How to Write a Short Report (Over Email)
Although we all want to streamline our work and cut down on the amount of business communication we send and receive, the business world cannot function efficiently without short reports.
Short business reports communicate when work is being completed, if schedules are being met, how costs are being contained, if sales projections are being met, how clients are being served, and when unexpected problems come up.
As a businessperson, you may routinely write short reports on the activities of your department. You also may be asked to submit a short report in response to a specific and/or timely circumstance. The most common short reports are periodic reports, sales reports, progress reports, travel reports, test reports and incident reports.
Periodic Reports provide readers with information at regular intervals, including daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually. Business managers rely on periodic reports to make budgets, create schedules, order materials, hire personnel, and determine other business needs.
Sales Reports give records of accounts, purchases, and profits and losses over a specified time. These reports help managers see where changes need to be made, and how to plan for the future.
Progress Reports inform readers about ongoing projects. They offer details on scheduling, budgeting, equipment, work assignments, and job completion. Progress reports help mangers coordinate one project with another one going on at the same time. They should include information on past work, current work, and future work.
Travel Reports include documentation on field trips, site inspections, conferences, home health, or social work visits. Mangers use them to budget for future trips and to evaluate their effectiveness from a profit and loss basis.
Test Reports are documents based on research conducted in the field, or in a lab. They offer objective details on how a test was performed, what outcomes were identified, and what recommendations should be followed.
Incident Reports are used to describe accidents, breakdowns, delays, and cost overruns. These reports may be used as evidence in court, so they must be concise, accurate, and complete.
Here are some basic guidelines for short reports:
1. Know your purpose. Who is your audience? What do they know? What do they need to know?
Your audience for a short report may include someone from outside your firm, or someone who works within your company. Remember that regardless of your audience, no bottom line speaks louder than money to a company or client. Anticipate the needs of the audience members and how they will use the information in your report.
2. Do your homework. Most reports, short or long, require some research. Perform the interviews, inspect the equipment, or read the studies necessary to gain the information you need.
You may obtain data internally, such as sales figures from your company's sales department. Or you may have to conduct research on your own for the report.
3. Be objective. Leave your preconceptions behind. Base your conclusions and recommendations on complete data and thorough research, not guesswork.
4. Choose a reader-friendly format. Use a clear subject line. Avoid big blocks of text. Make use of subheadings, bullet points, bold print, and graphics to make your report clear and easy to read. Be flexible on format according to the nature of your report.
5. Use graphs or tables to summarize data. A visual image is usually easier to understand than numbers. Don't go overboard with colors or graphics. Too many bells and whistles can look unprofessional, or worse -- look as if you don't have much to say in your report.
6. Write in a concise format. Avoid long, complicated sentences in favor of short, clear sentences. Allow for careful proofreading and revisions.
7. Be careful with jargon and avoid using either too informal or too technical language.
9. Organize your short report. A long, formal business report is divided into 10 sections. A short business report, however, typically has only four main sections.
The Terms of Reference section gives readers any necessary background information on the report, and why the report is needed. Include only the information that is needed for recipients to put the report in proper perspective.
Next is the Procedure section. This section (sometimes called "Scope") details the specific steps taken and methods used for the report. If there are certain constraints that limit the study, explain what they are here.
If your findings are based on a questionnaire or survey, outline the steps you took. If your report has a scientific emphasis, include an explanation of the technical processes used in your research.
The third main area of a business report is the Findings section. The findings section details information that is discovered, or made clear, during the course of the report.
Your findings section can be subdivided with numbered or bulleted headings. Order your observations in a logical way. You can arrange them by category or topic, in chronological or spatial order, or by order of importance.
The final area of a business report includes Conclusions and Recommendations based upon the findings.
The writer of a business report should try to remain as objective as possible. While conclusions and recommendations do reflect opinions, these statements should be based upon the facts, as revealed in the findings section of the report.
Place your top recommendations or conclusions first. Any recommendation should include clear, measurable actions. Numbering your ideas may make them easier to refer to during a later in-person or e-mail discussion.
Hello (Name of recipient);
At the June board meeting, Allison Campden requested that I survey employees on their satisfaction with our employee benefits. I completed the project last week and have included my findings for your review in the attached report.
I will be happy to answer any questions you have. I also plan to present my report at Friday's HR meeting.
Your contact information
Attachment: Employee Benefits Satisfaction Report
Terms of Reference
As the monthly board meeting on June 11, Allison Campden, director of Human Resources (HR), requested this report on employee benefits satisfaction.
A representative selection of 20 percent of all employees was interviewed in person and by phone in the period between July 1 and July 15 concerning:
- their overall satisfaction with our current company benefits package
- any problems they encountered when dealing with HR
- any suggestions they have for improved communication policies
- any difficulties they encountered when dealing with our HMO
Our survey showed that our employees are generally satisfied with the company's current benefits package.
Some employees mentioned long approval waiting periods for vacation times.
Our older employees (45+) frequently mentioned difficulties with HMO prescription drugs procedures. Employees under age 45 reported fewer problems with HMO.
Many employees cited lack of dental insurance in our benefits package as a concern.
Dental coverage was also cited most frequently as an area for improvement.
Our older employees are having problems with the HMO's prescription drug program.
Our HR response time, particularly in regard to vacation time, needs to be improved.
Meet with HMO representatives to discuss prescription drug benefit complaints for employees age 45 and up.
Give priority to vacation request response times so employees may plan their vacations.
Another way to organize a short report e-mail is with the memo format.
Use standard headings, such as To, From, Subject, Date, in this way:
To: Marketing team members
From: Andy Bayless
Subject: Annual Sales Report
Date: Jan. 4, 2016
Then make a brief introductory statement that gives the reader an overview of the problem, or the context of the report.
Now you can include the four sections for a short report:
Terms of Reference
Conclusions and recommendations
Proofread your report several times. Misspellings, typos, or basic grammatical errors will give your readers the impression that you did not put a great deal of effort into the report.
Consider asking someone else in your department to read it, checking for accuracy. Be open to this feedback and consider any comments carefully.
Presenting a report
Many companies ask a report writer to present a report at a meeting. If you have this opportunity, look at it as a way to emphasize the key findings of the report, rather than simply read it your audience. Use your charts or graphs as visuals, and as a springboard to discuss your findings
Anticipate questions, and plan to leave a large portion of your presentation for questions and answers from the audience.
A business report requires you to analyze a situation, and to apply business theories to offer suggestions for improvement.
It allows you to demonstrate your reasoning and evaluation skills, and to provide recommendations for future action. With most business reports, there is no single correct solution, but several solutions. The writer must weigh the costs and benefits of each possibility to an organization. It is these costs and benefits that you need to identify and weigh in your report.
Effective business reports reveal the objectivity and the concise and clear communication skills of their writers. These skills are so important in today's competitive business environment, that a growing number of business owners are reporting that business communication skills are at the top of their lists when they interview and hire new employees.
Some hiring managers even ask applicants to write a sample business report as a way of screening applicants.
According to a study by Grammarly that was published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), more than two-thirds of salaried jobs in America require a large amount of written communication. The study revealed that major companies spend more than of $3 billion each year training their employees in writing skills.
One CEO, Kyle Wiens of iFixit, wrote in a HBR blog post that he will not hire people who use poor grammar. Wiens claims that good grammar is a telltale sign of professionalism, attention to detail, credibility, and the ability to learn new things.
Think of how you will stand out in an interview, or on the job, if your writing skills are already above average.
Many fans of social media have been hitting the death knell for e-mail for years. Despite this, e-mail is here to stay. People check their smart phones up to 150 times a day, according to the Kleiner Perkins Internet research firm. And checking e-mail is the number one activity people do on their phones.
As a paraphrase of a familiar Mark Twain quote might read, "The reports of e-mail's death have been greatly exaggerated."
Good business communication means good business. Bad business communication can mean wasted time and effort and the possibility of lost business and revenues.
When you use good business practices in composing and sending professional e-mails, you further your career and the success of your company.