The are two opposite ways of laying out a report – one for academics and one for consultants

By Marcus Coetzee, 10 August 2023.

There are two very different ways of structuring and laying out the argument in reports and presentations. Most people only know one of them. You can make these documents more engaging if you understand the two approaches and how and when to use them.

There is the traditional academic and scientific format we are taught at school and university. This is the most common approach. Then there is the format often used by management consulting firms for advice-orientated reports.

Each of them works best in a particular context. Using the wrong format for the context makes people less likely to engage with your report or presentation. Your hard work and insights will be overlooked.

The scientific and academic approach involves building your argument in layers from the ground up. You’ve most probably been taught this format. It looks something like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Research objectives
  3. Background (e.g. context, conceptual framework, literature review).
  4. Methodology
  5. Findings
  6. Discussion (of important themes emerging)
  7. Recommendations (for future actions)
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

These formats are not cast in stone. They will tend to vary depending on the exact context. This approach works best when:

  • The results depend significantly on the methodology.
  • The primary objective is to produce findings for everyone to consider rather than specific recommendations. This work might be exploratory. 
  • It is an academic or scientific environment or place where such credentials are taken seriously. 

The management consulting approach for strategy-type work involves leading with the most important or exciting points. It is inspired by the Inverted Pyramid method of communicating from journalism. It will tend to aim for something like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Objectives
  3. Context (done briefly with more detail in appendixes or supporting documents).
  4. Methodology (also done briefly with more detail elsewhere).
  5. Recommendations (supported by reasoning that the audience can dig into if required).
  6. Conclusion

This approach works best when you are: 

  • Trusted as an expert
  • Called to give advice
  • The audience has limited interest in the details – wants to focus on the way forward.

A key element of this approach is the ability to make a statement and then answer all the “Why do you say that?” questions that stem from that. This enables the audience to dig through different layers of evidence and reasoning like an archaeologist. For example, I might say something like, “You need to decrease your risks of relying on a single income source”. You might then say, “Why?” I will then explain how it increases dependency and complacency and how this income stream might not continue forever. You might then question, “Why do you say that it won’t continue indefinitely?” I would then explain the common reasons why income streams tend to dry up, and so on. 

This principle manifests in slide decks (i.e. PowerPoint presentations) where the title of each slide is a statement which is then supported by the contents of that slide. For example, a slide might have the following title: “Local authorities throughout the UK are implementing austerity budgets and cutting back on their funding to charities.” 

A blended approach to structuring reports and presentations is sometimes used when the purpose of the assignment and report is to help understand something and provide recommendations. For example, this is the format that I strive to use when doing organisational or impact assessments.

  1. Introduction
  2. Objectives
  3. Context (briefly if necessary).
  4. Methodology (briefly with more detail on the backend).
  5. Insights (supported by observations that the audience can delve into).
  6. Recommendations (supported by reasoning that can be delved into as needed).
  7. Conclusion

Nowadays, with people mostly consuming reports on their electronic devices, it is easy to provide hyperlinks to enable users to navigate through a report or presentation and retrieve any supporting documents on the backend.

Let’s consider these approaches in terms of inductive and deductive reasoning. The academic approach tends to be more inductive as it looks at the detailed findings and then gradually develops broader theories about what is happening and what must be done. In contrast, the thinking behind the consulting approach tends to be more deductive. This is because it focuses on proposing a theory of action which is then interrogated to determine whether it is valid or invalid. If you want to learn more about these types of reasoning, check out my article on how they can help to solve complex problems.

You’ll have to judge what works best for your context. For example, I vividly remember sitting in a boardroom of a management consultancy and listening to a long presentation on brand strategy from a potential supplier and partner. After a few slides, my colleague and mentor became predictably impatient with the proceedings. He asked the presenter to skip to the end of this long slide deck so that we could start to discuss the recommendations. We then went back and forth between each recommendation and its supporting evidence. My colleague was only interested in the evidence for some of the recommendations; others he accepted outright. I have since learned that my colleague’s behaviour is typical of busy executives. It is also how I engage with reports nowadays.

Before writing a report, it is wise to consider the approach that you will use. Even sense-check it with your intended audience to understand their expectations. 

It is also wise to think through the layout of the entire report or presentation before starting to write it. I’ve frequently sat in cafes and boardrooms for hours, working with colleagues to agree upon every aspect of the document – the argument, design, length, exact contents and our team workflow. This always accelerated the writing and design process and made everyone’s lives much easier. This upfront investment saved time overall. Therefore, always begin with the end in mind.

Further reading

Here are two resources for learning about the methods of laying out arguments in presentations and reports:

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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