Communicating effectively is central to our industry and there is no more important time to get out message across as planners and urban development professionals.
For this reason, Natalie Rayment, our Planning Manager, and Hannah Sealey, experienced Town Planner at WCG, presented for the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) how to draft a clear and concise assessment report that delivers the message to the target audience, as an essential skill for planners.
In their presentation, they were asked to cover the fundamentals of good report writing and provide suggestions about how to get your core message across accurately, succinctly and with greatest effect. This includes writing in the context of statutory requirements, knowing your audience and writing for that audience and future proofing your report against subsequent challenge.
As Natalie and Hannah pointed during this session at PIA, we are living in the most highly urbanised era Australians have ever experienced. Our planning policies increasingly recognise this urban shift, anticipating growth of around 2 million people in SEQ in the next 25 years. Our cities are growing and most of that growth is no longer welcome at the edges but focused right in our backyards, as infill development within our existing urban areas. Our communities are taking notice of this change in urban growth patterns, to the extent that many community groups are actively rallying against urban density. The media overwhelmingly sympathises with the not in my back yard sentiment, creating a sense of danger around the topic of density. The developer remains the villain in the story of the growth of our cities and all too often the planner and urban development professionals are considered shills for developers.
It is therefore more important than ever to get our message across effectively.
Planning 101 will tell you that a good assessment report must be:
- written in plain English – remembering your report isn’t only written for other town planners
- thorough but succinct – addressing all relevant assessment benchmarks without being verbose and
- accurate –technically proficient, quoting facts and evidence relied on.
But to have the greatest effect, we know that a good report is so much more than this.
So, who is reading your report?
Knowing your audience is fundamental to all forms of communication. While your audience is literally in your face when verbally communicating, whether it be in a conversation, meeting or presentation, readers of the printed word can be more far reaching. So, understanding our readers and writing our reports for them will help to get our message across more effectively to all readers. Putting our readers front of mind when structuring our report and our key messages should clarify the report purpose, guide the report structure, and emphasise the importance of the message.
So, who is reading our reports? The primary reader is who we write the report for, that is:
- your client - your Assessment Reports, as part of a development application, are one of the deliverables of the consultancy service we are providing to the client. It is a tangible output, typically provided at a fixed fee;
- the assessment manager - the primary purpose of our Assessment Report is to demonstrate to the assessment officer why the development application should be approved, to persuade the assessor to recommend the development proposal for approval to the decision maker; and
- the decision maker - to persuade the decision maker to approve the development.
The parties involved in the development assessment process, and therefore your potential audience, is more diverse than that, including:
- the consultant team – other members of the project team, who may read the report for background, consistency and to scope their input;
- the community – the neighbours, wider community and community groups, who are interested in the proposal and considering whether to make a submission, in favour or opposition to the proposal;
- politicians – the local Councillor, Mayor and Chairperson of Planning;
- the legal team – if the decision is appealed, the Solicitors, Barristers, experts and lay witnesses for all parties will have an interest in the report. Under cross-examination, the Barrister for another party may scrutinise your words and question what you meant by certain words, phrases and conclusions; and
- the Judge – the final decision maker, if appealed.
Beyond the primary report purpose, there could be a wider audience:
- your employer – ultimately the quality of your report impacts on your employer’s QA and brand reputation;
- your peers – in reviewing decisions on similar proposals or in nearby areas; and
- anyone, anywhere – ultimately our reports are freely accessible on the internet through most Council’s PD on-line services.
While this list of potential readers is very broad, not everyone will read your report, certainly not from cover to cover. It’s therefore also relevant to ask who is not reading your report, and if not, why not? The challenge is to prepare a report that is not only technically proficient and concise, but all things to all people. In doing so, we need to think about the user experience and what they will do with it. Hopefully each point discussed below will assist.
Planners as story tellers
We must, of course, have the technical skills to properly describe the proposal and the way in which it achieves the relevant assessment benchmarks, but I don’t know a single planner who got into this profession to become a technocrat, to fill in the blanks of a template report or punch out answers to the never-ending list of code compliance statements. While we spend hours writing reports, the true skill is in the way we tell the story.
J K Rowling is described as a master storyteller. When analysing her technique, her four key story telling elements include:
1. characterisation – her characters not only come to life straight from the page, but are relatable;
2. world building – every aspect of her world is described in detail;
3. gripping start; and
4. a powerful ending.
These are equally relevant in report writing. The development proposal is the character in our story, and the task is in characterising it and helping the reader to understand why it is a good development outcome. The world we are building is the surrounding context of the proposal. Why is it a good development outcome in this particular location? And any good story needs a gripping beginning, to grab the reader’s attention with a compelling start, and powerful ending, with a strong conclusion.
What can you learn from a box of cake mix?
A simple tool is in most people’s pantries, a typical box of cake mix. So, what can we learn from a box of cake mix in telling our story? It’s all in the delivery. Look at the front of the box and consider what information makes it onto the cover. While there are plenty of rules and regulations around what technical information is mandatory to include on the product packaging (weight, ingredients, nutritional content), technical specifications rarely make it onto the front. The key messages on the front are the core characteristics, qualities and value proposition. As planners, we need to be clear about why we’re putting forward a development proposal and what makes it a good outcome. Product packaging is a simple but effective guide to key messaging about qualities and value.
Avoiding the culture of defensiveness
The development assessment process appears to be influenced by an emerging culture of defensiveness, on the part of the applicant and assessing authority alike. We have seen an escalating conservatism on the part of some assessing authorities, more recently broadening out from impact assessable applications to permissible change requests. A natural response might be to write the Assessment Report in defence mode, defending non-compliance with acceptable outcomes from the outset, diluting the message about the benefits of the proposal being put forward. Commonly, the key issues listed in the Assessment Report are framed around areas of non-compliance rather than the merits of the proposal.
We believe it is important to focus first on the outcome, why the proposal is a good development outcome in the location proposed, the design rationale and the outcome sought, before getting into the technical details.
Long story short
An additional challenge in writing a good report is the sheer length of assessment benchmarks to be addressed. The expression ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees’ springs to mind when describing the approach to the sheer size of development codes in Brisbane City Plan 2014. Applying, addressing and assessing over 100 pages of local development codes for a typical apartment building is not only mind numbing but counter-intuitive for the overall goal; getting all parties in the development assessment process bogged down in the miniature rather than considering whether the proposal is a good outcome. This arduous procedure comes at a cost, not only in time and delay in the assessment, but by a general diluting of the key criteria and key messages.
The structure of our written reports becomes increasingly important as a result. Perhaps a lesser recognised story telling technique is in the structure. Apparently, J K Rowling created a detailed spreadsheet, outlining the structure of the entire Harry Potter series before putting pen to paper, and in doing so foreshadowing the end from the very beginning. Equally, structure is fundamental to a good report. Having a holistic view of our core message is important, so design your specific content strategy up front.
While not everyone who reads our report will read it cover to cover, it is important that the reader knows exactly where to find the information they are looking for. This will better enable the key messages to be heard and key information to be found.
Watch your language
Some key points to consider when framing the text in our reports includes:
- be compelling and persuasive about your core message;
- be clear and concise, tell the long story short;
- distinguish fact from opinion, and if a fact, who’s fact (reference it); and
- we need to be more precise with our language, remember there are no limits or maximums when referring to acceptable outcomes, in our performance based planning regime.
By keeping score on what goes into your report, you can achieve consistent, efficient and comprehensive planning reports. Three key tools can help you to keep score:
- Template: A good template should save time and assist with consistency by automating document styling and branding, including simple instructions and automating standard text. It’s time to uncover the ‘developer’ tab in the Microsoft suite!
- Report writing guideline: This tool can be used to explain what each section of the report should contain and how to go about preparing it, provide strong examples and reminders of good planning practise;
- QA Checklist: A QA checklist should be an itemised checklist which summarises guidance contained in a report writing guideline. It should prompt users to consider whether they are following best practise throughout the report writing process.
In summary, a good report has the following attributes: comprehensive – remember planning 101 and the need to be thorough and concise; technically accurate – even a good storey needs authenticity and accuracy in the details. A good report demonstrates stellar technical skills, expertise and experience; strategic – any story teller will tell you that every good story needs a hook. Well the hook in a good assessment report is the Why? Why the proposal will result in a good development outcome. To be effective it should present a deep understanding of the benefits of the proposal and they must be relatable to the audience; story assets – any good report is completed by story assets, assets which help to tell the story i.e. not only text but images, and knows how to combine them; integrated – incorporates and balances objectives of all relevant disciplines to ensure a compelling story; and proudly stated - does not perpetuate a culture of defensiveness but rather proudly puts forward the merits of a proposal. Hopefully these tools and suggestions have a broader application. After all, they are tips for communication, not necessarily restricted to report writing. They are equally applicable in our verbal communications, negotiations, expert evidence and community consultation.
You can also watch the full presentation here.
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IIf you would like to know more about our presentation at the PIA livestream event, or generally have any questions about planning, do not hesitate to contact our experienced town planning team.