How to Know What Belongs in Your Reports
Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training
Imagine that someone asks you for a report. If the person who asks is your manager, you may know what he or she wants in the document. But if the individual is from the executive team or another department or even a client company, you may not know what or how much to include. Here are tips that will help you recognize the best content.
1. Imagine that instead of a report, the individual asked to interview you on the topic. What do you think he or she would ask? For example, imagine that you just returned from a trip to another country to visit a division of your company, a client’s office, or a factory. What would the other person ask you?
Here are some ideas:
- What was the purpose of your trip?
- Where did you go?
- When did you travel?
- Who traveled with you?
- With whom did you meet there? At what facilities?
(The questions above are the basics, which you can cover briefly.)
- What did you accomplish on the trip?
- What did you learn?
- What do you recommend based on your trip?
- Overall, how useful was the trip?
- Does anyone need to follow up on the trip? If so, who? How?
You can use this question method to recognize what belongs in any report. Here are sample questions for an update:
- What is this report about?
- What time period does this report cover?
- Are things on track?
- What has been accomplished since the last report?
- Have any important events taken place?
- Have there been any problems or obstacles? If so, how have they been managed?
- Is there anything I need to worry about?
- Where can I get more information?
If you are writing a very important report, such as one to the president of your organization, you may want to have someone else review your list of questions to see whether you are on target before you write the report.
When you feel you have a good list of questions, you are ready to write a draft. Just answer the questions. You can even use parts of the questions for headings, for example, “Purpose of the Trip” and “Trip Dates.”
2. Recognize the purpose of the report. Will your director use the report to make a decision about financing a project? Will another team use your report to design software tests? Will your peers read the report to incorporate information into a proposal? Will the report go into a file to document a current situation? Write a sentence that states the purpose of the report, and use that statement to help you recognize what must be included (and what should be left out) to support that purpose.
3. Consider your larger purpose for writing the report. Think beyond the fact that you are writing the report to satisfy someone’s request or a job requirement. What would you like the report to do for you or others? For example, for the trip report:
- Is your purpose to help build a better relationship with the overseas office?
- Is your purpose to illustrate the critical need for more involvement with the factory?
- Do you want to show the monetary value of the trip to get approval for travel in your 2015 budget?
- Do you want to impress your new manager with the clarity of your thinking and writing?
As you think about what to include, keep your larger purpose in mind so that you can be sure your report supports that goal.
4. Ask for a sample report if you are unsure what your reader wants. Especially if you are new in a job or have never written the kind of report requested, ask whether sample reports are available. Review those samples and notice what works for you as a reader. Pay special attention to the kind of information that is included and its relevance.
5. Recognize that your readers have asked for a report–not a book. They want the essential information–not all the details. To restrain yourself from including too much, try these approaches:
- Leave out any information that does not answer a reader’s question. For instance, if your reader would not ask what hotel you stayed at or whether you had any great meals, do not include those details.
- Avoid using chronological order to report. Chronological order may cause you to include irrelevant details just because they happened.
- Use headings, preferably descriptive headings such as “Recommendation: Send a Team to the 2015 Conference” and “Budget Required: $85,000.” Headings will stop you from including information that does not belong in that section.
- Summarize. For example, in a report on a client meeting, do not include he said-I said details. Instead, report agreements and outcomes. In a financial or technical report, do not include raw data in the body of the report. If it’s essential, put it in an appendix.
- Include links to more information and offers to provide more. For instance, in a report on a conference, link to the conference program or offer to provide certain conference handouts.
- Use fewer examples. One or two powerful examples can achieve your goal. Additional examples provide length–not strength.
- Use tables and charts rather than sentences to capture numerical information. Graphical illustrations help you leave out extraneous information. Be sure to label each graphic so its relevance is clear to you and your reader.
When you succeed with a report, keep it in an electronic folder of model reports. Its success will give you confidence, and its strengths will inspire you the next time someone asks for a report.
Business Writing With Heart won two Silver Benjamin Franklin Awards from the Independent Book Publishers Association last month. You can order the paperback book from Syntax Training or your favorite bookseller, and you can get the e-book and paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.