Using the Right Format for Sharing Information
Business reports may seem like yesterday's news. After all, modern businesses often have flatter structures that require less formal reporting, and information can be shared with just a few keystrokes.
And while there are many types of business report – formal, informal, analytical, informational – an organized, well-argued formal report is much more valuable for decision-makers than simply giving them access to vast quantities of raw data.
A well-structured report allows readers to find what they need quickly and easily, and to skip what they don't need.
In this article, we showcase a format for writing concise, informative formal reports. We also offer tips for what type of information to include, and a template that you can use or adapt to meet your specific needs.
Preparing to Write Your Report
Before you begin researching or writing, make sure that you clearly understand why you're writing the report – and who will read it. Plan what kind of data you need to use, and how you will collect it.
Next, analyze the raw data that your research brings to light. Your report will likely require you to make recommendations to senior managers, so it needs the authority of a coherent argument and firm conclusions.
Select what needs to go in your report but beware of "cherry-picking" only the data that supports your preferred option or argument. Seek balance. Keep records of all the information that you include – and what you leave out – in case you're asked to defend your findings later.
How to Write a Business Report
Business reports are a test of your communication skills. They can cover a wide range of subjects and require a similarly wide range of approaches. But certain guidelines normally apply.
Keep your report concise – remember, people typically don't have much reading time. Keep your sentences short, clear and easy to read, with the minimum of jargon. If you write the way you speak, your readers may find it easier to grasp what you want to communicate.
Break up your text with headings and subheadings. This makes it easier to understand, and it enables people to find the information that's most relevant to them.
In each section of your report, put the most important information first. Our article on Inverted Pyramid Writing provides a guide to doing this effectively. Use verifiable statistics and quote your sources – people tend to trust data more than personal opinions!
Use Our Template to Structure and Format Your Report
Following a standard business report format (as outlined below) ensures that your information is arranged in a logical order that your readers can follow and understand. And you'll less likely leave out anything important, because the format gives you the appropriate framework.
We have created a free, downloadable template (in Word format) that employs a typical standard business report format, which you can adapt to your own requirements.
To illustrate the process of writing a business report, let's use the example of a marketing manager, Rosheen. She's been asked by her marketing director to write a report on the sales performance of one of their company's products, a cold remedy called Airspace. And to make recommendations concerning its future.
1. Title Page
Include the report name, your name (as the author) and the date. Also briefly state the purpose of the report. If your report is long (more than about 10 pages, for example), your title section could also include a table of contents.
Example: Rosheen puts a clear title at the top of the page, so there's no doubt what the report's about, and a couple of lines about why it's important. She also dates it. She adds her own name in the center of the page as the author.
2. Executive Summary
Keep this to a maximum of one page, so it can be read at a glance. Outline the issue, then list the most important information or results. Finally, detail your recommendations for the actions that need to be taken.
Many people will only read this one page, so make sure that it can stand alone. Use bullet points and numbered lists to highlight and summarize the most important points.
It's best to write the executive summary last, when you've finalized the bulk of the report's content, to make sure that you don't miss out any important information.
Example: Rosheen organizes her executive summary into three parts. This makes it easy for her boss to quickly grasp the main thrust of the report, based on this one page.
The first part is the scope of the report – what Airspace is, the aspects of its performance she has been asked to investigate, and why. She also indicates the timescale of her research.
The second part is a summary of her findings. The Airspace product hasn't been performing well, so she includes headline numbers to show its recent sales figures.
The third part is a set of recommendations to improve performance. These include repositioning Airspace in the market, and introducing new product variants.
Describe your research. For example, did you employ web analytics, focus groups and interviews, or outside resources like consulting or research firms? Include the details of your research process and explain why you used the sources that you did.
Example: Rosheen includes a brief description of how she conducted her research. She notes her use of internal documents and sales figures, and of external trade press articles on Airspace's competitors and their activity. She also shows that she's conducted focus groups with Airspace's regular customers, and conducted surveys on social media.
Tell your 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 text.
Example: Rosheen outlines the importance of the Airspace product to her organization. It's a historically important brand, and still a solid revenue driver. So its sales performance matters. She also indicates that she'll back her claims with evidence and offer possible answers to the problem.
5. Main Body
This is the "heart" of your report, where you present your research and make your case. Put the most important information first, and use data visualization to get your message across with clarity and impact.
Example: Rosheen begins the main body of her report with a graphic indicating Airspace's declining market share and other financial data on its performance. She follows up with qualitative responses from focus groups and online surveys, and includes data on what the competition has been doing in Airspace's market sector.
Analyze the results of your research and bring everything together. Many people will read this section, so keep it short and simple.
Example: Rosheen gives a commentary on the various factors affecting Airspace's sales performance, analyzing them and placing them in order of importance.
She then suggests a range of potential solutions but outlines her final recommendations in a separate section, as explained below.
List the actions that you think your organization should take to solve the problem that you're addressing. Ideally, use bullets or numbered points for this list.
Make your opinion clear. You've done the research, so tell people what needs to happen next. If you suggest major changes, then draw up a strategy to implement these larger changes on a step-by-step basis.
Example: Rosheen proposes a strategy for introducing an entirely new product range and phasing out the old one. She offers rough costings and timescales for the project.
Include all of your sources and research data in detail. Even though few people will read the appendix in full, this is the information that supports your arguments, so it must be included.
Example: Rosheen lists her sources with full citations, including the dates she accessed the data and conducted her research interviews. She gives details of how she selected her focus group participants, and the sample sizes and response rates from her online surveys.
Business reports are an invaluable way to share information and aid decision-making in many organizations. A good report is concise, authoritative, and makes well-researched recommendations.
Your precise requirements will vary according to the subject matter and the nature of your business. But in general, a business report should include:
- Title Page
- Executive Summary
- Main Body
Following a standard business report format makes it easier for your readers to find the key information they need. They'll know which sections will answer their questions, and they'll clearly see your recommendations.
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