Business report writing

So you have to write a business report: an essential how-to

16 minute read

I came late to the corporate workplace. I didn’t get what my mum called a ‘proper job’ until I was in my thirties.

I remember the first time I was asked to write a report. I needed to get the senior team to approve funding for a new stream of work. I asked my manager what this report should contain. ‘Oh, you know, it’s just a report,’ she said.

I went to the people that supported the senior team and asked for help. They gave me a report one of my colleagues had written. ‘Like that,’ they advised.


Here’s the problem

The report was long and written in a complex and verbose style of English I did not recognise or understand. I copied its style and sent my report off. I didn’t get what I wanted.

I’m guessing that this is how you started to write reports at work too. It’s a common problem. And it’s something that comes up a lot when we run report-writing training.

We get taught how to write at school. We might get taught to write at university. But we rarely get any help with writing at work – and it’s a different skill. This leaves a lot of people anxious and unsure when they’re asked to write a report. And it is why so many of the reports we all see are poorly written.

So, what can we do about it?

I’m going to share with you everything I know about writing reports at work, as someone who used to write them and read them – and now trains people to write them well.


Why do we write reports at work?

It’s a good question. I’ve been working recently with some clients that are now actively asking themselves if they really need all the reports they produce. But, for now, let’s agree that we write reports at work for decision-making groups. They use the reports to make decisions on behalf of your company or organisation.

These reports have many names: recommendation report, investigation report, compliance report, feasibility report, project report, research report, quarterly report, board report and strategy report, among many others. But whatever we call them, we write these reports for two main reasons: to persuade and to inform.

My advice is not to get too wrapped up in what kind of report you are writing. Just think about your readers and what you want them to do (in this case, you need to persuade) or to understand (here, you need to inform).


Getting started: prepare and plan

Don’t be tempted to just get your laptop out and start writing. Time spent planning will save you time and trouble later.

First: do you have all of the information that you need? If you need to research, get all of it done before you start planning what you are going to write.

Secondly: consider your report’s audience. Who is going to read it? Who among your readers do you most need to inform or influence? What do they want from your report? And what do you want them to do when they have read it?

Think about how much time they will have to read it. And force yourself to think about exactly how interested they are in your report, however discouraging that may be. It will help you to focus on just the information they’ll need to do what you want them to.


Bringing the information together

Now consider how all of the information you have fits together. If you’ve collected information from a variety of sources, don’t just combine it into one document that you then edit. That will take ages and the end result is unlikely to be great.

You could try using a mind map to look at your information, place it under headings and show how everything fits together before you write anything. That process looks like this:

1. Note down the topic of your report in the middle of your page (or use an online app – there’s plenty of them out there).

2. Write the principal aspects of the subject around it. A report about a project might include aspects like why, who, options, timescale, costs and implementation.

3. Look at each aspect and think about what its folder should include. Draw a line for each new idea or piece of information.

4. Keep asking questions like Why?, How?, What?, When?, Where? and Who? until you’re satisfied you’ve put down everything you know about your subject.

Next, you’ll need to sort through it before you’re ready to start writing. You’ve already identified the readers of your report. Now you can classify each item in your mind map according to their needs. Mark each point as A, B or C:

A = essential to everybody who’s reading the report
B = essential to some readers
C = not important to any of them.

5. Pick one of the As as your starting point – it makes sense to start with the most important one. Label it number 1, then number the remaining As in a logical order. That gives you the content, and a starting structure, for your main report.

6. Do the same for the Bs. This information can go into box-outs or an appendix.

7. Cross out the Cs. You don’t need them. (They might be handy for the project plan, though.)

You can watch us demonstrate mind mapping in this short video.


Preparing pays off

I’ve been told many times by colleagues and course delegates that they simply don’t have the time to think about readers and do a mind map before writing.

Here’s the thing. You don’t have time not to do these things. A few minutes spent doing this before you write anything will save you time drafting, editing and restructuring your report. Promise. It will be easier too.


But I’ve got loads of little bits of information

You might have a lot of small pieces of information, and you’re not sure how they fit together or what message they are telling you.

In this case, you might want to consider using some of the techniques of the Pyramid Principle. The Pyramid Principle was developed by Barbara Minto in the 1980s, and it’s a great way to derive meaning from little bits of information. Here’s how it works.

Pyramid Principle structure for argument. Full description below under summary field 'Open description of image'
Open description of image

Pyramid-shaped diagram illustrating the structure of a report.

At the top is a box containing the words:

Question + Answer = Resolution

Below this, lines branch off down to three boxes each saying ‘Main argument’.

Three lines branch off below each of these ‘Main argument’ boxes to nine smaller boxes each saying ‘Info’.

More lines branch off below each of those ‘Info’ boxes to 27 even smaller boxes each saying ‘Detail’.

Caption: The Pyramid Principle: start with your main message


You can build up a structure like the one in the diagram by starting with your small pieces of information, ideas or data and grouping them together to give you some insight. For example, your pieces of information might be:

  • My laptop takes too long to connect to the internet.
  • It can’t run the apps I need for work.
  • The battery runs out after 45 minutes.

Individually, these three pieces of information do not give you an insight. But if you put them together, they tell you that you need a new laptop.

You can think of your whole final report as a pyramid of information. Your main message is at the top of the pyramid. Below it are all the individual ‘boxes’ of information that support that message.

But when it comes to creating your report, you’ll start from the bottom up: you’ll start with your individual pieces of information. And an excellent method for doing this is storyboarding.


Plan your story

Storyboarding is a technique that involves arranging your data or ideas into logical groups of information. The best thing about it is it allows you to easily try out different groupings during the planning stage. So by the time you get to the writing, creating a logical structure is much easier.

The process involves writing your bits of information and ideas on separate pieces of paper or Post-Its and arranging them on a table or wall until you have a structure that works.

There isn’t one perfect, magic way to group information – there are many possible ways. Storyboarding allows you to move the elements of your report around while still keeping an eye on the big picture.

To work out the best groupings, keep coming back to the purpose of your report and your readers. What questions might they have? What do you need them to know and to ultimately do? Then group ideas of the same kind together.

You’ll find more detail on how to use storyboarding to plan and structure your report in this article.


How to structure your report

If you got to this article via an online search, beware. I am about to contradict much of the advice that you may have already read about structuring reports.

Think, again, about your readers. Especially think about how much time and energy they have to give to your report. Now be a little more realistic. The answer is, they don’t have much time at all. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to take the decision you want them to take.


The usual structure

Let’s say, for example, you’re writing a report for the board. Does your busy board member want to read a report structured like this: introduction, background, methodology, findings, conclusions, recommendations? There are many people across the internet advising that you use that very structure. For the sake of your readers (and yourself), please don’t.

Board members want to know why they are reading your report. Ultimately, all readers want this. Why should this report be important to them? What do you want them to do? Give them that information right at the beginning of your report. It’s possible, if they agree with what you are asking for, they will take the decision you want without having to read further.

Note: unless your report is only one or two pages long, you’ll need a summary at the beginning. More about this later. But for the main body of your report, I recommend that you put the main point of the report first.

Try a structure that looks like this:

  • Introduction – a very short introduction that establishes the context, gets the reader interested and (ideally) nodding along with what you’re saying
  • Recommendations – what it is you want your readers to do or understand
  • Background – the issue(s) you are addressing
  • Methodology – how you went about addressing the issue(s)
  • Findings – what you discovered
  • Conclusion – what you learned.

This structure allows your reader to read as far as they want or need to. It gives them the main information right at the beginning and follows it with the detail.

It may feel counterintuitive to structure your report like this, but your readers will be happy. Better still, you’re more likely to get the result you want.

If you have to write regular update reports, you might want to start with what has changed since last month (or whenever). Otherwise there is a chance that readers will ignore it if it looks like the same report month after month.


Use an executive summary (if you need to)

Again, for a report that is at least three pages long, it’s a good idea to include an executive summary (of no more than a page) at the beginning.

Although your executive summary will be the first thing a reader gets to, you might choose to write it last. That can work – as can starting with the summary. But either approach will require careful planning around the key messages and structure first for both documents to be effective.

I’ve covered how to write an executive summary for a board paper before. Have a read. The advice for the executive summary of any other kind of report is much the same.


Start and end strong

I frequently tell people on our courses that getting our stuff read at work can be a bit of a battle. I’ve shown you some things you can do to improve your report’s structure. But how do we get people to even start to read it?

This is where a strong introduction comes in. Introductions set the context of your report. But they can also help to capture interest and set the tone for what comes next. And a strong conclusion could be the last thing your reader remembers about your report.

We remember firsts and lasts much more than we remember ‘in betweens’. Most people can remember their last day of school or their first day at a new job better than they remember many of the other days in either place.

Think about how you read the documents that you receive at work. How long do you give a report to grab your attention before you start to skim? Or stop reading altogether? Thirty seconds? Less? That makes introductions more critical to a document’s success than you might think.


How to write your report’s introduction

My advice on introductions is to start with a short, punchy sentence that tells the reader what is coming. Follow it with scene-setting information that grabs the reader’s attention. Keep your opening paragraph down to three sentences.

Two golden rules: never begin with ‘The purpose of this report is to …’ – your readers have read that hundreds of times before. And never start with a sentence that begins with a secondary clause. That gives them an early excuse to start to skim.

Here is an example of a sentence starting with a secondary clause – meaning the part of the sentence that can’t stand alone:

Owing to a dramatic increase in managers’ time spent reviewing and editing their teams’ documents before they are good enough to submit, we are proposing looking into writing training.

The main or primary clause there is ‘we are proposing looking into writing training’. That is a complete thought by itself. The first part is not.

(You can learn more about how to structure sentences for easy reading in this demo lesson from our e-learning programme The complete business writer.)

In our training, we teach four specific techniques each for writing beginnings and endings. One of the most effective types of introduction is the ‘historical’ beginning. This contrasts what used to happen last year/decade/whenever with what’s happening now, and creates a sense of movement in the reader’s mind. Here’s an example:

Ten years ago, the marketing budget was £3 million a year. Now that figure has almost tripled.

Now you have your reader’s attention, they’ll almost certainly want to know why the budget has increased so much. Start telling them, and they’re hooked.

Your conclusion is your opportunity to include a strong finish. You can find all four conclusion types explained in this article.


Signpost with subheadings

Like introductions and conclusions, subheadings can be an afterthought – if they’re included at all. But this ignores how most people will actually read your report.

I know I keep referring to readers, but there’s a good chance most people receiving your report will skim rather than read it closely. Using subheadings will help skim-readers to find what they need, like signposts pointing the way to the information they’re looking for.

This is also why subheadings should be meaningful and content-rich rather than generic. Earlier, I outlined a good structure, including introduction, recommendations, background and so on. But there I was describing the content in each section – I didn’t mean you should make those the headings.

Think in terms of writing subheadings that would tell the bare bones of the story of your report even if they were the only things that were read.

For example, instead of using the plain subheading ‘Recommendations’, you could add ‘Investing in technology will pay off in saved time’.

We cover how to write content-rich subheadings in this video (and transcript).


Making it reader-friendly

We talk about this all the time in our articles and training – and with good reason. So many reports are written like that first one I modelled my work on. They use overly complex language, long and winding sentences, and passive constructions. Many don’t explain their jargon.

Basically, they do everything that is likely to make the reader switch off and miss the main messages.

So our usual advice applies: keep language and sentences short and simple as much as possible. Lean on the active voice rather than the passive – that means saying ‘We recommend this option’, not ‘This option is recommended [by us]’. Explain jargon at its first use if it’s helpful to include or avoid it altogether. And if your report is long, explain jargon and abbreviations at first use in each section. Remember, people skim-read.

You’ll find a concise summary of reader-friendly writing in this article.


Get the formatting right

A reader-friendly report is kind on the eye too.

Best practice design rules here are simple but important. Your report should look approachable. No one wants to read any document with 0.5cm margins and a wall of tiny text.


  • break up the text with paragraphs (and those subheadings) and use wide margins to create white space
  • choose easy-to-read fonts
  • draw attention to important elements by using box-outs
  • where appropriate, include meaningful graphics and label them.

Bullet lists can be helpful too, but whatever you do, do not write a report that consists entirely of bullet points. Use them sparingly. The occasional nest of three bullets is a great way to get your reader to stop and read. Five or more and they’re skipping to the next paragraph. You need to connect the dots between ideas and lead your readers’ thinking, which is impossible in one long list. Don’t make them work to see your point. They may end up doing neither.

Take a look at this article for a bit more detail on effective formatting.


The final checks

Always give your report a proper once-over before you submit it. When you’ve been working on something for a while, it’s easy to become blind to mistakes and typos – even with all the technology apparently on your side.

If you can enlist a friendly colleague to proofread it, do. They’ll see things you may miss. (Remember to return the favour some time.) Otherwise, allow time between finishing it and checking it yourself, ideally a day or more.

Proofread the whole thing, double-check any references and data. And it’s oddly easy to skip checking the headings – so don’t. Often, paradoxically, the biggest mistakes can hide in the biggest text on the page. I still shudder when I think about the staff magazine I sent out once with ‘Feburary‘ emblazoned in 24-point bold text on the front cover.

We’ve got a full guide on proofreading here.


Don’t forget

Writing reports at work is something that few people relish. Being asked to write a report for senior staff can cause great anxiety. I know, I see it in training rooms every week. Here are a couple of things I have learned for you to bear in mind that might help.

Senior staff are people too. But they’re exceptionally busy people with a lot of responsibility. When they pick up your report they want to know why they are reading it and what you want them to do. Tell them that. Clearly and plainly. Make it easy for them to read your report, understand what is being asked of them and act accordingly. Give them no more information than they need to do that.

And one last thing to always remember: nobody wants you to fail. If you are really unsure, ask for guidance. Ask the people you are writing for what they want. You never know, they might even tell you. And that will make your life much easier.

Good luck.


If you or 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: Master1305 / Shutterstock


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The Write Stuff
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.

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