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James Percival Blog: Report writing in the real world7th January 2013

I think it would be a fairly safe bet that anyone reading this blog has written a good few essays in their time. Academic writing is a huge part of education and after two years of GCSEs and two years of A levels before five years at university (three studying Law followed by a second helping of two years of Building Surveying), I thought I was pretty good at writing.

I realise now that the sceptical looks I received when I cheerfully announced that I could write all sorts at masters level were due to the fact that, while that’s all very well, it’s not what graduates are employed to do. The simple truth is that academic skills need development in order to meet client requirements. I’m glad to say that although the technical information I spent hours cramming into my head is of use, I am no longer required to regurgitate all of it under exam conditions.

When I started work as a graduate at Savills and began to assist in reporting to clients on their building sites or what condition the house they wanted to buy was in, I was surprised to find that when my work was proofed by directors in my team, areas of what I thought was well reasoned discussion had been deleted. When writing essays for my academic studies, one works out eventually what you need to do to get good marks; all statements of fact should be supported by credible references and arguments need to be established for both sides of the issue. These are then critically analysed and evaluated, building eventually to a conclusion where you deliver your final verdict. The process of arriving at your answer is what you are being assessed on, what the actual answer is can be almost irrelevant academically provided that your thinking is sound and well reasoned.

When providing advice to clients, however, the opposite is true. The fact is that the client, more often than not, doesn’t want to read about the technical process by which I arrive at my answer. The client wants the answer in plain English, and they want it yesterday. What they do not want is to trawl through an enormous document searching for the answer.

The technique I employ now in my report writing is to try and put myself in my client’s shoes and think what questions they want answered in a logical sequence. To take a residential building survey for example, what does the client want to know about the property? Probably not the exact chemical composition of the bricks or the technical word for the particular configuration of the rafters (which I’ve spent years learning) but instead should they, at the end of the day, spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on it, yes or no? Whereas the answer would have made the conclusion in academic writing, it is the first and most crucial piece of information the client wants. Either “Yes it will make a good investment” or “There’s a huge crack... don’t buy the house”.

The next part of the executive summary is to briefly and clearly describe the issues: “The foundations appear to be formed on inadequate and moving sub-soils etc”. The client wants to know what this issue means in real terms. The answer being “If you leave the foundations as they are, the house will gently slide into the river over the next five years”.

Now that the issue and the potential outcome have been identified, the client’s line of questioning will probably run like this: “What can be done to solve the problem?” to which you can reply “underpinning”, leading to the question of most importance, “Is purchasing the house and performing the remedial works economically viable?” This is the crux of the matter and the answer is what the client needs to make informed decisions on how much they can offer, if they decide to offer at all. The goal is to reach this point about halfway down the first page.

Of course you have to know all the technical information to support your recommendations so stripping back the detail doesn’t mean that it’s any less work for you. After the executive summary comes the full survey report, full of all your technical expertise, but if you’ve done the executive summary properly, the client should never need to read it. Like the furiously paddling feet of a duck, your reasoning should remain hidden (unless asked for), allowing you to swiftly and clearly guide the client to the information they want.

All in all, my experience to date as a graduate at Savills has taught me this, deliver your message to the client clearly and get straight to the point. Background knowledge of the matter in hand is assumed by the very fact I work for a market leading firm alongside field experts. As a result, writing out a lengthy explanation on how I reached my conclusion is not necessary. Getting to grips with this is just another lesson and learning on the job is what makes my graduate position so fulfilling.

About James Percival

James is a graduate building surveyor who works for Savills Southampton and takes a keen interest in the conservation of historic and vernacular buildings. James started blogging for Property News in June 2012 and his blog reflects his views on different aspects of the property industry as he encounters them in the course of his fledgeling career in commercial  property.

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