increase in sales is needed to be 95% confident of cost-neutral.
It’s not good enough to include your best guess; the decision-maker needs to understand what the chances are of losing money.
Movies that have their screenplays reviewed and redrafted are typically better for it. So, finish your report a week before it’s due, then don’t look at it for a few days. I guarantee when you look at it again, there will be parts you won’t believe you wrote. Go through all the considerations above, then get someone who isn’t an expert on the topic to read it.
Personally, my sentences in the first draft tend to be too long because I don’t focus on sentence structure right away, otherwise, I’ll interrupt my train of thought.
Sentence structure comes later for me, and I continually astound myself at how stupid I sound in my first draft (my wife doesn’t get astounded by my stupidity anymore, but that’s for another article/counseling session).
Gary Player is a former golfer who once said:
“The harder you practice, the luckier you get.”
Don’t shy away from practicing. don’t shy away from having your work reviewed by someone who is better than you at writing, and don’t be devasted by constructive criticism.