How to Write Effective Business Reports
The effectiveness of any organisation depends in part on the effectiveness of its written communications and particularly on the effectiveness of reports and proposals – poor reports and proposals lead to poor decisions and missed opportunities.
Bur what makes a report effective and how can we improve the effectiveness of our reports?
Philip Moon, Managing Director of ProSeminar International, has been running report writing workshops for many years. He reminds us that by definition an effective report is one which achieves its objectives but he goes on: "Whatever the ultimate objective of a report or proposal might be, it has to meet one overriding objective if it is to achieve anything at all – it has to get itself read". Philip’s contention is, therefore, that reports have to be reader-friendly and that as writers we have to adopt a reader-centric approach.
Layout and appearance
First impressions count and therefore our reports need to look attractive. The layout (particularly the devices used to distinguish headings and sub-headings) need to communicate the structure to our readers and make it easy for them to digest the document.
Philip’s tips include:
- Choose an appropriate font.
- Create plenty of "white space" - allow adequate margins and line spacing.
- Avoid long dense passages of text – break up long paragraphs and use bullet points.
- Ensure headings and sub-headings can be easily distinguish and that layout devices are applied consistently and correctly.
Introductions, structure and the principle of ‘signposting’
As well as looking attractive, a report needs to start with a good introduction which summarises the purpose, scope and structure of the report and anticipates its conclusions. "Readers", Philip comments, "like to know where you’re taking them". He calls this the principle of signposting. It involves writing a good introduction, choosing headings and subheadings well and adopting a logical structure which leads readers towards the recommendations and conclusions.
Relevance and length
Our readers will usually read to equip themselves to make some form of decision. For our reports to be 'reader-friendly', therefore, we need provide our readers with the information and interpretation which supports their decision making process. But we also need to make sure that we exclude the irrelevant and that we don’t go into unnecessary detail which can distract readers from their purpose.
Readers favour concise reports but a report should be as long as it needs to be to achieve its objectives. Philip recommends a greater use appendices to present back-up data or information which may only be relevant to specialist readers. "But" he warns "don’t use appendices just to pad out the report. Every appendix has to be relevant and its relevance has to be shown in the body of the report."
Grammar, Spelling & Punctuation
We need to ensure that grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct. Some errors may slip through but if a report is error-strewn it will distract the reader and may create an image of the author as unprofessional and slapdash.
- Spellcheck systematically and proofread carefully – make sure you also check any amendments.
- Leave time between writing and proofreading so that you can look at what you’ve written with ‘fresh eyes’.
- Ask a colleague to do a second proofread for you.
Clarity and Fluency
Reader-friendly reports need to be clear and easy to read.
- Anticipate and avoid ambiguities.
- Ensure fluency by blending short, medium and longer sentences – a sentence should rarely exceed 35 words.
- Look out for superfluous words that you can drop
- Identify complex and compound sentences which could be replaced with two or three shorter sentences.
- Use bullet points where appropriate but don’t reduced your report to a simple list of points without connecting sentences and paragraphs.
Philip notes that a surprising number of people don’t make use of the 'Readability Statistics' in MS Word. "They’re not fool-proof", he concedes "but they often provide a useful indication that we need to do more to make a document easier to read." (To activate 'Readability Statistics' go to 'Options' then 'Proofing' and tick the appropriate box.)
And finally . . .
Let’s recognise that writing a good report takes time, but it’s an investment of time which is worthwhile particularly if major decisions are to be made. Improving the quality of reports is often a matter of spending that time in the right way - shifting the balance away from writing to spend more time on planning and, particularly, on editing and polishing.
Individuals who have a talent for writing and interest and willingness to tell true stories in the most objective way may also be interested in journalism courses.
Philip Moon is one of the UK’s most experienced management development consultants and specialises in designing and delivering short courses on communication and interpersonal skills. He is also the author of ProSeminar’s Top Tips series which includes articles on proofreading, managing information and presentation skills.
Philip has an MA from Cambridge in history and a BSc in Psychology from the Open University.