Top tips for writing an effective business report.
In the business world the written word is king. It is by email, report, proposal that we seek to promote our ideas, our solutions, ourselves and our organisations. Our written work influences people’s judgement about us. The ability to write cogent, impactful reports is a key element of communication effectiveness.
An effective report is one that focuses on both its purpose and audience and is accurate, logical, clear and as concise as possible. It needs to have a form and shape – structure – to help the writer organise and present the material logically and for the reader to find his or her way about and to digest its content.
The choice of structure should be determined by the purpose of the report and especially the needs, expectations and attention span of readers. Do not be a slave to ‘standard’ formats if they will not provide the impact you need.
There is a significant amount of advice available in this area, but here are some key things to consider.
Be focused, clear and concise
Consider what the report is to be about and who the report is intended for. Ensure you are absolutely clear on the purpose of the report. Focus on brevity and provide vital information in the least amount of space possible. Use appendices to cover detail and support information which will be of value to some but not all readers.
These are the building blocks of our writing. Use simple and straightforward language. Don’t reach for impressive vocabulary. Your aim is to explain or persuade, not amuse. Avoid jargon and technical phrases unless you know your readers are familiar with them. If they are unavoidable, make sure you explain them.
Ensure you consider what the report should cover and consider what your target audience will essentially be looking for. Make restrictions on scope crystal clear.
Know what you want to say
Clearly understand this vital premise first before you even start writing. Your writing must support, explain and emphasise your key messages. All content should support your overall objective.
Prepare an outline
Before actually beginning the task of writing a business report, prepare a thorough and comprehensive outline. This will ensure that you cover all the ground you need to.
Break down into chunks under headings, eg:
a) Title page (or title section) - include the report name, author name, and date. It's also a good idea to include the reason for reading the report. If longer, your title section could also include a table of contents.
b) Executive summary - maximum one page. Summarise the problem you're trying to solve, list the most important information or results, and detail any action steps that you recommend. This is where more senior and busy individuals will go first for information, and sometimes no further. This needs to be absolutely clear and succinct.
c) Methodology - describe the methods you used in your research to reach the conclusions you have drawn.
d) Introduction - tell readers why they need to read this report, and give a very brief overview of what you're going to cover in the main body of the report.
e) Main body - present your research, and make your case – and remember to present the most important information first.
f) Conclusion - analyse the results of your research, and bring everything together. Many people will also read this section on the back of the executive summary, so keep it short and simple.
g) Recommendations - list the actions you think readers – or the company – should take to solve the problem you're addressing in the report.
h) Appendix - include all of your sources and research information in detail. Few people read the appendix carefully, but this is the information and key pieces of evidence that supports your arguments, so it must be included.
Check the report and get other opinions
Does the report meet the objectives? Are the key messages clear and supported by the content of the report? Is the report consistent in content and style throughout? Perform a spell check and grammar check. Remember that spell checks don't highlight wrong words that are spelt correctly. Carefully proofread it twice and on the second occasion read it out loud. Then have the report read by others for an objective opinion as to whether it hits the mark.
Remember that commercial reputation doesn’t just rest with your character and values, it also rests with the quality and type of work that you produce. A thoroughly researched and thought through report will go a long way to demonstrate skills and the ability to then communicate this effectively through the written word.
Ingle Dawson – director, Inspirational Development Group