Business report writing

What your boss doesn’t want from your report

8 minute read

Have you ever been forced to look through someone’s holiday photos? If so, chances are it’s not too long before you start to glaze over (discreetly, of course).

Sadly, readers of business reports the world over experience a similar feeling. ‘Why am I even reading this?’ they ask themselves. And the more senior they are, the quicker this feeling is likely to hit them.

Employees not thinking properly about their document’s reader when they write is one of the biggest frustrations we hear about during our conversations with clients.

It’s also one of the recurrent themes from my 15 years of running report-writing courses. And because we work with clients in all sectors and in nearly every country, we know it’s a universal pet hate. But it’s not the only one.

In fact, we’ve put together a list of the most frequent complaints, grouped into three categories, from managers and bosses across the world. More importantly, we’ll outline what you – the report writer – can do to avoid the most common pitfalls.


1. Report writers not thinking about what the boss needs to know

This complaint is probably the most common, and it comes in various guises. Let’s look at some of the ways it shows up as frustrations:

  • ‘The purpose of the report isn’t clear.’
  • ‘I’m not sure what the report is asking of me.’
  • ‘I can’t pick out the key points easily.’
  • ‘The focus is too operational/technical/narrow.’
  • ‘The report describes problems without workable solutions.’

When helping people on our courses to write better board reports, I ask them to do the following exercise:

Imagine your boss or the board members reading your report. How are they reading it? Is it a print-out on their desk? Are they reading it on their smartphone? What frame of mind are they in? Are they reading it for pleasure?

Just this brief exercise can give course delegates some important insights. They often realise, for example, that their boss (or the board member) hasn’t got the mental bandwidth to go on a treasure hunt for key ideas. Nor do they delight in wading through unnecessary background detail.


Answer the right questions

To produce a report that puts a smile on your boss’s face, imagine them asking the following three questions.

  • Why am I reading this?
  • What are the key points?
  • What do you want me to do, if anything?

Then make sure your report answers them. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Why am I reading this?
To answer this one, give a brief introduction and context. Just enough so that your boss understands the purpose and importance of the report.

What are the key points?
Most readers are keen to get to the headlines early. Depending on the type of report you’re writing, your key points could be findings, recommendations, solutions, options, risks. They’re whatever you consider to be the news or ‘story’ of the report.

(If risk is generally the focus of your reports, have a look at my article about getting risk reports right.)

One important point that many writers miss: your key points are not necessarily just facts or data. Rather, they are facts plus insights and/or implications for the business. So it’s important to tie in your key ideas to things that your audience(s) care about. This will ensure your report will be sufficiently strategic.

What do you want me to do, if anything?
Do you need a decision from the reader? Approval for anything? Or is the report for information only? Whatever the case, be crystal clear about it. If your report is for information only, try to ensure you haven’t simply listed problems without offering a way forward.

You can use the answers to the above three questions to structure short reports or the executive summary of a longer report.

One more point: often you may have a mixed audience. Some readers just want the key ideas; others want the detail. If that’s the case, summarise your key ideas early and then give some relevant detail to support each idea.


2. Reports being too complicated or hard to follow

This common complaint comes a close second. It usually shows up in the following ways:

  • ‘I can’t understand the jargon and technical language.’
  • ‘The structure is all over the place. I can’t follow the logic.’
  • ‘The report is far too long. I just don’t have the time to wade through it.’
  • ‘The graphics in the report are hard to interpret. I’m not sure what they’re saying.’


Turbocharge your language

The above problems often disappear if you properly think about the reader’s needs. But sometimes we might miss some key needs when we try that exercise. For instance, you can address the reader’s concerns, but still use heavy language.

I remember a chief executive of a big financial group saying to me once, ‘For one board meeting, the pack of papers is about 1,000 pages long. And we have about a week to get through that, on top of our day job. So anything you can do to help the writers make their reports easier to get through would be very welcome.’

But it’s easy to assume that the big bosses want fancy language. ‘That’ll impress ‘em,’ you think. In fact, all it does is slow them down and bury your messages – an overall frustrating reader experience.

Of course, you may need technical words and phrases relevant to your industry. There’s nothing wrong with that. But aim to make most of your language natural – a bit closer to how you would speak in a professional context.

You probably wouldn’t ask a colleague, ‘What time shall we initiate the meeting?’ ‘Start’ or ‘begin’ will do fine in your written reports too. And cut out any excess baggage – the redundant words and phrases that slow your reader down even more.


Write your summary first, not last

Using natural, efficient language will go some way to making your reports shorter, without losing any content or accuracy.

But by far the biggest time saver and length reducer is to become really clear on your key messages before you start writing. If you don’t, you risk using the writing process to work out your thinking. That’s what causes a meandering structure, repetition, key ideas in the wrong place and documents that are too long.

The next time you have to write a report, try the following sequence:

  • Think about the reader’s needs (see the first part of this article).
  • Work out what you’re trying to achieve.
  • Come up with three to four key messages – the headlines – for your longer report.
  • Draft a summary based on the key messages, and put this at the start of your document.
  • Use the body of the report to add supporting detail for each key message.

Most people write their executive summary last. This can work, but you often end up summarising a document that is already inefficient. Following the sequence above usually makes a report much more concise and well structured.


Graphics: making the complex clear

A good picture may be worth a thousand words, but a bad one can be worth nothing.

Indeed, the concept behind the saying ‘Clear writing follows clear thinking’ also applies to graphics. A good graphic makes the complex clear, not the clear complex. So aim for simplicity. Here are a few more tips:

  • Ask yourself: what message, if any, do you want the reader to take from the graphic?
  • Make sure that message comes out strongly. (Focus on one message per graphic and remove any unnecessary gridlines and data labels. Add a caption to the graphic to answer the ‘So what?’ question.)
  • Use bar charts and line graphs for trends, pie charts for proportions, and tables if you need to present detailed numbers.
  • Ensure your graphic tells a story by itself, independent from the main text.


(My colleague Jack Elliott talks about avoiding complexity to make graphics meaningful in his article How to write for a non-technical audience.)


3. Report content that's too vague or unrealistic

This is last in our trio of top complaints from senior managers.

  • ‘The recommendation has no specifics on next steps.’
  • ‘It’s not clear from the report what is fact and what is opinion.’
  • ‘The options presented don’t include any risk analysis.’
  • ‘The report doesn’t include enough context to help me understand where we are at the moment and where we need to go.’


Use words to paint a picture

The main way to avoid vagueness is by using words that create an easy mental picture for the reader. Compare ‘We will collaborate with you regularly,’ with ‘We will meet with you twice a month.’ Or ‘The UK needs better infrastructure,’ with ‘The UK needs better roads and railways.’

This principle is especially important when you’re describing problems, risks, opportunities and next steps. Rather than writing, ‘This poses a material risk,’ try to quantify the risk somehow or give some specifics to support your claim. This also applies to sentences such as, ‘This could have a significant cost implication.’ What do you mean, significant?

When you’re outlining next steps, include who’s responsible, what’s the timeframe and how much it will cost. Doing so will give your boss confidence that you’ve thought through the issue properly and that your plans are realistic.


Give context to your messages (but not too much)

Sometimes reports seem to start in the middle of an issue, and the reader has no idea what’s going on. It can be disorientating. Your boss needs just enough context to understand why the issue is important, and why it’s important now. But they don’t usually want pages of background.

And most good reports include practical, specific solutions or a way forward, and not just a list of problems.


Write the report your boss wants to read

So, there we are. Now you know the report-writing mistakes senior leaders are complaining about the most, you’re in the best possible position to avoid them. If you side-step these pitfalls, your ideas will jump off the page. Your report may even leave your boss with only good things to say.

For even more details on how to write a brilliant report, check out this article by another of my colleagues, David Cameron: So you have to write a business report: an essential how-to.

If you’d like more of our help in training you (or your team) in how to write reports the bosses will love, we run report-writing courses for in-house teams and for individuals.


Image credit: Elnur / Shutterstock


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Gary began his career writing articles for the business press and the career development field. Since then, he has written for the national press and is the author of several books.

These days he's one of Emphasis' busiest trainers, working across many sectors, including finance, law, retail, consultancy and the public sector. He also coaches executives at the London Business School. (But he still finds time occasionally to share his expertise here.)

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