How to… write a report

A report is a powerful communication and decision-making tool in many
business undertakings. Whether it is presenting the results of a special
project or serving as a public relations exercise, such as in the case of
publishing social and environmental reports, how well the document meets the
brief, and its quality and accuracy, can make or break the objective. What’s
more, demonstrating your ability to produce a credible document will set you
apart from colleagues and help you make strides in your career.

Where do I start?

Don’t reach for the keyboard straightaway. As with many formal communication
processes, you need to devote considerable time to mull over and get to grips
with the brief, and fully research and plan the contents before writing
anything. To fulfil its function, every report should engage the reader from
the outset, hold their attention, win them over, and ultimately lead to action.

Clarify what the key message is and be able to substantiate it with relevant
data and background information. If the information isn’t to hand, make sure
you know where to obtain it – don’t formulate conclusions from scant evidence.
As Jean Pousson, a consultant tutor on business strategy at the Institute of
Directors, wryly observes: "Sexed-up dossiers can be very
career-limiting."

Finally, know your audience – whether colleagues, customers, or competitors
– as this will inform you of how much detail to include, and the style of
writing, language to be used and tone.

How should I structure it?

Your organisation may have a house-style in terms of framework and
presentation which will largely dictate your report’s look and layout. But
irrespective of the audience, content, or length, all reports conform to a
similar format – comprising a cover, title page, table of contents, executive
summary, introduction, main body, conclusion, recommendations, references and
appendices.

Most of the above list is self-explanatory, but the main body of the report,
conclusions, recommendations and executive summary are where you should focus
your efforts.

Main body copy

Put the reader in the picture as to why the report is being written, in
plain and unambiguous terms. Use of short words and sentences will also aid
clarity. Guide them through changes of subject (and tell them what is coming
next) by signposting the copy with headings, and subheadings for associated
themes. Lend extra weight to key points or facts by picking them out in bold
type. Bullet point and/or indent lists of four or more facts, and consider
whether a mass of statistics may be conveyed more succinctly in a table.

Conclusions

This section presents the results of the report and should be presented
objectively. If the conclusions are not clear-cut, the alternatives should be
included to give the readers the opportunity to draw their own. A fair
proportion of the overall time spent on the report should be devoted to this
section.

Recommendations

Subject to the main findings of the report, the author offers his own
viewpoint on what course of action should be taken. Occasionally these can be
misappropriated in the conclusions section, but should be kept separate.

Executive summary

Normally located at the front of the document, this will map out, in brief,
the report’s core findings, conclusions, and the author’s recommendations, and
is likely to be a key factor in whether the reader will go on to read the
entire report.

Edit and review

It is essential to give yourself sufficient time to set the report aside for
a period to reappraise it with a fresh eye. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes.
Does it read well and follow a coherent sequence? Have you numbered the pages?
Also ensure you check grammar, spelling and punctuation. Rephrase unwieldy
sentences and cut unnecessary words. For a more scientific approach to assess
readability, use either the Flesch Easy Reading Index or Gunning-Mueller Fog
Index, which apply mathematical formulas. Try and get a friend or colleague to
read the report and give feedback on its flow and structure. Earn yourself
extra points by distributing the report ahead of deadline.

Where can I get more info?

Books

– Guide to Report Writing by Michael Netzley, Craig Snow, Pearson Higher
Education Prentice Hall, £12.99, ISBN 0130417718

– Successful Report Writing by Katherine Heritage, Hodder & Stoughton,
£6.99, ISBN 0340711981

– Writing a Report: How to Prepare, Write and Present Powerful Reports by
John Bowden, How To Books, £8.99, ISBN 185203810X

Related articles

– How to… plan a budget www.personneltoday.com/goto/19371

If you only do five things…

1 Extensively research and plan
before writing

2 Clarify your key message

3 Explain why the report is being written

4 Tailor your report to the audience

5 Allow sufficient time to edit and review

Expert’s view – Jean Pousson on writing a good report

Jean Pousson is a consultant tutor at the Institute of Directors, where he
lectures in strategic business direction and finance. He was previously
director of studies at the TSB Group Management College. He also runs a
specialised consultancy practice.

Is it critical to be able to write reports well in modern business?

Absolutely. In many instances, your report will be the only instrument you
have to achieve your objective, for instance, a business plan for potential
investors or venture capitalists to get funding. In other cases, the quality of
the report will reflect on the capabilities of the individual and their
organisation, such as a stockbroker’s report.

Do HR professionals place enough importance on writing reports?

Again, this is very difficult to answer. I have seen reports from HR
professionals that have been superb, and I have also seen some which were
simply putrid.

Experience suggests that people with an engineering background or finance
professionals tend to be better report writers.

What are the common pitfalls when writing a report?

Making it too wordy, unstructured and poorly presented. Or that the report
has no flow, doesn’t include an executive summary, references and
acknowledgements.

If pressed for time, is there a fail-safe formula to make your report
meet a certain standard?

Probably not. Under the circumstances it is always good to agree the scope
of the report with the sponsor, given that time may be a limiting factor.

Three top tips for report writing

1 Know your audience. Understand your audience’s objectives in requesting
the report

2 Structure and presentation. Make sure the flow is intelligent and logical.
Always have an executive summary. Always highlight the most important findings
and back up your findings with solid facts and figures

3 References. Always acknowledge your references, methodologies and overall
sources of information.

Comments are closed.