How to Write a Business Report
Reports and proposals After reading this chapter you should be able to: • Explain the differences and similarities between formats, types or sub-genres of reports • Explain the differences and similarities between reports and essays • Explain why documents need to contain an appropriate balance of information and persuasion • Demonstrate competence in writing a longer, analytical research report • Explain the differences between reports and submissions, proposals and tenders
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So you’ve got to write a report . . . The ability to write reports is one of the most useful writing skills you can acquire. To be a good report writer means you must be competent at describing and analysing situations and people. A report is a powerful communication and decision-making tool in many business undertakings. It may be used to present the results of a special project or it may serve as a public relations exercise, such as in when social and environmental reports are published.
In either case, how well the document meets the brief, and its quality and accuracy, can have a profound effect on its success in achieving its desired objective. What’s more, demonstrating your ability to produce a credible document will set you apart from colleagues and help you make strides in your career (Couzins & Beagrie 2003). Reports can be just a few words long or can extend to multiple bound volumes. They can deal with routine or non-routine matters.
The writer may have to make all decisions relating to content, layout and design, or the format may be pre-set, with the writer needing only to feed in a few new ? gures and updates. Most reports are still paper-based, although an increasing number are completed and submitted online. There are many types of reports, but in this chapter we will focus primarily on analytical or research reports. We will also consider some types of documents that bear a strong resemblance to reports — namely, submissions, proposals or tenders.
Table 5. 1 sets out some of the key features of differing types of reports. Table 5. 1: Some report/proposal formats Report type Computer or data report Function Gives quick visual overview of data Audience • Mainly internal • Decision-makers and process monitors Format and features • Mainly graphic renditions of tabular data from databases and spreadsheets • Minimal amount of descriptive and analytical text • Often created with specialised software (e. g.
Crystal Reports) • Rarely involves conclusions or recommendations • Strongly fact-based: what, where, why, who, when, how • Created to document non-routine situation • May be used to detect emerging problems • May use standard format print/online document • Occasionally will give conclusions and recommendations • Strongly fact-based: what, where, why, who, when, how • Created to document non-routine situation • May be used to detect emerging problems • May use standard format print/online document • Occasionally will give conclusions and recommendations • Critical part of occupational health and safety/legal regimes • Documents routine situations • Standardised format is used across time and space to facilitate comparability and monitoring • Does not include conclusions or recommendations Incident report
Gives quick overview of event not associated with human injury • Mainly internal • Decision-makers and process monitors Accident report Gives quick overview of event associated with human injury • Mainly internal • Decision-makers and process monitors Periodic report Gives quick picture of routine processes and situations • Mainly internal • Decision-makers and process monitors 157 Chapter 5 Reports and proposals Table 5. 1 (continued) Report type Progress report Function Gives picture of non-routine processes and situations Audience • Mainly internal, but can be for external, such as clients • Decision-makers and process monitors • Mainly internal • Decision-makers and process monitors
Format and features • Documents non-routine situations, such as projects • Key function is to inform whether project is on schedule, and if not why not • Sometimes has standardised format • May give conclusions and recommendations • Longer than a standard memo • More structured than a standard memo – will have sections with headings • May involve conclusions and recommendations • Longer than a standard letter • More structured than a standard letter – will have sections with headings • May involve conclusions and recommendations • Needs to establish a rationale for change in status quo • Case needs to be established based on research, costings • Will involve conclusions and recommendations • In effect, a short proposal • Examples include tax reports, environment/equal opportunity/health and safety/industry compliance documentation • Usually on a periodic basis • May use standard format print/online document • Rarely gives conclusions and recommendations • • • • May be long (1000+ words) May involve considerable research Involves analysis as well as description Format and structure are created by writer, usually in accordance with conventions • Will give conclusions and (usually) recommendations • Similar in many respects to analytical report • Used in competitive bidding situations (see p. 195) Memo report Gives picture of non-routine processes and situations Gives picture of non-routine processes and situations Presents a case for change (e. g. a purchase, a new system and/or staf? ng)
Letter report • Mainly external • Decision-makers Justi? cation report • Mainly internal • Decision-makers Accountability report Gives quick picture of routine processes and situations • Mainly external • Regulators, often in public sector Research or analytical report Gives detailed analysis of a situation • Mainly internal • Decision-makers Communicating in the 21st Century Proposal/ submission/ tender Presents a case for change (e. g. a purchase, a new system and/or staf? ng) Gives account of year’s operation of organisation • Can be internal or external • Decision-makers Annual report • Mainly external: shareholders and stakeholders • Staff May be elaborately designed, with high production values • Meets legal requirements for accountability • May not include any conclusions or recommendations 158 Information and persuasion: getting the mix right The purpose of some report types is purely to provide speci? c information to their audiences — just the facts, and nothing else. Others are intended to be persuasive: their object is to convince decision-makers, for example, to adopt a course of action or to buy a new piece of equipment. Figure 5. 1 shows how different document types can be placed on a continuum, according to the information/persuasion mix. Does this mean that some documents are purely persuasive, while others are exclusively informative? Not necessarily.
A persuasive document needs to contain proof as a basis for persuasion (see chapter 13), while even the most basic informative document — for example, a simple data report showing a graphic rendering of data from a spreadsheet — may prove more persuasive than a long but unconvincing and poorly presented analytical report on the same topic. It follows, then, that while report writers can often get away with ? lling in a few boxes in routine report documents, they may need to become more versatile in order to create nonroutine reports based on a synthesis of fact and opinion. Indeed, the more we progress in our careers, the more we will be required to produce documents dealing with non-routine situations.
Information/persuasion mix: the synthesis of fact and opinion in a report; information is concerned with fact; persuasion is concerned with opinion Information Persuasion Figure 5. 1: The information–persuasion continuum Source: Adapted from Eunson (1994, p. 4). Computer Periodic Accountability Safety report report report report Progress report Incident Justification Memo/ Analytical Proposal/ report letter report report report Information, persuasion, entertainment, talk and lobbying We need, therefore, to get the information/persuasion mix of our documents under control. To be really effective, however, we must consider three other factors too. Firstly, we need to consider the look of the document, or the document design (see chapter 2).
Although reports are work-based documents, most of their readers will still appreciate a striking-looking, colourful design rather than a conventional, unimaginative black-and-white one. While most of us are not trained graphic designers, we should recognise that a well-designed, attractively presented document is likely to communicate a message more effectively. Secondly, we need to consider that sometimes a written document marks the beginning of a communication process rather than the end. Increasingly, document writers are asked to give a spoken presentation — in effect, an oral report — to back up, or sometimes substitute for, a written report. Of? e suite software makes this task a lot easier although sometimes it still makes sense to seek the help of a professional graphic designer, especially when we consider that words and images that look good on a page do not necessarily look as good on a screen — and vice versa (see p. 372). Be prepared, therefore, to deliver your report verbally as 159 Chapter 5 Reports and proposals well as in writing. In some circumstances, your audience may not read a word of what you have written unless a spoken presentation from you piques their interest (see chapter 11). Finally, we need to consider to what extent the communication process reaches beyond the delivery of written and oral reports.
Neither guarantees that your message is conveyed; one message may have to reinforce the other (see pp. 24, 347). Sometimes you need to lobby or attempt to in? uence members of your audience so that they will act on your recommendations. In other words, you have to write it, pitch it and sell it (lobbying will be considered later in this chapter). The big leap: writing essays and writing reports We will shortly examine different types of reports, but ? rst we will take a brief detour to consider some of the problems writers new to reports sometimes encounter. The report is a speci? c genre of writing, like the novel, poetry, email or journalism. Within the report genre are sub-genres, such as memo reports and research reports.
When asked to prepare a report for the ? rst time, many writers draw inspiration from the genre they have Essay: a document type that had most experience with in their formal education — the essay. Essay writing requires a comis concerned primarily with plete set of skills (see chapter 7), and many of these skills are different from those required for analysis rather than writing reports. The most common complaint made about reports written by inexperienced problem solving, and thus writers is that the report ‘reads like an essay, not a report’. Study the similarities and differrarely contains recommendations ences between the two genres in table 5. , and respect them. Simply being aware that a document is an example of a particular genre, with a speci? c set of conventions, may help you become a better writer not only in that genre, but in others as well, because you may now have a better grasp of the distinctive structures of genres and thus move more adeptly between them. For example, although the essay is primarily concerned with analysis, the report is usually more concerned with problem solving, although analysis necessarily forms the basis of that problem solving. It is also common for reports to contain recommendations. Table 5. 2: Reports and essays compared Genre/attributes Approach
Essay Tends to concentrate on analysis of a situation or problem, without necessarily providing solutions Usually set by others as topic to be answered Not often included Academic world: submitted for marks; one of many submitted Report Tends to be problem focused and action oriented Usually set by others as a brief or with terms of reference Common in longer documents World of work: submitted to aid decision making and problem solving, but will attract compliments, criticism or both; usually only one submitted. Usually given, often mentioning key conclusions and recommendations Likely to skim; may reread for reference Topic/focus Table of contents Communicating in the 21st Century Context Summary Audience reading style Not often included Likely to read all the way through; unlikely to reread 160 Genre/attributes Introduction
Essay Usually included; sets scene for what is to come Yes – the main body of writing Yes – sums up the situation, gives an overview Not usually made Report Always included; sets scene for what is to come Yes – the main body of writing Yes – sums up the situation, gives an overview Usually made – suggest speci? c course of action that report reader may choose to take • Paragraphs tend to be shorter • Sections and subsections often numbered, giving clear signposts to structure • Bullet points sometimes used Often used to show data Opinions tend to be reserved for conclusions and recommendations • Tends to be impersonal and objective • Sentences and words end to be shorter • May sometimes have high readability scores because of professional jargon Discussion/analysis Conclusion Recommendations Layout techniques • Paragraphs tend to be longer • Sections and subsections not often numbered • Bullet points not often used Not always used Opinions are often expressed throughout Tables, graphics Expression of opinion Style • May be impersonal and objective, or personal and subjective • Sentences and words tend to be longer • Tends to have high readability scores because of academic jargon/formal register May be extensive; secondary data tends to predominate Usually individual (see p. 242) Does not often lead to spoken presentation Referencing, quotation
Usually light; primary data may be used as much as secondary data Often collective Can often lead to oral presentation Authoring Relationship to spoken presentation ASSESS YOURSELF Examine samples of essays you have written, and consider what would be needed to turn them into reports. Table 5. 1 catalogued different types, or sub-genres, of reports. What are the main purposes of reports? A report can be used: • to record routine events • to record non-routine events • as the basis for making decisions • as a basis for avoiding decisions (see p. 173). 161 Chapter 5 Reports and proposals What are reports for? Reports can be purely descriptive or informative, recording routine events such as: • monthly sales • daily catches of ? h • the weather forecast for the next four days • national balance of payment ? gures. Descriptive or informative reports can also describe non-routine events, such as accidents. They tend to be short (e. g. one page), are often set out on pre-printed forms, and rarely contain sections on conclusions or recommendations. Computer reports are among the most frequently requested descriptive or informative reports. They mainly present data drawn from software databases or spreadsheets. More analytical or persuasive reports can be used as the basis for making decisions. These reports usually present a large amount of information on topics such as the following: • Should we seek to open up new export markets? Should we hire four more staff for the legal department, or should we contract the work out to independent specialists? • Why has the northern region consistently outperformed the other three of? ces? • Are we happy with our existing software, or could rival packages do a better job? • Should we use some of our scarce resources to set up an in-house ? tness facility? • Are existing government broadcasting regulations on censorship adequate? Analytical or persuasive reports may be short (e. g. a memo or letter) or long, depending on the scope of the problem they seek to address. Communicating in the 21st Century Reports can be used as the basis for making important business decisions.
Reports are vital decision-making tools, but in some situations they may be used as a basis for avoiding decisions (see p. 173). Researching and writing a report can take up a lot of time, and even when complete there is no guarantee that the recommendations made will be implemented. Some people who commission reports are concerned to bring about change, while others are concerned to maintain the status quo while giving the impression of being open to change. 162 Many a report languishes unheeded, gathering dust on a shelf. This may be for good reason. Perhaps the report was no good; perhaps the recommendations were impractical, or at least currently unrealistic.
On the other hand, good reports are sometimes shelved because the individuals who commissioned them never had any intention of following them up. So if you believe in your report, and want it to have some impact, then writing it may be only the beginning. As we have noted, not only may you need to speak to it in a formal presentation or oral report, but you may also have to lobby for it, perhaps going behind the scenes to try to persuade decision-makers of the wisdom of your analysis. In other words, after you write, you may need to ? ght. Don’t be discouraged by this. Firstly, your audience may already be suffering from information overload, and you will need to get your message across to them with care.
Secondly, no matter how long your report document is, almost certainly you will not have been able to get everything in it that you wanted to. Talking about it in a formal presentation or an informal lobbying situation allows you to get across your total message. As we saw in chapter 1, total communication effectiveness often involves using multiple channels and repetition and reinforcement of the message, so why should the report genre be any different? This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But try to see it as less a chore than an opportunity to strut your stuff — to show your audience that you have exceptional problem-solving and communication skills. That can’t be bad for your career. Who are reports for? Know your audience
Audience: the reader(s) of the report; the audience may be larger than you expect, including both of? cial and unof? cial components Once you have decided what your report is for, you need to decide who it is for. Who is your audience? If you need to deliver an oral report, who will you be speaking to? Is there an unof? cial as well as an of? cial audience? (Note that in chapter 1 we saw that audiences in different ? elds of communication are known by different names — listeners, publics, demographics, viewers, customers, clients, stakeholders, auditors, users and participants. ) Non-routine reports are normally commissioned or authorised by a person or persons further up the organisational pyramid.
If the culture of your organisation encourages initiative, you may ? nd it useful to volunteer to write and present a report, perhaps even suggesting the topic yourself (see p. 782). You need to know certain things about your audience. Once you know these things, you can respond appropriately. Some questions about your audience, and your appropriate responses, are set out in table 5. 3. Note that these questions and considerations may apply to audiences for routine as well as non-routine documents. Table 5. 3: Analysing your audience Factor Personal style Question Is the audience made up of people who prefer hearing rather than reading about something?
Is the audience made up of people who prefer reading rather than hearing about something? Is the audience made up of people who prefer detail rather than the big picture? Is your audience made up of people who prefer the big picture rather than the detailed approach? Response Put more effort into preparing the oral report than the written report. Put more effort into the written report than the oral report. Chapter 5 Reports and proposals Concentrate on detail, but be ready to show how details ? t into the big picture. Give the big picture, but be ready to supply details to ? ll in the big picture. 163 Table 5. 3 (continued) Factor Technical background
Question Is your audience made up of people who are familiar and comfortable with the area’s key ideas, assumptions and jargon? Response Don’t waste time on background explanations, as your audience might feel insulted. Jump straight in at the technical level, but be on guard against in-group complacency or groupthink (which occurs when a group is cut off from reality in its world of comfortable and non-threatening assumptions). De? ne terms, assumptions and key ideas. Make it easy for them with glossaries, simpli? ed visual models, analogies, demonstrations and historical overviews. Don’t patronise people, but put them at their ease so they feel con? dent enough to ask ‘stupid’ questions.
Remember that everyone – even you – has different areas of ignorance, and that preparing a basic view of the subject may in fact give you insights that you would otherwise have missed (because you have been too close to the action to see it in perspective). (See naive reviewers, p. 47. ) Keep it formal. Keep it informal. The answer to this is always yes – or you should at least take it that it’s yes, and act accordingly. It pays to be paranoid. So beware of sweeping generalisations, unsupported assertions, libellous statements, cheap jokes at the expense of others not present. Let your report help, not haunt, your career (see p. 173). Good. Don’t lose it by being complacent. Work on it (by paying attention to the above-listed factors, questions and responses) to make it still more positive. Good. Work on it (see above) to make it positive. Not so good, but not necessarily disastrous.
Pay attention to the above-listed factors, questions and responses. Are the audience’s vested interests threatened by what you are saying? Are you in competition with them for the same scarce resources? Can you show them a mutually bene? cial outcome? Is your audience made up of people who are not familiar and comfortable with the area’s key ideas, assumptions and jargon? Status Does the audience value formality? Does the audience value informality? Is it possible that people outside the of? cial audience will read or hear the report? Initial attitude Positive Neutral Hostile Communicating in the 21st Century Unfortunately, the answer to the questions posed in table 5. is usually ‘All of the above’, and your responses should re? ect this. Remember, the dif? cult takes some time, and the impossible takes a little longer. What is involved in preparing a report? A production model All reports have some similarities in the way in which they are produced. Figure 5. 2 shows a model of production that will help us to understand just how a report should — and should not — be produced. 164 Commission Produce written report: • text • graphics Use primary data sources Use secondary data sources Redefine scope, outline, tasks scheduling Deliver written report Individual or team? Plan scope, outline tasks, scheduling 1st draft Leave it 2nd draft Edit
Design graphics They don’t like it — do it again They do like it — do another Figure 5. 2: The reportwriting process Source: Adapted from Eunson (1994, p. 7). Time frame Commissioning the report Routine reports do not require commissioning: the normal ? ow of work provides a structure of trigger points for report generation. Non-routine reports, however, require a speci? c commissioning decision. The person who commissions the report is normally part of your audience. The actual commissioning may be informal and verbal — ‘Oh, Joe, can you do me a report on your monthly sales ? gures? ’ — or formal and written, set out in a letter or memo. The scope or focus of the report (its terms of reference) is de? ed at the time of Scope: the terms of reference of a report; what commission. the document is about, and what it is not about Individual or team? A decision needs to be made as to whether the report will be generated by an individual or a team. This will be determined by the complexity of the task and the mix of skills required. Sometimes, especially with non-routine documents, you will need to put together a writing group; sometimes, especially with routine documents, you will need simply to contact individuals in a loose network around you to get ? gures and facts (see chapter 20). Plan scope, outline, tasks, scheduling What is the report about? What is it not about? In non-routine documents, uestions of scope will have a strong in? uence on the title of the report. The scope will determine the structure of the report. At this stage, a detailed structure is not required, but an outline is. Such an outline will set out the sections, headings, points and sub-points of the overall document. The outline of your report will bear more than a passing resemblance to the table of contents of the ? nal document. The scope and outline will help to determine the tasks of research and production, and the time frame or schedule within which such tasks need to be achieved. At this stage the types of questions that need to be asked include: How long do I have to complete the report?
What resources do I have? What speci? c sub-tasks can the report be broken down into? How much more to the writing of a report is there than the actual writing? Such time and task planning is not trivial (see also online chapter ‘Writing skills 5: how to write’, p. 2): 165 Chapter 5 Reports and proposals The ? rst rule is to give yourself time to write your report. You will need to investigate the topic and gather the information, and then plan and structure your report, form your conclusions, write it and revise it. Writing the report actually accounts for quite a small percentage of the overall process. (Thornbory & White 2007) Primary and secondary sources of data
Once decisions about scope, structure, tasks and scheduling have been made, primary data can be collected and analysed, and secondary data can be studied. Sources of primary data include questionnaires, interviews, experiments, observations and company records. Primary data does not exist until it is created by researchers or people who collect data as part of their jobs. Once such data exists, it can form the basis of secondary data, which is published in various forms, including books, journals, statistical bulletins and electronic databases. Report writers must determine whether there is a need for primary data, secondary data or both. Secondary data is easier and cheaper to collect than primary data, but it may be too general or out of date.
Much will depend on the situation, the problem to be studied, the nature of existing data, and the availability of resources to create new data and retrieve existing data. Nevertheless, it makes sense to check secondary data ? rst: if this information is good enough, there will be no need to go to the trouble of creating primary data. Rede? ne scope, outline, tasks, scheduling Once primary and secondary data have been collected and studied, it may be that the scope or focus of the report needs to be adjusted. At this stage you may discover that: • what you thought was going to be a general study will simply be too big, and you now need to narrow the focus • what you thought was a small-scale phenomenon has much wider rami? ations, and a broader approach is needed • the data provides answers but also raises new questions • promising areas turn out to be dead-ends • initially unpromising areas turn out to be gold mines • some data proves to be unavailable • some data proves to be so rich that it is dif? cult to manage • some areas are interesting, but the time to explore them is not available • your enthusiasm for some areas declines • your enthusiasm for other areas increases (see p. 77). Communicating in the 21st Century A rede? nition of scope is a fairly normal occurrence and nothing to worry about. Of course, it may also entail a rede? nition of the report’s outline structure, and of the appropriate tasks and scheduling. Design graphics Once the outline is clear, decisions can be made about what type of graphic communication needs to be included in the document (see p. 69).
If there is a chance that you will have to speak to your report — in effect, to deliver it orally — keep in mind that graphics prepared for the page might not necessarily work as projected graphics in a presentation. 166 Draft, set aside, redraft Drafting: writing multiple versions of a document, allowing time to reconsider, reconceptualise and re-edit each version until a ? nal draft is achieved Now the drafting begins. Remember that what you write now will not necessarily be what your audience eventually reads or hears. Very few of us can write so ? awlessly that our ? rst draft can be used as the ? nal draft. Expect to complete at least two drafts (more if the need arises).
If time permits, and you should try to schedule the work so that it does, set the draft document aside before rereading it and attempting the next draft. You can get too close to a piece of work and lose perspective. All your ideas and insights will not simply appear, fully formed, in your ? rst draft. Once your mind is set loose on a problem, it will produce all kinds of straightforward and quirky perspectives over time (see online chapter ‘Writing skills 5: how to write’). It’s not uncommon to have a blinding insight into a problem analysed well after a document has been ? nished. Preparing reports is rarely associated with creativity, but the analysis involved in preparing reports is part of the wider problem-solving process, and that process is often a creative one.
Work with the creative impulse by allowing time to pass while you turn your attention to other matters, returning to start the second draft with a refreshed mind and, with luck, new perspectives. Edit, produce, deliver Once you have completed your ? nal draft, you can edit it more closely. Editing entails checking the logical ? ow of information, the clarity of expression, the language mechanics, the layout, the conventions of citation and so forth. If you are required to prepare an oral as well as a written report, this is an opportune time to edit or repackage the content of the written report so that it is more suitable for spoken delivery (see online chapter ‘Writing skills 5: how to write’). Of? e software packages appear to simplify this content repackaging task, but be careful: what works well on the printed page will not necessarily work well on a computer slide, and vice versa. The production of the document is no minor task. Aesthetic decisions about layout design and overall look have to be made and then executed professionally. As mentioned above, the report’s visual appeal can substantially in? uence its acceptance. Make sure that any graphic illustrations enhance your message, rather than detract from it. Delivery of a written report may be a straightforward process, without much ritual. A paper document may be sent through an organisation’s internal mail, or it may be sent by email, usually as an attachment.
However, the ritual of physically handing over a document to the person who commissioned it may be worth retaining, as it constitutes a lobbying act in itself. Presenting an oral report tends to be more ritualised. Evaluate Do they like it? Do they hate it? Either outcome may point to further report writing in the future. If your audience responds negatively, you may be asked to go back and do it again. If the audience likes it, you may be asked to do others. It won’t do your career any harm to be known as someone who can be relied on to produce a useful report. Analytical reports Let’s now apply what we have learned about reports by looking at ‘the big one’ — the analytical or research report.
Most formal analytical or investigative reports have a standard structure, although some individual writers and organisations have developed their own variations. This type of report has three main sections, with items in each section being either essential or optional (table 5. 4). Let’s consider what may be involved in this large document, and then look at what such a document might look like. 167 Chapter 5 Reports and proposals Table 5. 4: Structure of an analytical report Section Front matter Essential • Title page • Summary/synopsis • Table of contents Optional • • • • • Cover Terms of reference Memo/letter of transmittal List of ? gures List of tables Body • • • •
Introduction Discussion Conclusions Recommendations • Figures (diagrams) • Tables (data arrays) • Plates (photographs) • Index • Glossary • Appendices End matter • References/bibliography Good news and bad news: structure and the politics of persuasion A report can have either a direct structure (in which you state the gist of your message at the start) or an indirect structure (in which you defer this statement) (see also p. 125). Which structure you choose will often depend on the reception you expect from your audience: if you expect them to be happy to receive your message, this is a ‘good news’ situation and a direct approach should be used.
If you expect them to be unhappy to receive your message, or to have reserIndirect structure: used to defer the major impact of a vations about it, this is a ‘bad news’ situation and the indirect approach is preferred. ‘bad news’ message until The indirect approach may be used when you are describing a complex situation, with a later in the report number of challenging but nevertheless soluble problems, and you simply need to introduce your audience to such solutions before they react prematurely to the potentially negative aspects of the message. Writing in this form will stretch your abilities as a writer, but that is also challenging. When deciding whether to use a direct or indirect structure, you need to consider the sequence in which you will present your argument, paying particular attention to your summary or synopsis.
Choose your words carefully according to what you are trying to achieve: when using the indirect structure, you do not aim to be dishonest, but rather to create a context that will stimulate considered rather than impulsive and reactive decision making (? gure 5. 3). Direct structure: used to deliver a ‘good news’ message in a straightforward manner at the beginning of the report Direct structure: summary section wording This report examines the need for policy measures to cope with new budget constraints, particularly in the area of salaries. It is recommended that: • band A staff take a pay cut of 12 per cent • band B staff take a pay cut of 6. 5 per cent, with all overtime eliminated • no expenses be allowable unless given prior approval by DOF.
Indirect structure: summary section wording This report examines the need for policy measures to cope with new budget constraints, particularly in the area of salaries. Various issues are examined, including the possibility of: • pay cuts • reducing or eliminating overtime • changing approval mechanisms for expenses. Communicating in the 21st Century Figure 5. 3: Direct and indirect report structures Source: Adapted from Anderson (1995, p. 118). 168 Cover The document may be secured in a folder or even professionally bound as a book. The line between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ document production has been blurred in the past few years with the increased availability and sophistication of computer word processing packages. All but the briefest reports are likely to have a cover. It is not dif? ult for a report writer today to design and create a cover featuring stylish typography and images. People do judge books by their covers, and it is important that the cover of a report is inviting enough to motivate the prospective reader to look further. A folder or binding will protect the report and give the document a stronger identity, making it less likely to be lost in the paperwork that builds up on many people’s desks. Durability and visibility may help ensure that it is placed on a shelf, where it can be easily retrieved, rather than ? led away where it may sink without trace. An attractive cover will help; if possible, ensure that the report title is on the front and on the spine.
As with all organisational communications, house style and organisational culture are paramount: if your cover is likely to be regarded by the organisation as too radical, distracting or wasteful, then follow the accepted conventions. Letter/memorandum of transmittal Letter of transmittal: introductory or covering document for a report, used when the audience is outside the organisation Memo of transmittal: introductory or covering document for a report, used when the audience for your document is within the organisation You may be required to compose a letter or memo of transmittal for a report. This is the most personal part of the communication exercise. It is the most direct message from writer to reader. Table 5. 5 shows typical wording of such a letter or memo. Table 5. 5: Typical wording used in a letter or memo of transmission
Letter/memo of transmittal section Salutation to the person who commissioned or authorised the report Statement of purpose of letter/memo Brief overview or summary of report Acknowledgements to people who helped you with your investigations Courteous close Typical wording ‘Dear Mr/Ms Smith . . . ’ ‘Here is the report on . . . you requested. . . ’ ‘In this report you will ? nd . . . ’ ‘Several people proved to be of great assistance to me . . . ’ ‘Thank you for the opportunity to investigate . . . If you have any questions about the report, please contact me . . . ’ Chapter 5 Reports and proposals Some writers will include a brief mention of their recommendations in the letter or memo. Whether you decide to do so will depend on factors such as hether your recommendations are controversial and you would prefer the reader to read the rationale behind them before being confronted with them, as well as on space constraints. If the report is transmitted internally, within the organisation, then a memo of transmittal, in standard memo format, is used. If a report is transmitted to someone in another organisation, then a letter of transmittal, in standard letter format, is used. 169 Title The title of the report should clearly describe to the reader what the report is about. Remember, what is obvious to you in a title may not be obvious to your reader: you may be too close to the issue, taking for granted a knowledge of certain concepts or jargon that may not be familiar to your reader. Try out a number of titles on people who are more removed from the problem.
If the report has a cover, the wording of the cover title and the title page should be identical. Your title is a promise to the reader, and the report itself should ful? l that promise. The promise will not be realised, for example, if the scope of the report, as represented by your original title, has since shifted. It is perfectly normal for the scope of a report to shift several times in the course of the document’s preparation, for instance when new information leads to different perspectives or conclusions. One of the most often overlooked tasks in editing a report is ensuring that the title actually sums up the content of the ? nal document.
Make sure you promise what you deliver and deliver what you promise. Contents page On the contents page you will list each element in the front matter, the body of the report and the end matter — with the exception of the letter or memo of transmittal (which should be attached to the front of the report), the cover, the title page and the table of contents itself. All sections and subsections of the report are listed, with their respective page numbers. The table of contents, which will probably be similar to the outline you developed in the report planning process, is the reader’s roadmap. The bigger and more complex the report, the more important a table of contents becomes. List of illustrations
A list of illustrations may be helpful for larger reports with a substantial number of graphics. For more complex documents it may also be useful to provide separate lists for ? gures and tables (see p. 57). Note that photographs are sometimes referred to as ‘plates’. Summary/synopsis/abstract Summary: brie? y sums up the content of the document; sometimes the only part of a report that is properly read Summary, synopsis and abstract are three terms sometimes used interchangeably in report 170 Communicating in the 21st Century writing. Synopsis and abstract tend to be used in more academic and scienti? c documents, while summary is the less academic, more general usage. The term executive summary is also common.
In this brief section you need to summarise the entire content of the body of the report, including the introduction, the main discussion, and your conclusions and recommendations. Keep in mind the considerations of direct versus indirect approach. At the risk of a bruised ego, you should recognise that the summary is as far as many of your readers will get in your report, or indeed will want to get. They want the quick version, so you must ensure your summary is good. Write your summary last, not ? rst. This may sound paradoxical, but in fact it makes good sense – taking into account sound editing and revision practices as well as compensating for our own shortcomings in human perception when we try to establish a true perspective on our work. After you have completed the ? st draft of a document you will have a reasonable overview of what it should contain and you will be able to write an accurate summary. At this interim stage, a good summary will con? rm what is already present in your document and reveal what is missing. You may need to revise your scope and approach as a result (see p. 165). While this may be annoying, it is better than discovering major errors or omissions after the document has gone out to its audience. Introduction The introduction should inform the reader about some or all of the following: • Background. Why was the report commissioned? What circumstances led people to believe that a report was needed? Purpose. What is the purpose of the report? • Scope. What issues are discussed in the report? What issues are not covered? (This is also known as the brief or terms of reference. ) • Research methods. How was the data in this report obtained? What types of primary and/ or secondary data were used? Does the data limit the report in any way (see limitations below)? • De? nition of terms. What speci? c terminology is used that the lay reader may not be familiar with? (If there are more than ? ve or six such terms, you should consider including a separate glossary of terms in the end matter of the report. ) • Limitations. What constraints (e. g. ime, resources, data) were there on the exercise? • Assumptions. What has the writer assumed about background, concepts, language and reader awareness? Discussion The main discussion, body or ? ndings section is the real meat of the report. It will almost certainly be the largest section, and its preparation will entail the most work. Ensure that your argument is developed clearly, and is broken up logically into sections and subsections, with appropriate headings and subheadings (see online chapter ‘Writing skills 5: how to write’). Table 5. 6 lists some of the many ways in which to develop an argument. It is possible to combine some of these methods.
Given that they all have their limitations, this is sometimes desirable. However, be sure you do not confuse your reader (and possibly yourself). Table 5. 6: Some argument development methods Argument development method Chronological Inductive Deductive Geographical Topical Problem/solution Pros/cons 5W/H Ideal/reality Approach From then to now, and on into the future From the particular to the general From the general to the particular From one area/section/state/country/planet to another From one subject to another The problem is . . . The solution/options are . . . The advantages are . . . The disadvantages are . . . Chapter 5 Reports and proposals
Explanation of what, where, when, why, who, how What we would like is . . . What we are stuck with is . . . After outlining the problem, it is quite valid to discuss a range of options or alternative responses (the problem–solution approach to developing an argument lends itself particularly to this method). These alternatives can then be referred to when making recommendations. Remember to con? ne yourself to facts in the discussion section of your report. If you have opinions, you should reserve them for the conclusions and recommendations sections. 171 GAMES REPORT WRITERS (AND COMMISSIONERS) PLAY The discussion, body or ? ndings section will make or break your report.
Here are some of the ways in which reports can be broken rather than made: Preconceived bias Make sure that you take a balanced approach in your discussion, covering all points of view and options, or at least as many as possible. A common mistake committed by report writers is to come to a topic with preconceived views, and then create a biased document in support of those views. Not only is this unprofessional, it’s also unwise: there will always be someone in your audience who can, and will, challenge your preconceived bias, with the result that your reputation will suffer and any good material in your document can more easily be dismissed. Get in ? st before they do, and pre-emptively rebut ideas, products and processes that you don’t like – but deal in facts, not self-deception and special pleading. Perhaps the worst outcome for biased documents is when no-one in the audience picks up the shortcomings in time, and action is taken on the basis of the document – with sometimes catastrophic results. Acquired bias A related pitfall is that of acquired bias, which occurs when topic loyalty or capture sets in. A report involves a lot of work, and there is a tendency for some researcher/writers to invest so much time, energy and resources into the document that they become intellectually and emotionally committed to the ideas they are presenting, perhaps to the point of turning a blind eye to the ideas’ weaknesses, and ? d it impossible to reach a negative conclusion. They have become captured by the topic. You should always be ready to write negative recommendations – for example, to advise against the pursuit of a project you believe is unsound. If not, rest assured that others will point out your blind spots. Job creationism Topic loyalty or capture also occurs when researcher/writers begin to sense that their recommendations could enhance their own career paths: ‘This is a good idea, and by the way, I’m available to put it into practice. ’ Job creationism may be human nature, but be careful not to fall into the trap, or at least do so with such subtlety that no-one is aware you are doing it.
Timidity Timidity is a problem when report writers present an unchallenging document even when the evidence suggests that faults need to be pointed out and radical changes recommended. Timidity often occurs in organisations with a ‘shoot the messenger’ culture, where groupthink is prevalent. In such organisations, unfortunately, it may make sense to deliver a ‘don’t make waves’ document – but only in the short term, as the consequences of inaction usually make themselves felt eventually (see pp. 580, 656, 684). Whitewash A whitewash occurs when a report writer conceals the true (and unpleasant) nature of the problem the report was meant to investigate.
The guilty parties, or problem-creators, thus escape judgement. Vendetta The opposite of a whitewash is a vendetta, or witch hunt, which occurs when a report writer aggressively ascribes guilt or responsibility for a problem, sometimes to those who do not deserve it. Folk wisdom that can be found on the Internet identi? es ? ve phases of a project: (1) Exultation; (2) Disenchantment; (3) Search for the guilty; (4) Punishment of the innocent; (5) Praise for the uninvolved. A vendetta report illustrates this. Note that a report can be both a whitewash and a vendetta. Balanced approach: an even-handed writing approach that avoids bias in what is presented or omitted
Topic loyalty or capture: the process by which researcher/writers become so involved with an idea they are reporting on that they lose objectivity and recommend implementation even when some of the evidence suggests this would be inadvisable Job creationism: the process by which researcher/writers present the outcome of a report in such a way that they become the most likely candidates to implement its recommendations Timidity: a characteristic of reports that do not confront or tackle the real issues of a situation Communicating in the 21st Century Whitewash: a characteristic of reports that avoid apportioning blame where it is due Vendetta: a characteristic of reports that unfairly ascribe blame to innocent parties 172 Indiscreet insiderism: a unjusti? ed hostility to outgroup others Indiscreet insiderism Indiscreet insiderism occurs when the writer presumes that only a limited audience of likeminded people will see a document.
It may be laden with in-group jargon, and may make hurtful remarks about others outside the in-group (see the ‘vendetta’ and ‘whitewash’ games). Such semilibellous sniping and inbred jargon will re? ect badly on you when – inevitably – the document reaches a wider audience (see groupthink, p. 684). The jargon and the hostility are, of course, mutually reinforcing. There is no such thing as a totally private and con? dential document: write every document so that you could defend it in a court of law. Boosterism Boosterism means writing propaganda and public relations rather than analysis. For example, a report writer may simply sing the praises of the rganisation’s products without realistically assessing rival products and the wider market. These are SO-SO (rather than SWOT) documents – that is, they concentrate only on strengths and opportunities, ignoring weaknesses and threats. Boosterism usually leads to the same disastrous results as timidity. Flag-waving Boosterism refers to the big picture of what an organisation does. Flag-waving narrows the focus. A ? ag-waving report is self-serving in that it overemphasises the virtues and importance of one section of the organisation – the report writer’s section. Hobby horses Hobby horses are pet projects or ideas of report writers that are given undue prominence in a report.
Sloppiness Sloppiness in report writing is often shown by poor research, overdependence on low-quality sources such as Internet sites and sales literature, and signs of plagiarism and cut-and-pasting of pre-existing documents. Reactivity Reactivity is a characteristic of report writers who are always ? ghting the last war, producing post-mortems on situations but offering very little in the way of future orientation, proactive planning or fresh thought. Decision avoidance As already mentioned (p. 161), reports are sometimes commissioned in order to avoid decisions rather than to aid them. Less-than-ethical report commissioners may hope that, by asking someone to engage in time-wasting report research and writing, a problem will go away or be buried. The hidden agenda (see p. 31) of the commissioner can be advanced by writing terms of reference that are too narrow, ignoring the report or simply rejecting its ? ndings. Boosterism: a characteristic of reports that focus only on positive aspects of a situation, unrealistically ignoring negative aspects Flag-waving: a characteristic of reports that overemphasise the value of the writers’ own department, team or section Hobby horse: a pet project or idea given undue prominence in a report Sloppiness: a characteristic of reports written in a super? cial and unprofessional manner Reactivity: a characteristic of reports that focus only on the past Decision avoidance: the behaviour of those who commission reports in order to avoid solving a problem Conclusions
Chapter 5 Reports and proposals Conclusions: section of a report in which writers set out their opinions about the facts presented in the report body In the conclusions section, you provide an overview of the content of the report. Here you can provide your own interpretation of the information that has been set out, answering the question ‘What does all this mean? ’ You can also provide a speci? c context for the recommendations you are about to make. Typical conclusions might take the following form: It is clear that the photocopying centre cannot cope with certain peak work loads, particularly when we are conducting audits of large clients . . . Options 2 and 6 are attractive if solely ? ancial criteria are applied, but would be unpopular with staff in the eastern zone plant. Options 1, 3, 4 and 5 would be less unpopular, but clearly would entail greater expense, particularly if we buy rather than lease . . . 173 Recommendations Recommendations: ? nal section of a report consisting of suggestions for action based on conclusions reached In the ? nal, recommendations section of the report you propose speci? c actions that should ? ow from the conclusions. Keep in mind that just as recommendations are based on conclusions, so conclusions are based on the information discussed in the body of the report. You should not introduce new material in the conclusions or recommendations sections.
It is common for report writers to reach conclusions and recommendations whose foundation has not been demonstrated in the body of the document. It’s only natural: your mind, turning over the problem, delivers up novel solutions that may be unconnected to the facts as you have presented them. Don’t maroon your good ideas, however; rather, grasp the perhaps unpleasant fact that you may now need to go back and revise the body, creating a foundation for your new conclusions and recommendations. If the introduction, discussion and conclusions are part of the problem-solving process, then the recommendations are part of the decision-making process.
Because of this, some commissioners of reports exclude recommendations from the scope, brief or terms of reference of the report, believing that they can produce their own action plans based on what they have read. It may be useful to number your recommendations. This will make discussion of them easier. You may also choose to place recommendations in priority order. Some writers prefer to give recommendations in the body of the report, at the end of each section. This style is adopted particularly with large reports. It can be a useful way of linking a response directly to the problem discussed. If you choose to do this, it is still helpful to list all of the recommendations together, and the best place for such a list is where most readers would expect to ? d them — at the end of the report, following the conclusions. Typical recommendations might take the following forms: It is recommended that all systems continue operating the Microsoft Vista operating system for the next six months. At that time, Data Processing will report on options to convert systems to the Linux–JT operating system. 3. Option 3 (sub-contract new accounts to external consultants via competitive tendering) should be trialled for 12 months. References, bibliography, endnotes With your conclusions and recommendations, you have completed the main parts of the report. All that remains is the end matter. Here the reference list usually comes ? rst.
This section lists all the materials you have referred to in your research and used in the report. Appendices or attachments Communicating in the 21st Century You may wish to include material with your report that does not belong in it (perhaps it is too large, or would be of interest to only part of your audience) but still might be useful for the reader to refer to. Such material is included at the back of a report as an appendix. Appendix: supplementary material placed after the If you have more than one set of such material, then each should be separately identi? ed body of a report, where it is (e. g. Appendix A, B, C or Appendix I, II, III . . . ). This aterial might include raw data, copies available for the reader to consult, without disturbing of questionnaires used, interview transcripts, maps, copies of legislation appropriate to the the ? ow of the argument in topic, detailed historical background, complex graphics, computer software demonstrating the main body section what you are talking about, a videotape — in short, anything that does not ? t tidily into the structure of the written report. 174 Glossary, list of abbreviations and index If your report is particularly complex, involving terminology that may be unfamiliar to some of your audience, consider creating a glossary in which you list and de? ne these terms.
Similarly, create a list of, or key to, possibly confusing abbreviations (acronyms, initialisms or shortened words). If your glossary or list of abbreviations extends beyond about ten entries, perhaps you should consider whether you are in danger of losing your audience. If your report is extensive (say, over 20 pages), consider creating an index. Indexing can be time-consuming, but word processing software has taken much of the labour out of it. An index will provide your audience with a more detailed ‘navigation map’ than is possible with the table of contents. Below is a checklist for ensuring that your analytical or research report has the minimum number of weaknesses and the maximum number of strengths.
An editing checklist for analytical reports Report title: Feature Cover (where separate from title page) Detail Durability Attractiveness Identi? cation (title) Letter/memo of transmittal Salutation Statement of letter’s/memo’s purpose Brief overview of report Acknowledgements Courteous close Title Accurate description of scope/contents Same as on cover Contents page Accurate re? ection of structure Accurate re? ection of pagination List of illustrations (optional) Synopsis/summary/abstract Introduction Accurate re? ection of sequence Accurate summary of body, end matter Background given Purpose described Scope de? ned Research methods described Terms de? ed Discussion Argument developed logically Factual approach — no opinions yet Balanced approach — not biased in what is presented or omitted Chapter 5 Reports and proposals Report author: 175 Feature Conclusions Recommendations References/bibliography Detail Based on matter discussed Based on matter discussed and conclusions Complete Consistent use of citation system Appendix/appendixes Glossary (optional) Index (optional) Structure Complete Complete Complete Clear and consistent Headings accurate Hierarchical structure re? ects correct exposition of argument Headings grammatically parallel Layout/document design Adequate white space Fonts — minimal variation Fonts — consistent use Graphics placed appropriately
Graphics Appropriate Identi? ed Referred to in text Pagination Referencing Accurate Correct Consistent Quotation Correct Consistent Legitimate — no plagiarism or distortion Language Clear, readable style Style consistent between sections Grammar correct Spelling correct Communicating in the 21st Century Punctuation correct No unnecessary jargon No cliches No redundancies More concrete than abstract No repetition Paragraphing clear 176 A sample analytical report Here is an example of what a 4000-word analytical report can look like. Use it as a model to refer to when you need to undertake such a project. Separate page for title Thoughtprovoking title.
A more formal approach would delete this. Filling the void: What is the best use for the vacant space on the ground ? oor of the Green? elds building? Target reader who commissioned the report. Lay out page so that lines look balanced. Use illustrations if necessary. Consider placing within a robust cover. Prepared by Fran Powers, Manager, Operations, Agenda21 November 6, 2009 177 Chapter 5 Reports and proposals Writer’s name. Your name will be on your report, and copies of it may be around for quite some time. Make sure that it helps, rather than hinders, your career. Report prepared for Rocco Marcolino, Chief Executive Of? cer, Agenda21 Or memorandum of transmittal.
If the report is going to an external audience, consider making this a letter of transmittal. MEMO OF TRANSMITTAL TO: FROM: DATE: SUBJECT: Rocco Marcolino, Chief Executive Of? cer Fran Powers, Manager, Operations November 6, 2009 Options for allocation of vacant space in Green? elds building Personal style, as be? ts a memo Attached please ? nd the report you asked me to undertake on best uses of vacant space in the main building. I look at a number of options, including the option that has been Upshot of report is foreshadowed informally discussed for some time — namely, using the space to establish a ? tness/wellness facility. On balance, I think this is the best option.
The costs are potentially high, but then so are the bene? ts. I have tried to recommend a pathway that will minimise risk and maximise positive outcomes. Courteous acknowledgement of others who helped out Max Franks in Operations and Jai Cellisi in Finance were very helpful in putting data together for this project, as was the Information Desk at West Paci? c College library. Thanks to report commissioner, invitation to follow up with discussions This assignment was like no other I have tackled before, involving as it does so many intangibles, but it was a bracing and challenging one for the same reasons. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to come to grips with it. If ou want to discuss any of this material, please call me at any time. 178 Communicating in the 21st Century iii TABLE OF CONTENTS LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS SUMMARY 1. 0. INTRODUCTION 1. 1. PURPOSE 1. 2. SCOPE 1. 3. SOURCES AND METHODS 1. 4. LIMITATIONS AND ASSUMPTIONS 1. 5. BACKGROUND 1. 5. 1. The Current Situation at Agenda21’s Green? elds building 1. 6. APPROACH TAKEN IN THIS REPORT 2. 0. OPTION #1: MOVE OUT 3. 0. OPTION #2: STAY, AND SUBLEASE THE AREA 4. 0. OPTION #3: STAY, AND WAREHOUSE STOCKS IN AREA 5. 0. OPTION #4: STAY, AND SET UP CORPORATE FITNESS/WELLNESS FACILITY IN AREA 5. 1. FITNESS AND WELLNESS: DEFINITIONS 5. 2. FITNESS/WELLNESS PROGRAMS: DO THEY WORK? 5. 3.
FITNESS/WELLNESS PROGRAMS: FINANCIAL CONSIDERATIONS 5. 3. 1. Program costs and bene? ts 5. 3. 2. Purchase versus lease/rent costs 5. 3. 3. ‘Low cost’ options not necessarily cheap 5. 3. 4. Skill levels of staff: a doctor in the house? 5. 3. 5. Possible impacts on key factors 5. 3. 6. Non-program costs and bene? ts 5. 4. FITNESS/WELLNESS PROGRAMS: NON-FINANCIAL CONSIDERATIONS 5. 4. 1. Corporate Olympics 5. 4. 2. Netball 5. 4. 3. Corporate sport and networking 5. 4. 4. Morale and teamwork 6. 0. IN-HOUSE SURVEY OF POTENTIAL DEMAND FOR FITNESS/WELLNESS PROGRAMS 7. 0. THE WORST-CASE SITUATION: WHAT IF IT DOESN’T WORK? 8. 0. OVERVIEW 9. 0. CONCLUSIONS 10. 0. RECOMMENDATIONS 11. 0.
REFERENCES APPENDICES Page iv v 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 3 3 3 3 3 4 5 5 7 7 7 7 9 9 9 10 10 10 10 11 12 12 13 13 Indent different levels of report’s hierarchical structure appropriately: this allows the reader to see structure more clearly. As you prepare the report, this exercise may help you see for the ? rst time whether the structure makes sense, or whether changes might be needed. For example, is a subsection really a new section by itself? Is the sequence logical? Identify pages as you see ? t. The scheme here is to use lowercase Roman numerals for all material prior to the introduction, from which point Arabic numerals are used. The cover is presumed to be p. i and the memo of transmittal is presumed to be p. i, but they are not identi? ed as such. The table of contents page does not refer to itself. Index needed? Possibly not for a document this short, but consider for longer documents. 179 Chapter 5 Reports and proposals Obviously not needed if you have no tables or ? gures. It is better to have a good document without them than a bad document with them. iv LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS Figures Page 2 5 1. Floor plan layout for all three ? oors of 6–12 Main Street block 2. Some costs associated