Growing your impact with reports people remember

After three years of painstaking and often painful work to figure out how to build a climate-ready workforce in a rapidly changing world, the team at the Adaptation Learning Network (ALN) at Royal Roads University needed to do a final report for funders.

Now, they could have done what most projects do – written a few hundred pages of blabbity-blah, jammed them in a binder with some charts and congratulated themselves on a job well done. But, after spending two years exploring ways to shift the narrative on climate change with me, they knew that a story-based approach would have far more impact.

The problem with 99% of reports is that they just focus on goals and outcomes – what the project achieved. This means they miss out on the opportunity to enable readers to learn from, remember and share what they did. Remember, we are wired to solve problems with stories. If I see in your report that you grew charitable donations by 200% in one year, I'm going to think, "Wow! I wonder how they did that?". If you don't tell me the story of your journey – particularly what went wrong and how you fixed it – then I won't remember your achievement.

But most people shy away from doing this because they're afraid that, if readers think something went wrong during the work, it'll make them look bad. In fact, the opposite is true. By sharing your unique story, you not only give us details we can use to flag that experience as valuable in our story databases, you also build your brand as a hero. You show us how you overcame enormous barriers and solved tough problems to achieve something remarkable. Plus, you share what you learned - something we need more of to tackle today's complex issues. None of us is going to be able to save the world on our own!

That's ultimately what inspired the ALN to take a story-based approach to their final report. They'd just spent three years innovating to build new kinds of tools and platforms that organizations like municipalities could use to train and grow their workforce. Using stories to share their successes, failures, insights and ideas about where to go next was the best thing they could do to maximize the impact of their work.

Their final online report includes ten stories about different parts of the project, told through frank video interviews with key project players, a text narrative and a few infographics. Though the original intent was to publish the whole thing on a snazzy micro-site, the team decided to use an open source tool called Pressbooks instead. The upside was that it made publishing easier; the downside was that it took away control over the visual design. Still, the result is a report that's engaging, memorable, and easy to access and share.

Next time you need to create a report, no matter what size or format, try telling your audience what you set out to do, what challenges you ran into, what you tried to do to solve them (including things that didn't work), and how you ultimately succeeded. You'll still cover your goals and outcomes – plus you'll make your work more memorable and engaging.

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