Business report writing

How to brief your team to write the report you need

7 minute read

You’ve made it to the upper echelons of management. Congratulations.

The chances are you will no longer have to write as many reports for senior managers – you’ll assign them to your team to write instead. All you have to do is check them and send them on.

By all means, take a moment to enjoy your promotion. You deserve it. But while you do, let me talk to you about an aspect of the job that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. That is, the art of commissioning those reports from your team. There may be a little more to it than you imagine.


Commission impossible

In the early days of my career, I worked for a chief executive who had what you might politely call a very succinct style when it came to requesting a report from staff members.

You’d be sitting at your desk when the CEO would walk past, point at you and say, ‘I need a report on [subject] by Thursday.’ If you were lucky, you heard. If not, you relied on your colleagues to pass the commission on to you.

With such a vague request to go on, the report always took ages to write and was almost always met with a negative response. You felt awful as the writer of the report, and the CEO was disappointed. Nobody was happy.

Think about times in your career when you have been asked to write a report. Did you get a good brief? In my experience, it rarely was any more than ‘I need a note about [subject] by Friday afternoon.’ It didn’t make my job terribly easy.

My question for you is this: what is your team’s experience like when you request a report from them? Have you ever had a report back from them that wasn’t what you wanted? Is it possible that the reason is, at least partly, to do with how they were briefed?


First things first

I spend most of my working time running training courses for Emphasis. But I also write things for people. When someone asks me to write something for them – this article, for example – I make sure that I get some of their time before I start writing. Ideally, I get them in a meeting, and we talk some things through. Things like this:

  • What is the subject of the piece?
  • Who is going to read it?
  • How much do these readers know already?
  • What do you want them to do or understand when they’ve read it?

From this, we produce a brief. I am writing this article to a brief that Emphasis and I agreed. This means that I know what to write and that they’ll get what they expected and wanted.

The same concept applies for writing almost anything. It should definitely apply for any professional document that has a purpose to fulfil.


What does a good brief for a report look like?

Your writer needs a clear idea of what you want, who the report is for and what you want it to do. And please spend some time thinking about who it is for. I still have clients tell me that the audience is ‘all staff’ or ‘the general public’. You need to give it a little more thought than that.

Try structuring your brief like this:

Subject: What the report is about.
Audience: Be specific here. Something like, ‘the senior management team and, specifically, the director of finance’. Or ‘procurement managers who may be interested in our Gidgetty Widget product’.
Objective: What you want the reader to do or understand when they have read the report.
Attitude: The reader’s (or readers’) attitude to the subject. This is important with business writing. You may need to overcome scepticism or tap into (or develop) enthusiasm.
Interest: The level of interest the reader has in the subject. I have written reports and made presentations to people who had no previous interest whatsoever. It makes a difference to how you approach your subject.
Issues: The issues in your report that will most concern the reader. If the main reader is the director of finance, then you need to write about that person’s concerns. Concentrate on these. If the audience is procurement managers, why would they be interested in your product?
Detail: The amount of information your reader(s) will want. Be careful here. The director of finance may want loads of detail but does the rest of the management team? In such a case, suggest putting that detail in an appendix and keeping the main report short and to the point.
Sources: What existing sources of information to use. Also, any desk research you think may be useful.
Key message: The key point that you want the reader to take away from reading the report.
Length: This is a difficult one. People often tell me in training sessions that, if they have a word limit to write to, they generally regard it as a target rather than a limit. This can result in needless padding. On the other hand, if you don’t set a limit, you may also end up with something far longer than you have time to read. I suggest you go with something like, ‘no more than three pages’. The most important thing is that the report fulfils the rest of the brief.


Briefing yourself

If you are on the receiving end of a request that is as vague as the ones I used to get, then you can also use this template to create your own brief. Fill the template in as best you can, then send it back to the person who asked you for the report with a polite note asking if this is what they are looking for.

Doing this will prompt the person who asked you for the report to do some of the thinking that needs to come before the writing. They may well fill in gaps you couldn’t have, leaving you with a much stronger brief.


How to commission a good report

There is no doubt that if you want a good report from your team, you need to spend a little time thinking ahead. Write some notes based on the template above before you contact them.

And brief your team members face to face if you can. With Zoom and Microsoft Teams available to almost everyone, there really is no excuse not to talk it through. Your people may ask questions that will help make the report better. Follow up the meeting with a written brief. Again, you could use the template above. (In fact, you can download it at the end of this article.)


And if the report is still not what you need?

If you’re not happy with the report you get, take a moment before you give any feedback. Go back to the brief and see if the report fails to meet any part of it. Then, politely tell the writer that they haven’t met the brief and the report needs amending.

If you find typos or poor grammar and punctuation, please don’t red pen (or electronically mark up) the errors. Just feed back that it needs proofreading and leave it to the writer to fix.

If the content is right but you don’t like the style of the writing, tread carefully. Negative feedback on writing style can be very demoralising for your writer.

And, fair warning: if you become one of those bosses that rewrites their team’s work, they will stop trying to get it right. They’ll know that you will only rewrite it anyway. And that will only give you more work to do.

(Have a look at this article for more on giving constructive feedback on written communications.)


Culture and communications

I’ve talked elsewhere* about some of the roots of poor writing at work – roots that sometimes have little or nothing to do with an employee’s individual writing ability. A lot of the roots can be traced to company culture.

(*Namely, I talked about this in my business report how-to guide and this blog post on enabling great writing in your team.)

How you communicate a task in the first place will affect how it is carried out. The approach managers take to this sort of communication is often influenced by the culture in a company. But it will also, in turn, influence the culture.

The interplay between company culture and communication is complex and fascinating. Different parts fit together to make up the full picture. Taking responsibility for your piece of the puzzle will have a knock-on effect that influences your company’s culture as a whole. Plus, it should actually make your job a whole lot easier in the end.

If you and your team would like even more in-depth training on great report writing at work (and maybe even to work with David directly), check out our Effective report writing course for teams or for individuals.

Image credit: GoodStudio / Shutterstock



Business report writingWriting to the board

Better briefings mean better reports

Use this fillable PDF template to create briefs that enable your team to write the reports you need.

Get the report brief template
Three-page report brief template, partially filled in
David Cameron

Business-writing trainer

David wrote his first organisational policy more than 25 years ago and wishes he’d known then what he knows now about creating them. After over 25 years working in the communications departments of international charities and large organisations, he now trains and develops learning programmes for Emphasis.

He has written for and worked with organisations including Amnesty International, the National Trust and the NHS, creating and implementing style and tone-of-voice guides, and developing and delivering business-writing training.

These years of experience have given David an understanding of the key role an organisation's culture plays in developing its people – and their business-writing skills.

Was this article helpful?

This helps us make better content for you