How to structure a business report

Many writers start with their findings, then outline their conclusions, and give their main message – their recommendations – at the end. The effect on the reader is to keep them guessing or arguing with every point and perhaps even ending up with a conclusion that differs from the writer’s.

A far more effective structure is to start with your main message and then provide the information that supports it.

Think of your document as a pyramid. At its peak is your main message. Underneath this are your main supporting arguments and information. And underneath these there’s another level of supporting information.

This concept was developed by Barbara Minto, who called it The Pyramid Principle.

Start from the bottom

When you visualise the pyramid structure, you read from the main message at the top to the supporting points lower down – just as you read any document, from top to bottom. But to create the structure, you need to start from the bottom – from the facts.

Remember: in building up the pyramid structure, you need to make sure that each point summarises the ones below and supports the one above.

The storyboard technique

Storyboarding is a useful and flexible technique for arranging your data or ideas into logical groupings – perfect for building your pyramid. To do it, write your ideas on separate sheets and arrange them – ideally on a wall – until you have a structure that works well. Post-it  notes are great for this. The power of storyboarding is that it allows you to move material around while retaining a view of the overall structure.

There are many ways in which you can group information. To work out the best groupings, consider the questions your readers might raise and the purpose of your document. Group ideas of the same kind together. For maximum impact, try to use each idea only once. Ask yourself: is each idea in the right place? Is anything missing?

Presenting your main message

Before you give your reader your point of view, you need to make sure they’re paying attention – that they’re ready to hear what you have to say. So set the scene and explain why what you’re writing about is important.

Here is a technique for doing this:

Situation

Give minimal background information to put your document in context. Make sure it’s ‘safe’, ie information that your reader will not dispute. This is the starting set of circumstances and must comprise facts that everyone agrees on. Keep it short – usually a line or two is enough.

Complication

The trigger for the document: what has brought about the need for you to write it? This section describes what has changed or could change from the starting circumstances above. It tells your readers why they should be interested.

Question

The question you ask is critical because it informs the whole of the rest of the document. Are you, for example, asking ‘Why should we do this?’, ‘What should we do?‘ or ‘How should we do this?’ Your answer will be different in each case and will determine the content of the document. Note that the question may not make it into the final document.

Remember to keep the situation, complication and question brief. They should simply provide the context for your main message – the answer to the question – and help your reader absorb it.

Now, answer your question, clearly and persuasively.

Making the information flow

The next step is to think carefully about the ‘signposts’ you’re going to use throughout the main body of the document – such as the section headings and subheads. These can give your reader an immediate overview of your arguments and help keep them reading. The reader should be able to flick through the document and know exactly what it’s about just by reading the subheads. So make sure the subheads are meaningful and actually say something about the content.

Paragraph structure

Well-structured paragraphs will also help to keep your reader reading. The first sentence should signpost the paragraph’s main point. Each of the following sentences should then build on the one that has gone before.

Make sure you don’t try to shoehorn too much information into one paragraph. Try to sum up each paragraph’s content in a few words: if you find this hard, you’re probably trying to cram too much in. Working out the rationale behind each paragraph like this will also help to ensure that you move logically from one point to the next.

Linking words and phrases

There are a number of linking words and phrases that you can put at the start of a paragraph to link it with the one before. Some of them are listed below. Beware of falling into the trap of using the same linking words over and over again. It’s very easy to do this, for example, with ‘however’.

Use a variety of the following: however, therefore, nevertheless, yet, because, firstly, secondly, on the other hand, similarly, clearly, in conclusion, then, consequently, despite, although, since, in addition, in contrast, an example of, as a result.

Conclusions

Don’t waste your conclusion. Use it to keep your reader thinking about what you’ve written, and to reinforce the recommendation you made in the introduction. We’ll be looking at how to write effective conclusions in next month’s e-bulletin.

This is just one of the techniques you can learn on our Effective report writing course, which is available both in-company and as a public course.

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