Business report writing

Better consulting reports in 10 steps

8 minute read

The last few weeks have been a punishing combination of late-night problem solving and early-morning meetings. Finally, the consultation period is over and the moment of truth has arrived: the time has come to write your final report.

You’ve probably spent a lot of time with your client and may have built up a strong relationship – but this does not change the fact that leaving the right impression will depend ultimately on the quality of your report.

Just before we look at some key guidelines that’ll help you produce a document that will be a glowing testament to your firm’s experience and expertise, it’s worth pausing a moment. Let’s put your report in context.

Mountains of paperwork still stifle most companies: the average manager claims to receive eight reports or other long documents each day. This roughly equates to being asked to wade through War and Peace five times a year.

Your report is going to have to be good to compete with the others vying for your client’s attention. Yes, your client may have made a substantial investment in employing your services, which might push your report further up the queue. But then, of course, the flip side of this will be that their expectations will be so much higher.

Your firm might be expert in its area, but this expertise will be lost if you fail to communicate it effectively. And you will simply become one of the many thousands of people who regularly spend hours writing business documents that nobody will read.

But, of course, that doesn’t have to be you. You’re going to write a report that makes a lasting impression and demonstrates your firm’s proficiency and understanding. And how?

Preparation is everything. Focus on these ten critical points before you write anything and you will be well set up for success.


1. Know what the client wants

First things first. Your report should be client centred, rather than consultant centred. On realising that the report deadline is looming, so many of us fall into the ‘getting it done’ trap. Don’t. Instead, take a couple of deep breaths and spend a few minutes thinking about what your client actually wants.

Maybe this all sounds obvious. Indeed, it should be obvious. Yet too often, reports follow a standard template structure that poorly reflects an individual client’s brief. Why not ask the client exactly what they want to see in the report and even how long they would like the report to be?

Alternatively, ask yourself a few simple but telling questions. What information does the client expect? With what level of detail? How much knowledge do they already have? What will they use the report for? Who will read it?


2. Copy and paste with caution

Hopefully, it goes without saying that you should copy and paste only with extreme caution – but the fact bears underlining.

It is all too easy to forget to change the company name, paste in confidential information from another document or leave out a vital piece of client-specific information. Your brain tends to see only what it wants to see, and to ignore what it doesn’t. So be very careful.


3. Put key messages up front

And what about the key messages and recommendations that you want to get across? How can you make sure that these really stand out and are not lost among volumes of peripheral detail and background?

Many analysts use a basic structure in which they start with their findings, then outline their conclusions, and then give their main message – their recommendations – at the end.

But with that approach, the effect on the client is to keep them guessing or arguing with every point and perhaps ending with a conclusion that differs from your own. A far more effective structure is to start with your main message and then provide the information that supports it.


4. Avoid jargon and ‘businessese’

Then comes the next common trap: overdoing jargon, falling into business speak, or using unnecessarily flowery language. Many people believe this shows how much knowledge, intellect or even superior industry expertise they have. But does it really?

The truth is that your client has no interest in the sophistication of your vocabulary. What’s more, the public and private sectors are becoming increasingly cynical about consultants, believing that they produce over-long, over-written reports on purpose to justify their ‘exorbitant fees’.

Whatever you do, avoid providing any additional ammunition to that argument. The bottom line is that clients will not appreciate long words, complicated language, management speak and ‘businessese’ jargon, nor will they want to plough through lots of acronyms and abbreviations. They will find them irritating, confusing and time consuming to interpret.

Take the time to find a more effective way of writing whatever it is you want to say. If using complex technical terms is absolutely unavoidable, make sure you provide a glossary in the appendix. Industry jargon has its place, but only if you’re certain your audience will understand it.


5. Don’t write for robots

On the subject of language, remember that when companies and organisations appoint consultants, they hire people, not robots. Language like ‘it is recommended …’, ‘it is estimated …’, or ‘it has been proven …’ does not sound more professional. What it does is depersonalise your report and makes it less accessible.

Your client wants to know that their advisers are real human beings, so be bold and put people at the heart of your writing: ‘we recommend …’, ‘we estimate …’ or ‘we have proven …’.

It is far more interesting and meaningful to read about organisations and individuals taking action than to read about all sorts of actions and events mysteriously occurring. Think ‘Tarvex’s customers are crying out for the new product range’ rather than ‘The new product range has experienced considerable demand’. Or ‘The CEO has transformed the company’s performance in the exports market’ instead of ‘The company’s performance in the exports market has been transformed’.

Make your language as lively as you can. If you’re trying to ‘sell’ a particular recommendation, paint a vivid picture of the excellent results it will bring – or of the horrendous pitfalls that will await as a result of not implementing it. And naturally you also need to examine all the pros and cons, including the cost implications, of following – or not following – your recommendations.


6. Make your words count

Generalisations or exaggerations are another characteristic of poor writing. Take ‘record levels of profit’, for example. Are they truly record levels – the highest ever – or do you really mean the highest in recent years? If so, how recent? If you mean for five years, say so.

And what about ‘a large percentage’? (Is this 51% or 99%? There’s a big difference, after all.) Beware of words and expressions such as ‘record’, ‘significant’, ‘considerable’ and ‘wide section of the community’ unless you can actually quantify them.


7. Punctuate with care

We notice words and language and how people use them: pulling people up for poor punctuation, dodgy spelling or dubious grammar is almost a national pastime.

And the likelihood is that your client will have a similar awareness of language – and irritation with its misuse. So never delude yourself that it is only what you say that counts and not whether you know how to punctuate correctly. It is amazing the bad feeling and ill will that a misplaced comma or a misjudged apostrophe can cause.

(For more advice on improving your business writing – including practical punctuation guidance – why not download our free guide, The Write Stuff?)


8. Structure strategically

Another common error is to try to plan and structure the report simultaneously. It is, in fact, much easier to do these two things separately.

Start by brainstorming all the information that needs to go into the report. When you’re sure you have covered everything, it’s time to tackle the issue of what goes where and in what format.

The structuring process requires an element of detachment – even bloody-mindedness. Only information that is essential to your client should go in the main body of the text; any information that is ‘important’ or ‘of interest’ should be relegated to appendices, footnotes or a separate chapter. Additional detail, figures, references or diagrams are all examples of ‘important’ information. Put yourself in your client’s shoes. How would you react to a report if you felt your valuable time was being wasted on non-essential detail?

Yes, your client may be interested in the background to the project and in how you carried out the research and the consultation process. But what they’re actually paying you for is to identify the cause or causes of a problem or challenge and to tell them how to solve it. If you make them wait until the end of the report to tell them your recommendations, the chances are that their patience will wear very thin indeed.

This brings us to another tip on helping your client to navigate your report. As you start to structure your report, plan how best to divide it into logical sections and give some thought to your subheadings. Subheadings should be clear and meaningful, rather than generic. They need to act as signposts, guiding your client through the report and showing them where to find specific topics.


9. Optimise your executive summary

Pay particular attention to your executive summary. As we all know, this may be the only part the real decision-makers read, so make sure it can stand alone and that it contains real information, including hard facts and figures.

If your report includes recommendations, the executive summary should make it clear what these are and include their implications, values and costs.

What about length? As a general rule, it’s best to stick to a maximum of two pages, using headings and bullets (but not too many), and perhaps a carefully selected graph or pie chart to get your main message across.


10. And always remember

A well-written report will influence your client’s thinking and decisions and galvanise them into action. It will also act as a first-rate marketing tool for your firm.

But a poorly written one will exasperate your client and jeopardise your reputation and the chances of them implementing your recommendations. It might even lose you business.

In your client’s view, you’re only as good as your last report. So which impression do you want to leave them with – incisive must-read or supposed-to-read-because-they-paid-for-it?

Next, check out our webinar How to turn your expert analysis into exceptional reports – the perfect complement to this article. In a densely packed 30 minutes (take notes!), our trainer Gary Woodward advises you on how to:

  • write efficiently
  • engage readers and encourage them to act
  • present information with maximum visual impact.


Image credit: Dragon Images / Shutterstock


Business report writing

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Rob Ashton is the founder of Emphasis and posts mainly about writing and the brain – a topic he's been researching for seven years. You can read more of his work in Writing Matters – our weekly bulletin of career-building writing advice backed by science.

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