“Rosebud (the symbol of the great classic movie, Citizen Kane) will go over my typewriter to remind me that quality in movies comes first.”

Steven Spielberg



Client-side researchers dislike revisions because they are a frustrating drag on their time and effectiveness. Supplier-side researchers dislike them even more because extensive revisions can quickly blow the budget, demoralize staff and raise havoc with schedules for other projects.

So, years ago, when I started my company, I decided to see what I could do to keep revisions at a minimum. This blog post is about the things that worked most of the time (remember I said minimizing, not completely avoiding).

The most important lesson I have learned is that you must start thinking about the report at very beginning of the project.

Strategy 1.  Hold a project initiation meeting with the objective of understanding the true objectives of the research and how the findings will be used. This meeting can be held via teleconference; but it will be more effective if held in-person. The key players should be present.  On the supplier side, this includes the analyst responsible for the questionnaire and report, as well as the client service executive. Usually, attendees on the client side depend on the structure of the organization and how they usually do business with suppliers, but these meetings are almost always more productive when the ultimate users of the research are included. In addition to understanding the objectives of the research and how it will be used, you should also ask about reporting requirements and ask for an example of a model report that meets all these requirements. Also ask if there is a stylebook, and if not, inform them that you will use your company’s standard style (also put this in your proposal and/or contract).

Strategy 2. Think about how you are going to analyze every question that you include in the questionnaire and push back if people suggest questions that will yield ambiguous or misleading results. I learned this lesson painfully on my first market research job. I was conducting a survey of a suburban community for a developer who wanted to get public support for a very large new development. A political consultant that he had hired gave me a question to add to the questionnaire. The question was not just double-barreled but triple-barreled. That is, he wanted to follow a general approval/disapproval question with question that asked, “would you approve if”…. and listed three very different things intended to make people more approving. I pushed back but not hard enough, and the question ended up in the questionnaire. Unfortunately, the great majority said they wouldn’t approve and we were left trying to figure out which of the three things they didn’t like. When I presented the results, the developer blamed me for the “stupid” question, and the political consultant made no move to defend me. Lesson learned in spades.

Strategy 3.  Once the questionnaire is approved, prepare a report outline and analysis plan and send a copy to your main contact in the client organization. Even if the client does not read and/or respond to the outline or plan, you have not only stated your intentions but have also thought through the reporting process. Trust me. Reporting will be much easier.

Strategy 4.  After the data collection is finished, prepare the first chapter or section of the report and ask the client to comment on it. This often reveals unspoken stylistic or formatting preferences. Having to revise one small part of a report is a small price to pay for avoiding revisions to the entire report.

Strategy 5.  Check and double check the report to sure make there are no inaccuracies. There is nothing more embarrassing than to have a client point out something that is clearly wrong.  With modern analytic software, there is no excuse for wrong numbers, but we are all human and can make inadvertent mistakes like omitting a “not” or other key words that change the meaning in a sentence. Spell check can also change the word you meant to type, often to something embarrassing. So I usually check it myself and then ask another person in my firm to double-check it before sending it to a client.

Strategy 6.  Rewrite as necessary.  Often when we are writing about research findings, we are thinking about the meaning, not the most elegant way to express it. Whether you are writing a traditional report or a presentation, words matter. Review your report to omit unneeded words, use active rather than passive voice where possible, make sentences short and crisp, and be sure to put the news upfront. Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White for more tips.

Strategy 7.  You may call it a draft but format it like a final. The first draft you send to the client should look polished. It will send a message that you care about your work and have done everything necessary to create an excellent report. Plus it will prevent clients from calling out minor formatting errors for revision.

These seven strategies have worked well for me, and I hope they work for you.