Where to start?
It can be hard to know where to start when charged with putting a professional business report together, their structure logic seeming to be the domain of a privileged few.
While there are lots of ways to approach making the whole process and final product more creative, if you feel slightly daunted at the prospect of producing the sort of report expected of you, read on...
As readers, it can also feel difficult to navigate or decipher detailed reports that lack obvious conclusions or clear recommendations. Many reports end up being too long, too wordy - or just plain boring!
This guide aims to help you to avoid these common pitfalls and feel more confident about the whole process.
First things first, according to the Oxford English dictionary a report is
“an account brought by one person to another, especially of some matter specially investigated.”
But what does that mean in your business? Expectations in your place of work need to be spelled out, as clearly what may be entirely professional and acceptable for one organization, company or team may be entirely inappropriate somewhere else.
If you are asked to provide a report, the first questions are obvious. What sort of report? Should it be formally or informally delivered? Should it follow a standard or a particular in-house style? Will a few sentences suffice? Do they really expect an executive summary or the equivalent of War and Peace?
The next question: Why are you writing it? A report is not an end in itself - it is usually the vital link that conveys information to enable others to take action or make a decision.
After establishing what exactly is required and also why you might be writing it, don’t forget who has to read and make sense of it. All your efforts will be in vain if you forget about your dear readers.
The bottom line is, whatever the type of report required, it should be easy to read, easy to understand and easy to act upon. To help you feel more confident in your ability to achieve those ambitions, the following clear steps might be helpful:
It may seem daft or patronizing to offer such an obvious list, but often even the most sensible professionals seem to feel they should be able to go straight to number four on that list.
Why? In the absence of any time to think (or indeed any formal guidance) why would anyone but those gifted with psychic abilities be able to start writing immediately? Instead, most people find following a systematic approach can make the job of writing professional reports a whole lot easier.
From the reader’s perspective, it is important that your key messages are clear in any piece of writing. Where that writing is more detailed clarity becomes even harder to achieve, hence the invention of the reporting format. After an enticing front page, the second page of most business reports is usually the contents page, so to follow that protocol:
Start with a hook
Engage your readers
Tone it up
1. Clarify your purpose and objectives
Before you start then, as has already been noted, you need to be quite clear about the why, who and what questions. Why are you writing this report? What is its specific purpose?
This may have to be clarified with whoever has commissioned it. The purpose of a report is often written into the report in the form of 'Terms of Reference' or your introduction.
The next question is who? At its simplest, a report is a means of compiling your research to make it more accessible to others. For example, the HR Director wants you to investigate the training needs of the IT team and to report back in writing, with your recommendations. Knowing who your readers are likely to be will help you to consider what they need (as well as what they do not), it will also help you to fine tune the tone and style of your writing.
Your report could involve translating a technical document into readable prose; it might be the final gathering of lots of data in order to prompt action or else, the summation of a meeting.
The report structure is simply a way to distil any amount of detailed information into an intelligible and logical form. A great shame then, that report writers often find them painful and baffling, a sure guarantee that their poor readers are then in for a confusing read.
It is only when you are quite clear about why you are writing the report and who it is aimed at that you can decide what exactly needs to be included and what left out.
If you have never seen a formal report, a good way to start is to look over the headings of typical reports. The following pages offer you a generic overview of the way that many reports are structured. Better still - seek out some in-house examples, where they exist, so that you can use them as a template for your efforts later.
Don’t worry about structure too much at this stage - a skim-read will be fine. The main thing to consider is that your report needs to be easy to follow and will display a clear logic.
Title, Author, Date - Often on a separate page, you may choose a title or a more interesting headline or hook. This page may also need to refer to those who the report is addressed to or whether or not the report is confidential or not.
Executive Summary (1-2 pages maximum) You can only write this section after you have completed the main body of your report. It should be a concise summary - a précis of the most important headers below which put your main evidence and recommendations in context. Indicate the most important hard facts and figures and explain their main implications, as these will justify your subsequent recommendations. You might also include how they meet existing values, costs and timing where applicable.
Acknowledgements - If it is appropriate to acknowledge contributors then do so here, or in a separate section at the end of the report.
Contents - Includes page or paragraph numbers and sub-sections.
Introduction Should include the purpose, aims, or scope of the report and any terms of reference. (Again, do check your in-house protocols as these terms and the next are often used interchangeably.)
Background/ History/ Context - Explains the history, content and background to the subject in hand. Describes the current situation or issue and any perceived problem or challenges to be resolved.
Research/ Methodology - Explains what you did to investigate the current situation in greater depth. How did you go about finding things out? For example, did you carry out interviews, review specific data, make comparisons with national guidelines?
Findings - Offers the results of your investigations. Where there are many, you could group them according to type to make them clear and accessible.
Conclusion/Evaluation - A summary of your findings and an objective evaluation of the relative importance of each. It is important to source/reference any facts, figures and evidence to help justify the potential solutions you choose to recommend next.
Recommendations - Make your final recommendations crystal clear. You could present your chosen options as a numbered list where appropriate or under headings if they are many. You may include benefits and risks analysis to spell out the implications and intended results you propose, also the consequences of doing nothing. It may also be useful to present them as suggested short, medium and long term recommendations.
Appendix - To avoid overloading the reader with too much detail, attach and index diagrams, figures and detailed evidence in the appendix.
References - State the source of figures or evidence. One top tip is to note your references as you gather them so that full details can be easily accessed when you have finished all the hard work. Number your references throughout your report to present as a page-referenced list here.
Being clear about the structure of your report in advance means that you are getting closer to taking the pain out of the process for everyone.
2. Research and gather your Information
Like a good detective, you must satisfy yourself that you have all the relevant facts and information that underpins the credibility of your efforts.
This means noting your sources and not necessarily accepting things at face value or believing everything you are told. Be careful that you distinguish facts from what may be merely opinions!
Quantify and qualify as you gather. Noting your references carefully and creating your appendix as you go along can also save you valuable time at the end of the process.
It is helpful to think about how you are going to investigate:
What will be your methodology?
What data do you need?
Who do you need to interview?
What are you going to ask them?
What on-the-spot investigations do you need to make?
What other sources of information are available?
What evidence do you need to gather?
If you’ve done your job well you will be generating the appropriate amount of information. This can then be filed under the appropriate sections of your report in the sorting stage.
You are now ready to write the first draft of you report. Just before you start (and to save time later in the editing process) remind yourself of the key purpose of the report, not only who it is aimed at but what they need to know.
Be prepared to exclude everything that does not contribute to the purpose of the report. It’s very easy to get carried away and include everything you’ve discovered. For example, you may have included lot of detailed information on a relatively unimportant point. Try to stick to the point in hand and put such information in the appendix if you feel it merits being there.
Only when you have completed the first draft of the main body of the report will you be in a position to write your executive summary. For summary, see also précis, ideally, a concise one or two pages - which probably equate to a few lines about each section of your report. Your conclusions and recommendations should then follow logically.
Some people find it very useful to lay their ideas out physically under each heading. Using print outs and scissors is a far more playful and less stressful way to do a professional job. It can be useful to create an extra heading called ‘Waffle’ and file any superfluous material under it.
Refer to example reports again if you get stuck – and ask for help or a second opinion where you get stuck. At the very least you will have made a good stab at putting your ideas together.
Where there is a great deal of necessary detail, use sub-headings to help guide your readers navigate through it. It is also your job to ensure that the more important bits of the report are highlighted, so consider the order your present your information.
6. Edit and check
Thinking of your intended readership should help guide you to getting things right. Putting your readers first means that you also need to create a contents sheet to help people navigate reports more than a few pages long.
Expect to complete several drafts of the body of the report to get it right. Give it to someone else to read and take note of their comments. Unlike the author, they should be able to see the report objectively. Try to find someone who will tell you honestly if they found your report easy to follow and understand.
This leads us to the cover page that usually needs to include important details such as the author(s) name(s), dates, intended readers, confidentiality and even which version of the report is being presented. In this case it will be version 1 (V1). Where reports are to be agreed by committee, there may be many different versions of the original - do remember to keep amending version details on your cover page.
Sections and their sub-sections should be clearly numbered - your job is to help your readers to find the information most useful to them and to navigate.
Start with a hook
Your challenge is to bring your finding and recommendations to life – which means trying to hook your readers. Start by thinking about your cover page title – how can you make it most relevant or interesting?
For example, Writing Reports, the working title of this piece, was replaced by Painless Report Writing: A step-by-step guide.
Annual Housing Report may not be as clear or enticing as Tackling Affordable Housing Shortage in the Capital. Use both versions where appropriate, the sub-heading can then be written as a hook to achieve focus.
Remember that the appearance and body language of the report make a huge impact too. Even the most thorough, professional investigation will fail to impress if it doesn't look right. Its quality of presentation should reflect the quality of its content.
If your report is being presented to the board, as opposed to being sent digitally, for example, a smart folder or binding gives a good impression, as does paper quality.
In any case, each page needs to be easy on the eye. Think about the balance of text versus white space. Well-spaced text is easier to read and content more easily digested, so try to avoid overloading your poor reader.
Stick to consistent formatting rules. Use clear headings and bullet points where they add value. Use underlining, brackets and italics if you must but know that they can add clutter and look untidy.
It may also be worth checking if there is an expectation that readers are able to make notes in the left-hand margin, as is sometimes the case.
Engage your readers
Why would you not want to try everything you can to engage and interest your readers and make it easier for them to do their jobs?
Unless there are real justifications for the report to be written in black and white in tiny Times New Roman font, be prepared to negotiate fresh ways to convey important information.
Diagrams, charts, plans and statistics used appropriately can be a far more effective way to convey complex information than pure text alone. They can also add relief and variety for your reader.
If the data is important, help your reader to focus on why it is. Usually that means via a clear heading or explanation to help put the information in context.
Although the implications may be obvious to you, they may be less clear to those who are not equally immersed in the subject or have the same knowledge.
Your job as author and expert on the subject is to make things clear. Complicated tables, like the one above can lack focus.
Where you can, you could use bar charts, pie charts or line graphs - they offer a faster shortcut to clarifying your key messages. The information below is far more useful in highlighting trends as well as reinforcing key recommendations.
Using colour and case studies can also really help to bring factual material to life. Where these echo brand colours or the values of the organization they can be particularly potent. Nobody said that reports have to look turgid and dull.
Nevertheless, a note of caution here; if you do feel like championing a new approach to how reports are written in your organization or company, be political. Make sure that your ambitions are appropriate and will be well received. Ruffling the wrong feathers by making too many radical changes to the expected format could otherwise backfire.
Adding finesse means revisiting the clarity of your report. Aim for one word instead of six that say the same thing - unless you are using repetition for deliberate effect. Short sentences and paragraphs often read more clearly - as does using a new paragraph for every new idea.
Be ruthless as an editor, bin the waffle and padding that may bury your key messages. Again, send that extra padding and information to your appendix.
Use pc functions to help you to double check for careless technical errors with spellings and grammar - and where you can, get someone else to read over your report before final submission to senior colleagues.
Tone it up
In terms of further fine-tuning, it is important to capture appropriate tone. Crucially, it often has more impact on your readers than the actual messages conveyed. So, balance the way you address them as everyone processes information and makes decisions differently.
For more logical thinkers, you will need to qualify and quantify your recommendations. For those who make decisions based upon their gut instincts, you are most likely to persuade them when either the huge benefits or the most alarming risks or consequences of your findings are explained. Aim to cater for both ends of the spectrum and take care of hearts and minds.
Naturally, the tone of your report is reflected in the formality of your language. Although plain English is usually to be celebrated, if your report is aimed at specialists, you may need to adopt an academic approach, include industry jargon and technical language. Alternatively, it may be useful to address your readers more directly. Using the first person approach, via ‘I’ or ‘we’, can be more inclusive and make your ideas more accessible.
It is worth remembering again that as report formats evolve there may be few hard and fast rules about the right approach. While their style will need to satisfy internal expectations, ultimately its purpose is to support clear and meaningful communications.
It is always well worth knowing how well your reports serve their particular function - and if and where they could be adapted to suit changing needs and times.
Often, one of the most painful aspects of report writing often occurs when others are involved in the editing of your words.
Take care of your reputation and morale and be systematic. Where you are able to reassure others of the rigour of your approach, any corrections or comments made by them later can be seen in the light of their own style and preferences - as opposed to an assault on your professionalism.
Hopefully, this guide will continue to support your report writing skills and confidence so that you feel better equipped to produce reports that are:
Easy to read
Easy to understand
Easy to act upon
Good luck at having a go!