5 Rules for Writing Better Business Reports
by Karl Walinskas
Bad business reports don’t attract the reader’s eye.They neither inform nor entertain, and worst of all, they don’t get action. Don’t let the author of the next bad report in your company be you. Learn five simple rules to increase the impact of your business reports on the job, become better at business writing, and transition to writing for business success.
Have you ever come been forced to read through a business report that was so boring you had to prick yourself with a pin every two minutes to avoid fading into blissful states of unconsciousness. Guilt immediately sets in because you know that the author worked hard on the thing and that the subject matter is important. Too bad for that guy, because the other key readers of his report won’t be as sympathetic as you. Then, you start to worry. You have a report due next week to give to the same bunch. What will you do—WHAT WILL YOU DO?!
Have no fear. There is hope for you yet, and you don’t have to be the Ernest Hemingway of business report writing. All you need is a little structure, a tinge of self-confidence, and some guts!
Headlines Rule the Day
Many business reports seem boring because they suffer from a lack of aesthetic appeal. Yes, your business report needs to look pretty. It also needs to be user-friendly, just like it’s a website, so it is easy to navigate. Want to hear some unsettling news? Most readers of your report, no matter how much effort you put into it or how amazing your data reduction is, will not read it. Oh, they’ll skim it, scan it, and try to get something out of it, but it won’t capture their attention. Make it easy for them to get something out of it. Use headlines that clearly define the sections of the report. You know what I mean, stuff like Recommendations, Budget, and Financial Analysis. It sounds so simple, but many people miss this one. Appropriate headlines act like visual hyperlinks in the report, allowing the reader to quickly recognize sections and scan only what she’s interested in. Your headlines should be clear, without misleading the reader as to what is in the following section. They should be bolded and a larger font size so they really stand out. Don’t be afraid to take a chance on the titles though, and use a headline that’s a bit unconventional, because it adds to the appeal. Recommendations is better than Conclusion, but Actions for Future Growth blows away Recommendations. Get it?
Put the Bottom Line First
Here’s a wacky, contrarian thought for you. Most business reports are written in a stupid order. They start with an Introduction that gives history of the issue at hand, then start talking about their approach, and so on. Problem: people who read business reports already know, in most cases, that stuff. For them, this filler material is just getting in the way of the real stuff. Try starting by putting the bottom line first. That’s why a good report should start with an Abstract or Executive Summary. Here’s what we did, here’s what happened, and here’s what we think you should do about it. After that one-half page to one page overview, try your Recommended Action section. In most cases, this is what is really important to the reader—what should we do about it? “Wait a second, Karl, are you saying we cannot put in the sacred Introduction?” Nah, there’s always someone who’ll want to read that too, but I’m suggesting putting it at the end. This leaves the heavy data stuff still in the middle, where it belongs.
Show Some Hutzpah!
Remember way back in the last paragraph when I said the decision makers want to read the Recommended Action first. Re-read it! Many professionals will shy away from this section and remain wishy-washy because they don’t want to take the wrong position. HOGWASH! Show some guts and tell people what your interpretation of the results is. You can be wrong and the world won’t come to an end. If you’re reasonably intelligent and have performed well for the company, this is what they want out of you anyway. Just be big enough to recognize that you could be wrong and if the organization goes another direction, that’s OK too. Look, the report is for the world but there is no law that says you can’t benefit from this golden opportunity to extend your thoughts and suggestions, so take a stand and watch the value of your report, and you, go up.
Back it Up, Baby
You know, if there is one thing that won’t fly in a business report, it is the unsupported assertion. Even though most executives won’t read the whole thing and crawl through the analysis and data stuff, you’d better have it in there for the boss who just lunched on a borrito and took your report into the throne room. Somebody will have the time on their hands, and if the rest of your report is good, hopefully the desire to check out the gritty details behind your opinions. Don’t get caught being an empty suit. That’s worse than not voicing an opinion, because now you’re a loose canon with a lazy streak. The data should support your points and it should do so in multiple ways. If science doesn’t do it (some issues won’t have “data” per-say) then back yourself up with like opinions from experts within the company or in the field that is being examined in the report. At least that way, you’re in good company. Albert Einstein said you should always “back up your conclusions with evidence.” I’m certain of it. See how effective that is?!
The Third Person is for Losers
Another element of bad report writing that literary talking heads call the official style is saying everything in the third person. Unless you’re name is the Rock or Bob Dole and it’s part of your schtick, can the third person and speak in the first person. Take the credit, take the blame, or assign it to the appropriate party. “It” was not discovered—Joe Schmoe discovered whatever “it” was during his research. “I got the account by busting my buns” is much more effective than “There was a bun busting situation in which an account was awarded to the firm in question.” Don’t worry about sound arrogant. Like the man says, it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up, and you can.
So what have you learned here today? Notice that not a single time did I say anything about gerunds, descriptive adjectives, action verbs or dangling participles. Different article. All I have said is to make it pretty, put the best stuff first, shake things up and take a stand, making sure you can back it up, and speak in the first person. Do these things and your business report to the canary enthusiasts won’t end up in the bottom of a cage and you’ll find that you’re level of on-the-job success is on the rise. Trust me. Arnold Schwarzenneger said that too, and he became the Governator.
Find more great non-traditional marketing tips at the Smart Blog
. Post your case-studies you might find yourself in the next post. Karl Walinskas runs Smart Company Growth
, a management consulting firm for small companies. His books, audio and other cool stuff can be found at the Shop Smart link.