Due to the nature of my job, I need to read quite a lot, mainly various business plans and reports – on strategy, marketing, financial arrangements for projects and so on. A lot of these documents seem to be written as if to be sold by weight – the heavier, the more important. However, not all of this weight translates into useful meaning. Quite often, I hold in my hand a 100+ pages document which could be distilled to about 50-60 pages quite easily, with no detriment to the message it conveys. Unfortunately, it is usually not until after I have read the whole humongous thing that I can tell which bits are relevant and which are just superfluous padding. Going through endless pages of text not adding anything to my understanding of the matter at hand does not count as a ‘pleasure read’; I’d rather people get to the point. If I want to read for pleasure, I usually pick up a novel.
There is an abundance of resources on report writing available. Googling ‘business report writing’ returns pages of results – some aimed at college and university students, some at people already in business. This suggests to me that I am not the only one who sees scope for improvement in this area. So why is report writing, in general, quite poor? Are all these courses and books teaching us how to do it not good enough?
Looking at some advice on what makes a good business report I have seen a number of things brought to attention – structure, language, suggested headings etc. In very few places I’ve seen a mention of three questions which are, in my view, crucial:
1. Who is the report for?
2. Why do they need it?
3. What is it that they need to know?
These are the fundamental questions that need to be answered before even considering a structure of a document. The answers to these questions should provide focus and help keep a report relevant and concise.
I think a lot of people forget that the main objective of a report is to communicate. To communicate effectively, we need to understand who we communicate to and what it is that they need to know. A lot of reports I have read seem to include everything there is to be said on the subject, whether relevant or not. This is where all these pages of no added value come from.
It can be difficult to resist the temptation to write down every single thing that has been discovered in a course of a project – but will the ever-so-busy executive be grateful for all this extra information? Chances are, he or she knows quite a bit on the subject already, so is there a need to repeat it to them? Probably not. Give them the answers they are looking for, not everything that you know. You can always save something for another report.