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.
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
Front Matter Components
The title page provides the audience with the:
- Name of the report
- This should appear 2 inches from the top margin in uppercase letters.
- Name, title, and organization of the individual receiving the report
- Type “Prepared for” on one line, followed by two separate lines that provide the receiving organization’s name and then the city and state. Some reports may include an additional line that presents the name of a specific person.
- Name of the author and any necessary identifying information
- Type “prepared by” on one line, followed by the name(s) of the author(s) and their organization, all on separate lines.
- Date of submission
- This date may differ from the date the report was written. It should appear 2 inches above the bottom margin.
The items on the title page should be equally spaced apart from each other.
A note on page numbers:
The title page should not include a page number, but this page is counted as page “i.” Use software features to create two sections for your report. You can then utilize two different types of numbering schemes. When numbering the pages (i.e., i, ii, iii, etc.) for a formal report, use lowercase roman numerals for all front matter components. Utilize arabic numbers for the other pages that follow. Additionally, if you intend to bind the report on the left, move the left margin and center 0.25 inches to the right.
A note on font:
If there is no specific preference for serif vs. sans serif font, choose one and use it consistently throughout the report. Do not utilize anything besides a traditional serif (e.g., Times New Roman) or sans serif (e.g., Arial or Calibri) font.
Letter of Transmittal
A letter of transmittal announces the report topic to the recipient(s).
If applicable, the first paragraph should identify who authorized the report and why the report is significant. Provide the purpose of the report in the first paragraph as well. The next paragraph should briefly identify, categorize, and describe the primary and secondary research of the report. Use the concluding paragraph to offer to discuss the report; it is also customary to conclude by thanking the reader for their time and consideration.
The letter of transmittal should be formatted as a business letter. Some report writers prefer to send a memo of transmittal instead.
When considering your audience for the letter or memo of transmittal, make sure that you use a level of formality appropriate for your relationship with the reader. While all letters should contain professional and respectful language, a letter to someone you do not know should pay closer attention to the formality of the word choice and tone.
Table of Contents
The table of contents page features the headings and secondary headings of the report and their page numbers, enabling audience members to quickly locate specific parts of the report. Leaders (i.e. spaced or unspaced dots) are used to guide the reader’s eye from the headings to their page numbers.
The words “TABLE OF CONTENTS” should appear at the top of the page in all uppercase and bolded letters. Type the titles of major report parts in all uppercase letters as well, double spacing between them. Secondary headings should be indented and single spaced, using a combination of upper- and lowercase letters.
An executive summary presents an overview of the report that can be used as a time-saving device by recipients who do not have time to read the entire report.
The executive summary should include a:
- Summary of purpose
- Overview of key findings
- Identification of conclusions
- Overview of recommendations
To begin, type “EXECUTIVE SUMMARY” in all uppercase letters and centered. Follow this functional head with paragraphs that include the above information, but do not use first-level headings to separate each item. Each paragraph of information should be single-spaced with double spacing between paragraphs. Everything except for the title should be left-aligned.
An executive summary is usually ten percent of the length of the report. For example, a ten-page report should offer a one-page summary. A 100-page report should feature a summary that is approximately ten pages.
Body of Report
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.
To 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
- 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.
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.
Back Matter Components
Conclusions and Recommendations
The conclusions and recommendations section conveys the key results from the analysis in the discussion of findings section. Up to this point, readers have carefully reviewed the data in the report; they are now logically prepared to read the report’s conclusions and recommendations.
Type “CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS” in all uppercase letters. Follow this functional head with the conclusions of the report. The conclusions should answer any research questions that were posed earlier in the report. Present the conclusions in an enumerated or bulleted list to enhance readability.
Recommendations offer a course of action, and they should answer any problem or research questions as well. Think back to the expectations of your audience. Have all of their requirements been addressed?
All formal reports should include a works cited page; his page documents the sources cited within the report. The recipient(s) of the report can also refer to this page to locate sources for further research.
It is acceptable to follow MLA (Modern Language Association), CMS (Chicago Manual of Style), or APA (American Psychological Association) documentation style for entries on this page. Arrange all sources alphabetically. Refer to the latest edition of the appropriate style handbook for more information about how to format entries for print and electronic sources on the Works Cited page
While some of the formatting rules may seem tedious at first, they are necessary in order for your audience to better understand the report. Using a regulated format allows for a more universal organization that everyone will understand. Being aware of your audience’s needs and expectations will allow for a strong report that will satisfy your employee and demonstrate your competence in your field.