This webtext will help you think through your audience as you complete your report, which will include

Many business professionals need to write a formal report at some point during their career, and some professionals write them on a regular basis. Key decision makers in business, education, and government use formal reports to make important decisions. As opposed to informational reports that offer facts and information without analysis, formal reports provide the end product of a thorough investigation with analysis. Although writing a formal report can seem like a daunting task, the final product enables you to contribute directly to your company’s success.

There are several different organizational patterns that may be used for formal reports, but all formal reports contain front matter (prefatory) material, a body, and back matter (supplementary) items. The body of a formal report discusses the findings that lead to the recommendations. The prefatory material is therefore critical to providing the audience with an overview and roadmap of the report. The following section will explain how to write a formal report with an audience in mind.

Analyzing your audience

As with any type of writing, when writing formal business reports, it is necessary to know your audience.  For example, if your audience is familiar with the background information related to your project, you don’t want to bombard them with details; instead, you will want to inform your audience about the aspects of your topic that they’re unfamiliar with or have limited knowledge of. In contrast, if your audience does not already know anything about your project, you will want to give them all of the necessary information for them to understand. Age and educational level are also important to consider when you write.  You don’t want to use technical jargon when writing to an audience of non-specialists.  These are just a couple of examples of different audience needs you will want to consider as you write your report.  There are several aspects of your audience that you want to take into account:  their gender and race/ethnicity, age/educational level, subject knowledge, and expectations--what they expect to learn from your report.

Gender and Race/Ethnicity

You don’t want to make assumptions about the gender, race, or beliefs of your audience.  Use gender neutral language such as “he or she” rather than simply “he” or use “they” and pluralize the nouns (e.g. Writers need to think about audience).  Don’t say anything that implies your reader has a certain gender, race, cultural identity, or belief system.  One important way to avoid doing this is to avoid using the word “you.” Writers always need to think about the implied meanings of their words.

Educational Level and Subject Knowledge

While age may not necessarily be an issue in the business world—your audience will almost all be adults—educational level and knowledge of your subject are important to consider when writing your report.  If you are writing for someone outside of your specific field, you will either need to exclude technical jargon or provide in-text reminders or indications of what specific terms mean or items are.  For example, if you work for an automotive company, and you are writing on behalf of mechanical engineers but for an audience of business professionals, you don’t want to assume that your audience knows the names of all of the parts that make up an engine; you will have to use terms they will recognize. In some cases, a glossary of terms may be appropriate.

Expectations and Research

What does your audience expect to get out of reading your report?  What is its purpose?  Make sure that you have specifically responded to the expectations of your boss, manager, or client.  If your audience expects you to have research, make sure you know what type of research they expect. Do they want research from scholarly journal articles? Do they want you to conduct your own research?  No matter what type of research you do, make sure that it is properly documented using whatever format the audience prefers (MLA, APA, and Chicago Manual of Style are some of the most commonly-used formats).  You also want to establish a strong ethos in your report.  Use confident language that shows that you have done your research and present them with the research.

For further information about what types of research you may want to include, see this article about research methods and methodologies.

Here are some questions to consider about your audience as you write:

  • What does your audience expect to learn from your report?
  • What type of ethos should you establish?
  • How much research does your audience expect you to have?
  • How current does your research need to be?
  • What types of sources does your audience expect you to have?
  • What is the age of your audience?
  • What is the educational level of your audience?
  • How much background information does your audience need?
  • What technical terms will your audience need defined?  What terms will they already be familiar with?
  • What is the cultural background of your audience?

Passive and Active Voice

A final note on audience: contrary to what is expected in other types of writing, in business reports, passive voice is sometimes preferred. If the action is more important than the person doing it, use passive rather than active voice.

A few phrases you might use include:

  • The data analyzed in this report shows . . .
  • This study was designed to analyze . . .
  • The data was collected . . .
  • The 500 students were surveyed

You may wish to review the other parts of this webtext including:

Introduction

The body of a formal report begins with an introduction. The introduction sets the stage for the report, clarifies what need(s) motivated it, and orients the reader to its structure.

Most report introductions address the following elements: background information, problem or purpose, significance, scope, methods, organization, and sources. As you may have noticed, some parts of a formal report fulfill similar purposes. Information from the letter of transmittal and the executive summary may be repeated in the introduction. Reword the information in order to avoid sounding repetitive.

Sample Body_PageTo begin this section, type “BACKGROUND” or “INTRODUCTION” in all uppercase letters. This functional head should be followed by the information specified above (i.e., background information, problem or purpose, etc.). You do not need to utilize any first-level headings in this section.

Because this section includes background information, it would be the appropriate place to address the needs of audiences that may need additional knowledge about the topic.  Provide definitions of technical terms and instruction about the overall project if necessary. If you are uncertain if your audience needs a particular piece of information, go ahead and include it; it's better to give your reader a little bit too much background than not enough.

Discussion of Findings

The Discussion of Findings section presents the evidence for your conclusions.

This key section should be carefully organized to enhance readability.

To begin, type “DISCUSSION OF FINDINGS” in all uppercase letters. Center this and all other functional heads. Follow “DISCUSSION OF FINDINGS” with a brief paragraph that previews the organization of the report.

Useful organizational patterns for report findings include but are not limited to:

  • Best Case/Worst Case
  • Compare/Contrast
  • Chronology
  • Geography
  • Importance
  • Journalism Pattern

 

Use a Best Case/Worst Case organizational pattern when you think that the audience may lack interest in the topic. When examining a topic with clear alternatives to your proposed solution, consider using a Compare/Contrast pattern. Geographical patterns work effectively for topics that are discussed by location.

When describing the organization of the report in the first paragraph, broadly identify how the material in the report is organized rather than state that the report uses a specific pattern (e.g. Chronology, Geography). For example, write, “The research findings address curriculum trends in three states: (a) Florida, (b) Georgia, and (c) North Carolina,” not, “This report uses a geographical organizational pattern.”   

Follow the first paragraph with a first-level heading. Use first-level headings for all other major parts of this section. First-level headings should appear in bold, uppercase letters. Center first-level headings, but align any second-level headings with the left margin. Type any second-level headings in bold, upper- and lowercase letters.

As you present, interpret, and analyze evidence, consider using both text and graphics. Take into account what will be easiest for your audience to understand.

Include citations for all quoted or paraphrased material from sources as well; check with your organization as to whether they prefer parenthetical citations or footnotes.

Integrating Graphics

Formal report authors use graphics to present data in different forms. Paragraphs of text and complex or numerical data tend to bog readers down, making graphics a beneficial enhancement. Graphics also make data easier to understand, so they sometimes make a stronger impact on the audience.

Knowing when—and how—to effectively employ graphics is the key to successfully integrating them. Keeping the audience in mind is also critical.

Figure 1 summarizes uses and audience benefits for the most frequently employed types of graphics. The types of graphics are presented alphabetically to make them easier to remember.

GRAPHIC

Graphic Type

USE

This type . . .

BENEFITS

The audience can . . .

Bar Chart

Represents data with the height or length of rectangular   bars

Compare items

Grasp a series of numbers

Flowchart

Illustrates a sequence of events with shapes connected by   arrows

Grasp a series of steps

Line Chart

Shows changes in quantitative data over time or plots the   relationship between two variables with one or more lines

Compare variables

Visualize change over time

Map

Illustrates activities or trends on a map that represents   geographically organized parts of a region, country, or the world

Compare geographical trends

Grasp geographical relationships

Pie Chart

Depicts distribution of parts in a whole with wedges in a   circle graph

Compare significance of parts and parts-to-whole   relationship(s)

Table

Presents data or values in rows and columns

Compare   data or values

Grasp   relationships between data or values

Computers have made it easier for professionals to create effective graphics. Most of the graphics in Figure 1 can be created in Microsoft Office Word and Excel.

There may also be some occasions in which a formal report includes graphics from a particular print or online source. In these instances, it is critical to include a caption that presents the source of the graphic.