October 21, 2011
Substandard business reports don’t attract the reader’s eye, they neither inform nor entertain, and worst of all, they don’t get action. Don’t let the author of the next bad report in your company be you.
Have you ever been forced to review a business report that was so monotonous you had to jab yourself with a pin every two minutes to avoid fading into rapturous states of unconsciousness. Maybe you didn’t pierce yourself in time and your cranium hit the desktop, allowing a bit of drool to leak onto the report. Guilt immediately sets in because you know that the author worked hard on the thing and that the subject matter is important. Regrettable for that guy, because the other key readers of his report won’t be as sensitive as you– they’ll just line their coops with it. You silently have a good laugh and form a wicked grin at the notion– bird cage liner– funny stuff. The grin gets wiped off of your face in an instant when a second thought invades your brain– you have a report due next week to hand into the same crew. What will you do — WHAT WILL YOU DO?!
Well, have no fear. There is hope for you beyond this, and you don’t need to be the Ernest Hemingway of business report writing. All you need is a little design, a tinge of confidence, and some courage!
HEADINGS DOMINATE THE DAY
Many business reports get the pet shop treatment because they suffer from a lack of cosmetic appeal. Yes, your company report needs to look beautiful. It also needs to be accessible, just like it’s a web site, so it is simple to navigate. Wanna hear some unsettling news? Most viewers of your report, no matter how much labor you put into it or how impressive your data reduction is, will not go through it. Oh, they ‘ll browse it, take stock of it, and try to get something out of it, but it ain’t a best-seller and it won’t capture their attention. Make it easy for them to get something out of it. Use headlines that clearly define the parts of the report. You know what I mean, stuff like Suggestions, Budget, and Financial Interpretation. It sounds so basic, but many people skip this one. Appropriate headlines act like visual hyperlinks in the document, allowing the reader to quickly recognize sections and check only what she’s engaged in. Your headlines should be clear, without deceiving the viewer as to what is in the following section. They should be bolded and a larger font size so they really attract attention. Don’t presume to take a chance on the titles though, and use a header that’s a bit unusual, because it adds to the charm. Recommendations are better than Summary, but Actions for Future Growth blows away Recommendations. Get it?
PUT THE BOTTOM LINE FIRST
Here’s a crazy, contrarian notion for you. Most business reports are written in a silly order. They start with an Intro that gives record of the problem at hand, and then start covering their procedure, and so on. Challenge: people who read business reports already know, in most cases, that material. For them, this filler is just getting in the way of the real stuff. Try starting by putting the bottom line first. That’s why a good report should start with an Abstract or Executive Synopsis. Here’s what we did, here’s the results, and here’s what we suggest you do about it. After that 1/2 page to 1 page overview, try out your Recommended Steps section. Usually, this is what is truly essential to the viewer– what should we do about it? “Wait a minute, Karl, are you saying we cannot include the sacred Introduction?” No, there’s always someone who’ll want to read that as well, but I’m suggesting, putting it at the end. This leaves the heavy data stuff still in the middle, where it fits.
DEMONSTRATE SOME HUTZPAH!
Remember way back in the last paragraph when I said the head honchos want to read the Recommendations first. Re-read it! Many professionals will shy away from this section and remain on the fence because they don’t want to be judged. HORSE FEATHERS! Show some courage and tell people what your interpretation of the outcomes is. You can be mistaken and the world won’t reach an end. If you’re fairly intelligent and have functioned well for the company, this is what they want out of you anyway. Just be big enough to recognize that you could be wrong and if the company goes another direction, that’s OK too. Look, the report is for the world but there is no legislation that says you can’t gain from this golden opportunity to extend your ideas and suggestions, so take a stand and watch the value of your report, and you, go up.
SUPPORT IT, BABE
You know, if there is one item that won’t fly in a business report, it is the unsupported assertion. Even though most CEOs won’t read the whole thing and crawl through the analysis and facts stuff, you’d better have it in there for the boss who just lunched on a burrito and took your report into the throne room. Somebody will have the time on their hands, and if the rest of your report excels, hopefully the need to check out the fine details behind your views. Don’t get caught being an empty suit. That’s worse than not voicing an opinion, because now you’re a loose cannon with a lazy streak. The data should support your points and it should do so in multiple ways. If research doesn’t do it (some issues won’t have “data” per se) then back yourself up with like opinions from professionals within the company or in the field that is being examined in the report. At least that way, you’re in good company. Albert Einstein said you should always “back up your convictions with evidence.” I’m absolutely sure of it. See how effective that is?!
DON’T SPEAK IN THE 3RD PERSON
Another component of bad report creation that literary talking heads call the official style is speaking everything in the third person. Unless your name is the Rock or Bob Dole and it’s part of your schtick, forget the third person bunk and talk in the first person. Take the credit, take the blame, or assign it to the applicable party. “It” was not found– Joe Schmoe discovered whatever “it” was during his investigation. “I got the account by busting my buns” is much more effective than “There was a bun busting situation in which an account was awarded to the firm in question.” Don’t agonize about appearing arrogant. Like the man says, it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up, and you will.
So what have you discovered today? Notice that not a single time did I say something about gerunds, descriptive adjectives, action verbs or dangling participles. That’s another article. All I have said is to make it appealing, put the best stuff first, shake things up and take a stand, making sure you can support your points, and speak in the first person. Do these things and your business report to the canary enthusiasts won’t end up in the bottom of a cage and you’ll see that your level of career success is on the upsurge. Trust me. Arnold Schwarzenneger said that too, and he turned out OK.
Karl Walinskas is the CEO of Smart Company Growth, a business development and cost management consulting firm for small to mid-size enterprises, and Virtual Mastermind, an online network of Mastermind Groups for small business owners. He has made a career of leading, inspiring and raising the game of small business people. He is the author of numerous articles and the Smart Blog on leadership, business communication, sales & service, public speaking and virtual business and Getting Connected Through Exceptional Leadership, available in the Smart Shop, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.