"I want that report on my desk first thing Monday morning!" the irate boss screams to his shaken subordinate in movies, TV shows, books and probably more than a few real business environments. Rather than be intimidated by the idea of compiling a report, welcome it as an opportunity to showcase your work. Business reports are vital documents because they explain often complex points, problems or research clearly and concisely. Reports command attention because they're official. And since you're writing the report, you get to decide what to put in it.
What Is a Business Report?
A tangible document. Businessdictionary.com defines a report as “a document containing information organized in a narrative, graphic or tabular form, prepared on ad hoc, periodic, recurring, regular or on an as-required basis.”
The fact that a business report is a document only emphasizes its importance. While you could be on the meeting agenda to give a report on assets acquired during the quarter, during and after your presentation, you'll have the business report to refer to, and you can also distribute a copy to those in attendance. Remember the dreaded book reports you had to do in school? Reading the book was the first step, then you had to write a synopsis of what you read. Sometimes, you even had to present your report to the whole class. But to help you out, you had the tangible report in your hand to refer to. That's how important a report is.
A snapshot in time. A business report is a compilation of facts and statistics about a particular aspect of a business. It’s usually a snapshot in time, reporting on a certain period. For example, an annual report covers important financial data and occurrences providing a financial snapshot for that year, while a quarterly report covers a specific quarter of the year.
Most reports, regardless of the type or purpose, cover a specific period. Financial reports cover a specific period. A company’s finances vary from year-to-year and from month-to-month. Even a report on available products is only accurate for a certain window of time, as new products are introduced and older ones are discontinued.
Formal or informal. Depending on its purpose and who will see it, the report could be formal or informal. Formal reports are those that will be seen and reviewed by bosses, senior management, clients, potential clients or investors or even the public. Like all reports, they should be well-written and presented without typos or misspellings, easy to comprehend and accurate to the penny.
Informal reports are no less important. To employees who must complete their expense reports to be reimbursed, they're of the greatest importance. Typically informal, these reports contain descriptions, dates and dollar amounts entered into a company form. If employees don’t complete the report thoroughly and on-time, they may not be reimbursed for airline tickets, taxis and client meals they paid for on their recent business trip.
Reports by other names. Many, if not most, business reports aren’t even called reports. They could be statements, such as a profit and loss or income statement or other financial statements like balance sheets. Or, they might be budget overviews or sales projections.
Reasons to Use Business Reports
To prepare an excellent report, it helps to understand what the report will be used for.
Summarize. Reports help to explain a complicated idea, process or the company's financial status in a clear, understandable way. Months of accumulated data, or years of research, might be summed up in a short report. Of course, it may not have every detail that was uncovered in the research, but the report will give those who read the report a concise summary of the research or data.
Simplify. The people who will review your report may not have the time, desire or skill to evaluate all the data and research that's behind it. In any case, they have their own jobs to do. Your report gives them what they need to know.
Clarify. If 10 people were to read and review all the data and research results you have gathered, they would come to a variety of different conclusions. Your report ensures that they’re all operating from the same vantage point because you’re giving them all the same data.
Persuade. Say your company wants to persuade investors to put up capital to fund a new idea. Your report will be included in the business plan that will be shared with the investors. Other associates will compile the company’s profit and loss statement and other financial status reports, but your report will be a sales projection outlining where the company believes the untapped markets are, and the sales they could yield. The financial statements are important, but your report is the one that could persuade on-the-fence investors to come aboard, or not.
Prove a point. Business reports are often used when tough decisions have to be made, such as whether to downsize, which could involve layoffs. No one wants to go in that direction, but when the report is in front of them, showing the steady decrease in profits compared with expenses like salaries, it’s clear what needs to be done. Or, on the positive side, reports can show whether the company is in the position to expand into exciting new directions.
Solve a problem. You’ve been in meetings where discussions of a problem go around and around without arriving at a viable solution. But, if you share your reports on the big projection screen, everyone is looking at the same issue at the same time. Viewing a tangible document, with tables and graphs that show where the situation really stands, allows everyone to analyze the same material together and arrive at a solution together.
Types of Business Reports
There are an infinite number of business reports that can be written, especially since you can also write your own customized report and title it as you wish. Generally, however, business reports fall into four categories: explanatory, analytical, progress and legal. Of course, they can and do overlap. A progress report, for example, could be explanatory as well. But its primary purpose is to give an update on a situation.
Explanatory reports. Some business reports are written to explain a situation or topic so that everyone can understand it. You might write an explanatory report to explain research you’ve undertaken, for example. If you only present a table showing the results of your research, you’ll naturally be inundated with questions about the reason for the research, your methodology, sample sizes and more. So, instead of just a table of results, you should start by briefly stating the reason you undertook the research and how you went about it, such as using telephone or mailed surveys, tracking data over a period of time or whatever your methodology was. Next, you explain the results of your research using a table, diagram or other method that makes the results clear. Then you summarize the findings in a few sentences.
Analytical reports. This type of report provides analysis, perhaps by comparing two situations or possibilities. Instead of just explaining, an analytical report does at least some of the analysis of the findings for the reader. You might use visuals in your analytical report to demonstrate your points, like diagrams or tables of data.
Progress reports. Like school report cards, progress reports show how things are going right now. They aren’t based on mountains of research or analysis; they’re an update for people who need one. Annual reports, financial statements such as income statements, and other reports that are snapshots of a point in time are progress reports.
Legal reports. Any report that the company is required by law to compile and post, file or send to another entity is a type of legal report. Legal reports are also sometimes completed to protect the company from potential lawsuits or other legal problems. If a report is compiled for tax purposes, or required by the Securities and Exchange Commission, a court or other official entity, it belongs in the legal category.
Example for Writing Common Reports
According to Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL), most business reports don’t have a universal format. Check to see if your company has a preferred format for the report you’re writing. If not, you’re free to compose it any way you see fit. However, OWL has suggestions that can help you make sure you’re covering all the bases and writing the best report you can.
- Keep it brief.
- Know your audience and write to them.
- Use headings and highlight important points.
- Put your most important findings, arguments or points first.
- Decide whether to include your conclusions or leave that to the readers.
The content of your report will vary depending on its purpose and its audience. For an internal report, the audience already knows about the company, so you don’t need to fill them in on those details. A public report, however, or one with multiple audiences, would benefit from some background information about the company.
Title/title page. Every report needs a clear title that explains what it will reveal. This isn’t the place to be clever; transparency is key. For a short or informal report, a simple title at the top of the page, followed by the dates, if applicable, will do. For example:
Summary of Income and Expenses, First Quarter 2018
Formal reports need a title page that includes the title, date and author,, for example:
Summary of Income and Expenses
First Quarter 2018
If the report is being prepared for a specific person or group, add that after your name, for example:
XYZ Company, Inc.
Introduction. Start with a short history or pertinent background information about the company, if you think it's needed. Then briefly explain why this report was prepared. If the report is presenting research findings, briefly explain the research methodology. For a short report, this should be a few sentences. A formal report might include an entire page. Some formal reports begin with an Executive Summary that gives an overview or synopsis of the report so that, if this is all someone reads, they’ll still understand the report.
Table of contents. In a long report, list sections and visuals with page numbers.
Body of the report. Here’s where you put your data, the crux or most crucial information of your report. Include visuals such as charts, diagrams, tables or graphs rather than text alone. Visuals show people what you want them to know and they are interactive, which keeps your readers’ attention. Tables, graphs and other visual substantiative documents are the “proof” of what you’re reporting. Always start with the most important data first.
Results. This section is optional and depends on your readers. Do you want to tell them how to interpret the results, or let the report speak for itself?****
Conclusions. Formal reports need an ending summarizing the results, whether they were expected or came as a surprise, and how they will affect future decisions.
Exceptions. Annual and quarterly reports are examples that may be more creative. Particularly, if the business is reaching out to the general public, such as a hospital's annual or quarterly report, the updates may be best told through compelling stories of lives saved or employees performing state-of-the-art techniques. Businesses might relate their progress this way, too, by interviewing employees undertaking cutting-edge research or inventing new, exciting products.
In the end, how you write your report is up to you. Just keep it short, keep your audience in your mind and include information that clearly conveys your message. No sweat. You'll have it on your boss's desk in no time.
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She has written on business topics for afkinsider.com, smallbusiness.chron.com, Harbor Style Magazine, the Charlotte Sun and more, as well as advertising copy and materials. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards in B2B and B2C marketing.