Awful 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.
Have you ever been forced to review a business report that was so boring you had to pierce yourself with a pin every two minutes to avoid falling into happy states of unconsciousness? Maybe you didn’t pierce yourself in time and your head hit the desktop, allowing a bit of drool to leak onto the report. Guilt immediately sets in because you know that the writer worked hard on the thing and that the substance is significant. Too bad for that guy, because the other key users of his report won’t be as understanding as you– they’ll just line their coops with it. You silently giggle and form a villainous grin at the thought– bird cage liner– amusing stuff. The grin gets wiped off of your face in an instant when a second thought enters your mind– you have a report due next week to hand in to the same crew. What will you do — WHAT WILL YOU DO?!
Well, have no fear. There is hope for you beyond this, and you don’t need to be the Ernest Hemingway of business report writing. All you need is a little design, a streak of self-confidence, and some guts!
Headers Rule the Cycle
Many business reports get the pet shop remedy because they suffer from a lack of aesthetic appeal. Yes, your company report needs to look beautiful. It also needs to be user-friendly, just like it’s an internet site, so it is effortless to get around. Wanna hear some unsettling news? Most readers of your document, no matter how much labor you put into it or how amazing your data reduction is, will not go through it. Oh, they’ll skim it, scan it, and try to get something from it, but it ain’t a best-seller and it won’t seize their attention. Make it easy for them to get something out of it. Use headers that clearly define the segments of the report. You know what I mean, things like Recommendations, Budget, and Financial Analysis. It sounds so basic, but many people miss this one. Appropriate headlines act like visual hyperlinks in the report, allowing the reader to quickly recognize sections and check only what she’s interested in. Your headlines should be clear, without deceiving the viewer as to what composes the next section. They should be bolded and a larger typeface size so they really stand out. Don’t be afraid to speculate on the titles though, and use a header that’s a bit unconventional, because it adds to the allure. Recommendations are better than Summary, but Actions for Future Growth blows away Recommendations. Get it?
Lay the Bottom Line First
Here’s a goofy, contrarian thought for you. Most business reports are written in a stupid order. They start with an Introduction that gives record of the issue at hand, then commence talking about their procedure, and so on. Challenge: people who read business reports already recognize, in most cases, that stuff. For them, this filler 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 Review. Here’s what we did, here’s the results, and here’s what we recommend you do about it. After that 1/2 page to 1 page overview, try your Recommended Action section. Usually, this is what is really essential to the reader– what should we do about it? “Wait a second, Karl, are you saying we can not include the saintly Introduction?” Nah, there will always be someone who’ll to read that too, but I’m recommending putting it at the end. This leaves the heavy data stuff still in the middle, where it belongs.
Demonstrate Some Chutzpah!
Remember way back in the last section when I said the decision makers want to read the Recommended Action first. Look at it again! Many experts will shy away from this section and remain on the fence because they don’t want to take the wrong position. GARBAGE! Show some guts and tell people what your analysis of the outcomes is. You can be wrong and the world won’t reach an end. If you’re reasonably clever and have behaved well for the firm, this is what they want from you anyway. Just be big enough to recognize that you could be wrong and if the company travels another direction, that’s OK too. Look, the report is for the world but there is no mandate that says you can’t gain from this golden opportunity to extend your thoughts and suggestions, so stand tall and watch the value of your report, and you, go up.
Back it Up, Kid
You know, if there is one item that is of no use in a business report, it is the unsupported contention. 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 person in charge who just lunched on a burrito and took your report into the throne room. Somebody will have the time available, and if the rest of your report excels, hopefully the need to check out the gritty details behind your views. Don’t get caught being a straw man. That’s worse than not declaring an opinion, because now you’re a loose cannon with a lazy streak. The data should support your points and it should do so in multiple ways. If research doesn’t do it (some issues won’t have “data” per se) then back yourself up with like opinions from professionals within the company or in the discipline 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 data.” I’m certain of it. See how impressive that is?!
Don’t Speak in the 3rd Person
Another component of bad report writing that literary talking heads call the official style is speaking everything in the third person. Unless your name is the Rock or Bob Dole and it’s part of your schtick, forget the third person bunk and talk in the first person. Take the credit, take the blame, or assign it to the proper party. “It” was not discovered– Joe Schmoe found whatever “it” was during his investigation. “I got the account by busting my buns” is much more powerful than “There was a bun busting situation in which an account was awarded to the firm in question.” Don’t worry about seeming arrogant. Like a wise man says, it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up, and you will.
So what have you learned here today? Notice that not one time did I say anything about gerunds, descriptive adverbs, action verbs or dangling participles. Different article. All I have said is to make it pretty, put the most important stuff first, shake things up and take a stand, making sure you can support your points, and talk in the first person. Do these things and your business report to the canary enthusiasts won’t wind up in the bottom of a cage and you’ll find that your level of career success is on the rise. Trust me. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that as well, and he turned out OK.
About the Author
Karl Walinskas is the CEO of Smart Company Growth, a business development and cost management consulting firm for small to mid-size enterprises, and Virtual Mastermind, an online network of Mastermind Groups for small business owners . He has made a career of leading, inspiring and raising the game of small business people. He is author of numerous articles and the Smart Blog on leadership, business communication, sales & service, public speaking and virtual business and Getting Connected Through Exceptional Leadership, available in the Smart Shop, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com. He can be reached at [email protected]