How to write reports that get read, part 2

Mention to most business people that they need to write a report and you’re likely to hear a groan … “oh, what’s the point, it’s so boring and no-one ever reads the damned things anyway…” But reports don’t have to be boring, and writing them doesn’t have to be, either. In this first of two articles, we look at the basic issues you need to consider, and how to set up a structure that works…(if you haven’t read part 1, click here.)

The executive summary: just like an abstract

Depending on the nature of your report you may be expected to include an executive summary, or at least an introduction that captures the key points of your information. This is much like the “abstracts” used in medical and other reports which encapsulate the main points, so giving the reader the key issues as quickly as possible. Write this after you’ve done the body of the report, not before. Use your list of headings as a guide.

Keep strictly to the facts – this is still part of the report, not your interpretation of it. Strip each sentence down to bare bones with minimal adjectives and adverbs. Use short words and sentences.

Don’t just get to the point – start with it and stick to it.

What you think: even if they want to know, keep it separate

If part of your remit is to comment on the report and/or its conclusions, keep this separate from the main body of information. (Blocked off in a box or under a clearly separated heading will do.)

Naturally as you’re professional you will be as objective as possible. But if you do feel strongly one way or another, ensure that your argument is put as reasonably as possible without going on for pages and pages.

Remember, brief is beautiful, although it’s harder to write briefly (and include all the important points) than it is to produce words in abundance.

Pictures are fine but don’t replace relevant words

Graphs and charts are great to illustrate important issues and like the man said, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” However ensure that those you use are of a level of complexity that will be understood by the least topic-literate of your readers. There’s nothing more irritating than a graph that takes you 20 minutes to decipher.

It’s not so much a case that readers are too stupid to understand a complex graph, as it is that they don’t want to spend too much time working it out. The easier/quicker you make it for readers to understand and assimilate your information, the more successful your report.

Try, also, to keep graphs and charts physically adjacent to the text that talks about the same thing. As before, there’s nothing more irritating for the reader if they have to keep flipping from front to back of a document, whether online or paper-based. (When in doubt, think of someone reading your report on that crowded commuter train.)

Keep it simple and dump any padding

Still on that topic, try to avoid including too many diverse elements in your report, no matter how long and involved it is.

If you do need to include appendices and various bits of background material, research statistics, etc., make sure they’re neatly labeled and contained at the back of your document.

As I suggested earlier, don’t ask readers to skip back and forth, directing them with asterisks and other reference directing symbols.

If you’re writing a medical report or paper then you’re obliged to include these when quoting references from other papers, but please keep even these to a minimum. They’re very distracting and can break your reader’s concentration.

Looks matter – and can help readers absorb information

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but people do. Like it or not. According to most image consultants, when you walk into a meeting 55% of your first impression of someone is reflected exclusively in the way they’re dressed.  Documents fall into the same hole.

So how your document looks goes a long way to creating the right impression of your work, and of you.

Obviously if a report is due to go outside your organization and particularly to clients or customers, you will be careful to ensure it’s polished and clearly branded with your corporate identity and all that.

However, how the hard copy of an internal report looks is important, too, although your Head of Finance might have apoplexy if you bind it in expensive glossy card. Be sensible with the internal variety – neat, understated, groomed looks don’t have to cost much but they “say” a lot about the value of your report (and you.)

Make sure all your writing gets read and acted on:

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English