By Emily Nordvang, Senior Writer, and Sarah Hazell, Chief Operations Officer at First Create The Media. Want more tips for making an impact with your science? Sign up for our newsletter.

Reports and brochures are a great way for life sciences organisations to demonstrate the impact and importance of your research to the audiences that matter most, whether it’s funders, stakeholders, policymakers or the wider public.

You can also pull out stories, quotes, figures and case studies from your report for use in wider comms activities such as social media or blog posts, giving you a lot of bang for your buck. 

We’ve just finished working on reports for two of our fabulous clients:

Here, we’re sharing behind-the-scenes insights into how we create reports like these, and our top tips for navigating the process smoothly.

However long you think it will take, double it

If you’ve never created a report before, you’ll soon find out that it’s a massive project that involves a lot of work and a substantial amount of time. 

Most reports take months to complete, even if there are no significant hitches. It takes time to go through the planning process, interview experts, research and write the copy, and lay out the design. Plus, of course, there will be multiple rounds of sign off (probably with multiple people), as well as a couple of rounds of proofreading.

So if you have an important deadline, such as a government funding review or campaign launch date, you need to be thinking about your report months earlier. 

As an example, the reports we produced for the Medicines Manufacturing Challenge and the BSI/IVVN took 4 and 5 months from start to finish, respectively.

Start with your ‘Why’

Before you start drawing up plans and commissioning a writer, step back and think about the underlying purpose you want to achieve through creating a report. 

We always start our report projects by sitting down with the client and drilling into the details of who it’s aimed at, what they are trying to tell them, and what they want them to do once they’ve read it. 

Getting this stuff straight at the start helps the whole thing hang together with a clear purpose and narrative, ultimately making a report that’s readable and engaging rather than unfocused bumph. 

A great report starts with a great plan

We spend a lot of time at the start of a report project making sure we’ve mapped out all the details and timelines, so nothing gets overlooked and causes a panic later.

For a start, there are all the practical details like budgets, how long the report will be (number of pages and rough word counts), who’s writing and designing it, and where you will source graphics and photos. 

In terms of content, it’s important to be clear on where the information for the report will come from, such as expert interviews (Who? And how many?), scientific papers (Do you have a list of publications or will the writer need to go digging?), or other materials like presentations and documents (Who’s got them and how can they be shared?).

Another big issue is being clear on the number of rounds of revisions that will be required and who needs to agree on the final report content and design. If your revision process isn’t decided in advance, it can become endless and blow your budget and timelines. 

The more detail you put in your plan now, the fewer questions there will be later, and the smoother the whole process will be. 

(As an aside, while expert interviews are a great source of information, they can significantly affect your timelines. For example, it might be theoretically possible to arrange all of your interviews in a week. Still, it’s improbable in real life where people go on holiday, fail to answer their emails, or are just too busy to participate. Make sure you build some wiggle room into the schedule, as well as a few suggestions for alternative interviewees.)

Get everyone on the same page

Once all the practical stuff is sorted, then it’s on to the content. 

We always do a brainstorming session right at the beginning of the report planning process with all the key stakeholders. This helps build essential relationships with report stakeholders, gets everyone on board, and makes sure everyone feels heard.

During this session we’ll confirm the report’s objectives and map out the key themes and areas that need to be included, as well as ideas for experts, sources and case studies that illustrate them. 

There are bound to be too many ideas at this stage, so we’ll also run through a prioritisation exercise so everyone is clear on what’s definitely going in and what might have to be left out, along with a priority list of experts to interview.

It’s vital that everyone who needs to be consulted is included at this stage, so if a key person can’t make your brainstorming session, rearrange it. Otherwise, they may be unhappy with the direction of the report and demand significant changes later on. 

It’s also a good idea to be frank at this stage about what should not be included or any areas of potential sensitivity to avoid accidental clangers and stakeholder wrangling down the line. If you’re going to argue about what should be in the report, do it now so that you’re on the same page when the writing starts.

Craft your content

Next, we’ll craft an overarching narrative that captures the overall direction, tone and message of the report. 

As an example, for Securing the Future, this was simply, “The UK has done amazing veterinary vaccine research, but we need to keep going and build further because there are still many challenges and new threats.” 

Then we’ll develop a detailed content plan (flat plan) outlining page headings and the main points to be covered in each single or double page spread, as well as the word count for each. 

We’ll also start thinking about page furniture such as standfirsts, pull quotes and case study call-outs, which will help with the design later on.

The flat plan helps people visualise how the report will look. It also ensures they are happy with the content before we start writing and gives them an opportunity to point out anything we’ve missed. 

Next, we conduct fact-finding interviews with subject experts to help us get an understanding of the topic, landscape and opinions that need to be included in the report. Remember, you can’t interview everyone, so stick to the list of people you agreed at your brainstorm. 

Once the interviews are done, you will probably find yourself overwhelmed with information and opinions that you need to fit into your report. This is where it’s a huge advantage to have professional writers who can pick out all the key themes and weave them into a coherent piece of writing. And once the writing is done, a great editor will polish it so it sparkles.

While you’re writing, make sure you stick to the approved plan. That is, of course, unless something huge comes up, like a pandemic…

When we were writing the Celebrate Vaccines Report report for the BSI in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic kicked off, so we had to adapt the plan to include a double page spread on COVID vaccine research at the last minute. 

Prioritise relationships

Big projects like reports are all about relationships, so make sure you prioritise them. Investing time in ensuring that everyone agrees and works harmoniously at the start of the project can help you avoid problems further down the road. 

You also need to have good, honest relationships with your writers, editors, and designers, whether they are contractors or in-house. This will help make the whole report writing less stressful and make problems easy to deal with, should they crop up. 

Perfect project management

Our top tips for pulling off great reports on short timescales and with minimum stress? Have a fantastic project manager (like our COO Sarah Hazell), use a project management tool (we love Trello), and commit to regular check-ins to make sure everything’s running smoothly (one client said they were the highlight of their week!)  

A dedicated project manager will maintain those crucial relationships we just discussed, ensure everything stays on track as the project progresses, and oversee the whole project from start to finish. They should also deal with all the administrative bits and bobs like licenses, permissions, copyright, data protection, and everything else. 

Inevitably, a mistake will creep in at some point and it’s often the project manager, who has a bird’s eye view of the whole project at every stage, who catches them. 

For example, while making a recent report, we added an extra expert quote in the final stages. This addition chopped off half a page from the end of the report, which the designer overlooked. Sarah quickly noticed the error and worked with the designer to move things around and rectify the problem with minimal fuss. 

Need help with your reports? Get in touch!

All of this might sound a bit overwhelming, but we’re here to help.

At First Create The Media, we’re experts at creating impactful impact reports. We love working with our clients in the life sciences to help them get their message heard and secure funding to continue their vital work. Get in touch to see how we can help you navigate through the process, remove the stress, and ensure that your report gets finished on time and to budget, and sign up for our newsletter to get regular updates and more science communication tips.