There are many advantages to writing business reports.
Reports are a forcing function to assemble information and analyze it thoroughly, putting you more in touch with the details of a situation.
Reports help provide evidence and justification for a conclusion.
Reports can get everyone on a team on the same page because the same information can be read by each person.
However, writing a report can seem a bit intimidating if it’s not something you do frequently. Fear not! This guide will walk you through the value of business reports and how to create a great one.
A report is basically a snapshot of the state of the state. The process for building a report requires that you dig into the situation, analyze the appropriate facts and figures, and come up with a few key takeaways. This activity ultimately helps you organize thinking.
Typically, reports are built to deliver clear inputs to inform an upcoming decision.
For instance, you are thinking about changing your prices. You may want to do some research to understand your effective price today across all your customers and historical pricing plans.
Or maybe you are making a decision about whether or not to go remote. Or buy a rental property. Or double down on a marketing campaign.
In even more simple situations, you may want to make a report for yourself or your small team to just better organize your thinking.
Report writing gives you a canvas to assemble a clear and compelling story. This includes a set of conclusions and recommendations.
Writing great reports enables teams to make better decisions faster and work off the same information.
In fact, we believe that report writing is one of the most important yet underused tools to make work more effective.
No matter what type of report you are writing, before you start, you always want to know why. Is your report informational only? Is it being used to make a decision? To approve spending?
The better you understand the nature of the report, the better you can deliver what is needed, so take the time to define the purpose.
If you are creating the report for yourself, jot it down as a reminder. If you are creating a report because someone else requested it, confirm with them that you have the right purpose defined. There is nothing worse than spending time building a report that started in the wrong direction!
Even though you may adjust the content a bit based on the nature of the report, you can generally use the same outline for the content.
It also matters whether or not you are delivering a text heavy report or a more visually engaging report.
In either case, a report will typically be at least two pages, and can go up to hundreds of pages depending on the subject matter, timeline, and expectations of the readers.
There are two basic ways to write a business report: direct and indirect. With a direct report structure, you start with the conclusions and the rest of the report is supporting those conclusions. With an indirect report structure, you start with the discussion and findings and then present the conclusions at the end.
The modern approach is the direct structure, so that’s what we will walk through here.
The indirect structure can work better sometimes, so it’s up to you and your judgment of what’s best for your readers. The same sections are used in the indirect structure, just in a different order, so the lessons below still apply.
An outline (with direct links to sections!) is the best way to both show what is included in the report and make it quick to navigate.
If there is one thing we all have in common, it’s that we don’t have enough hours in the day. A simple and clear executive summary should be the first thing in your report. Per Wikipedia, an executive summary:
Summarizes a longer report or proposal or a group of related reports in such a way that readers can rapidly become acquainted with a large body of material without having to read it all. It usually contains a brief statement of the problem or proposal covered in the major document(s), background information, concise analysis and main conclusions.
There isn’t a hard and fast rule about how long an executive summary should or shouldn’t be, but generally it should be a paragraph or two. If your report is really long and full of dense information, you can of course feel free to write a longer summary. If the report is relatively short and straightforward, a very short summary will do just fine.
After the executive summary, it is time to get into the meat and potatoes of the report, starting with the introduction.
The introduction of your report is critical to set the stage for what comes next. This is an opportunity to capture your reader’s attention, so take the time to write it well. Create some interest.
Also, make sure you use the introduction to reinforce the purpose of the report. This keeps the reader focused on what matters.
The introduction can be relatively brief as well and shouldn’t take too much time to read.
A great rule of thumb to keep in mind when writing your report is that the average person reads about 250 words per minute (238 to be exact). Most in depth business reports should take about ten minutes to read, so 2,500 words.
An introduction should be maybe 10% of your total words. So in a 2,500 word report, shoot for a 250 word introduction.
Also, remember to cite your sources throughout this section. You can either do that in the footer of the page or you can add a section to the back of your report with all your sources.
This is where you lay out the big takeaways from the report. Remember to make your language clear and direct.
Most business reports will end up with a few conclusions and/or recommendations, which is totally fine as long as you include some sense of priority.
Be careful to not list an intimidatingly long list here. If your list of conclusions and recommendations is that long, look for opportunities to group thematically.
Each conclusion and recommendation should include a brief supporting paragraph. Remember that there is still another section to provide more details, so keep it somewhat high level here as well.
You will typically use conclusions for root cause analysis or current conditions. Recommendations are used when you are recommending a course of action.
This section will be the longest and most information-rich section of the entire report.
This is your time to shine to present all the inputs that went into your thinking. Because this section is fairly long, it’s important to keep the reader engaged by organizing the information in smaller chunks, with clear, descriptive headings.
The findings section can be a great place to include data visualizations. Since your goal is to clearly communicate what you found while creating this report, a visualization can be an exceptionally useful tool to communicate large amounts of data in a way that the reader can comprehend immediately.
Make sure you detail all the options you considered and any techniques you used to come to your conclusions. It’s important that you can logically justify your thinking to build credibility in the report.
Any great business can and should be full of references to verifiable objective business data. This is a great place to list out the data sources you used to build your conclusions. Best case is that you can link directly to the data, one way or another.
You can and should also include any other reference content you used to build the report. This can include public information like a stock price or an article that provided a guide that was used in the report.
The appendix is the place to include additional information and figures that weren’t directly necessary in the main section of the report.
In general, most reports will end up being multiple pages, with the average report most likely being about six pages. This is not only because a report requires that you provide a detailed narrative but also because your report should have supporting facts and figures, even if only in the appendix.
The rule of 250 words can be helpful here as well and, per our example above, a typical business report should take about ten minutes to read, which would be 2,500 words.
Since a great business report takes up to ten minutes to read, it’s important, in our opinion, to distribute the document at least 24 hours before a planned meeting so the attendees can read it beforehand.
It’s even more common now for business reports to be shared and discussed all asynchronously through any number of great collaboration tools. This approach is great because it lets people read and comment on the report whenever is most convenient for them.
Of course, sometimes you just have to deliver a business report to someone else where there is no planned discussion. In that case, be extra sure to double check all your references, labels, and, of course, grammar.
Make no mistake - writing a great report is something that can help you and your team perform better. It enables you to organize your thinking, stay on the same page, and make better informed decisions.
Writing a business report can indeed be time consuming, but the reward is well worth the effort. If you're wanting to include beautiful charts with Airtable or Google Sheets data, be sure to try Superchart for free.