What makes a good report? What makes a report different from, say, an essay or academic paper? Why do some reports just end up in the filing cabinet (or shredder)?
There are courses and books on report writing so I’m just going to focus on what I see are a few essentials. Crucially, a report has a purpose. It’s not written for fun or just for the record; it is directed towards a need and an audience and, therefore, it needs to address that need.
A report has four essential components and how these apply to the particular need will define its structure:
- An Executive Summary. This should be an abstract or précis that tells the reader enough to decide if the report needs further action by him or her, or goes into the bin. The Executive Summary should be brief, clearly identified for what it is and, in most cases, be found easily by the reader. It most cases it will be three short paragraphs on: a) why the report has been written, b) what was done and c) what was concluded. On its own page, it should attract the reader and not be intimidating. Many reports lose their impact by not inviting the reader to read it.
- The Details. This is the main part of the report, probably starting with an introduction covering the background, methodology, etc, as appropriate. It will then include the data gathering, analysis, discussion and appendices – again, as appropriate. This is the main work and will be read by few people, and may be understood by fewer still. It will form the evidence and argument for the Conclusions.
- Conclusions. It can be argued that this is the final part of the main body of the report but, in my view, bringing the conclusions out as a clearly identifiable part aids readability. This part allows any reader who hasn’t dismissed the report after the Executive Summary to learn the essential findings without having to plough through the details – they can go into that if they need to understand more.
- Recommendations. Without these, the report is just a record that passes on information without purpose. However, it’s essential that the Recommendations follow on from the Conclusions which, in turn, are supported by the details. This is not the place to bring in new ideas.
Thus, a report landing on the desk of a busy manager can be quickly assessed (from the Executive Summary). If it grabs their attention, they will turn to the Conclusions and then action the Recommendations (or pass them onto somebody to action). The important point is that action is taken…