How To Write Better Business Reports
Do you procrastinate when tasked to write long reports at work? It’s not uncommon. Usually, people procrastinate not because they’re lazy; it’s just that putting together long reports is just plain scary. As such, they freeze, stall and, generally, try to focus on other things that produce less anxiety.
Writing Short Is Easy
Most of us have no problem writing short stuff — email updates, status reports and the like. However, long business documents often present a daunting challenge and it’s one that makes a lot of people uneasy. Not only does it require a sustained mental effort, but it makes the whole editing and proofreading a more difficult task, too.
Fortunately, most people tend to feel at ease writing longer material when given directions about what they can do to ensure it communicates their ideas clearly and effectively. This short guide is meant to do just that, providing a few insights into how you can whip out better business reports.
Use Appropriate Tone
Reports need not be overly formal. In fact, they usually work best with a casual but professional tone. Imagine the reader as a colleague sitting next to you, engaging you in a discussion about your findings.
Try to stick to neutral word choices — ones that don’t evoke any strong emotions. You want your report digested for the information it contains, not the sensationalism it creates. Additionally, avoid jargon whenever you can. Long reports are likely complicated enough without alien phrases tacked on. And if you must use them, be sure to explain what each one means before proceeding.
If you’re writing a long report, the fewer words you use on it, the better. So be concise. Don’t offer an explanation when one isn’t necessary; don’t butter up bad results; don’t use inexact qualifiers; and avoid all manners of wordiness. The more unnecessary length you pad onto an already long report, the harder it’s going to be to understand. And this day and age, few people that matter in any organization will have all that extra time needed to sort through that mess.
Probably, the most important point for conciseness: don’t repeat points for the sake of repeating them. There’s a right time and place where crucial information needs to be repeated to make the most impact and we’ll discuss it later down the article.
Make sure you set proper context throughout the whole report, letting readers know where you plan to take them. For the most part, that means giving away your most important information early on, with the rest of the material filling in the reasons and processes that produced those results.
Do these “early revelations” all through the report: the introduction, the opening paragraph of individual sections, the start of each paragraph and so on. In the introduction, give readers an overview of the entire report; in the opener for each section, fill readers in quickly on what the section is about; and start each paragraph with a topic sentence that declares the subject of the succeeding sentences.
Placing things in context makes your writing easier to understand, regardless of whether you’re writing about issues in the workplace, product sales numbers or market testing experiments. Context is like a map, serving as a way for readers to find exactly where they are and get a clear idea of where they’re going.
Stay on Point
Always stage on the same message throughout the report. If you must discuss something tangentially related, the do so, but return back to the main theme quickly, doing it in the same paragraph as much as possible. Doing this creates a unified message in the reader’s mind — one that can leave no doubts as to the main points you want to impress on people.
The goal when writing a long report is to give your findings early, then use the rest of the material to answer the who, what, why, where, when and how. It’s actually pretty straightforward when you take in the big picture — there’s a clear path indicating what needs to be written about. And all you need to do is stay on it.
Use Visual Aids
Text is fine, especially for shorter reports and correspondence. For longer reports, though, a picture can literally express a thousand words that you’d otherwise have to fumble through stringing words together.
When writing long reports, rely on visual aids, such as charts, diagrams and tables to convey as much as you can. Depending on the document you’re doing, you can also put quotes, important facts and other notable details in separate boxes to act as visuals. Not only will they cut down the amount of words you need to write to express figures and findings, they’ll also make it easier for the reader to understand your message. Visuals help counterbalance the dense nature of text, making every page easier on the eyes as the reader goes through it.
After each main section, offer a summary to ensure that important information stays fresh in the reader’s mind. Make a point of highlighting critical points, directing them to appendix and glossary entries when those are necessary for further clarification. Similarly, make sure you do this at the end of the report, reminding the reader of the important things they should take away from it. Doing so allows you to end each major discussion without risking that the readers will forget it as soon as they do the next thing on their to-do lists.
A lot of the people who write reports in offices never ever revise. At least, from what I’ve seen. We know — you’re tired, hungry and probably can’t wait to go home to watch American Idol, but turning in a half-baked document doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t serve the people reading whatsoever and it doesn’t help your standing in your superiors’ eyes either.
Never ever turn in a long report that you haven’t reviewed and revised. While some superiors will let you get away with that, there’s a good chance the report will be handed back to you with a request to rewrite it more clearly. Always take the time to review, proofread, fact-check and edit a couple of passes — it will save you from more headaches later down the line.