How to use headings to structure your report

How to write a report

Business reports present facts for people to act on. Write them clearly, concisely and persuasively, and make them well structured to get people to notice your work.

Formal ones have a beginning, middle and end. Front matter sets the scene and gives a summary. The main body presents your argument and back matter provides additional and reference information.

Creative headings

There’s a set of semi-standard headings. However, you’re not obliged to use them. In fact you’ll rarely see a complete set in a given report, nor one that uses exactly the same words. That would be boring to read.

Instead, use attention grabbing headings that signpost what you’re about to say. That way readers can easily find the information that interests them.

For example, rather than writing “FOREWORD”, have say, “A MESSAGE FROM ALEX SMITH, CEO” to arouse interest. Instead of “SALES FORECASTS” as a subheading, be more compelling with “SALES SET TO SOAR/DROP BY 25%”. Replace “ABOUT US” with something more specific like “TEN YEARS AT THE CUTTING EDGE OF FINANCIAL TECHNOLOGY”.

So use the following as guidance to organise your information.

Front matter

Title page

How to write a report

Write the title of the report, who has written it and the date it was written/submitted.

Acknowledgements

Thank the people who have contributed to the report.

Foreword

A foreword is typically written by someone other than the report writer and gives the context. Your colleague or patron should introduce the background, purpose and objective of the report. It says who it’s for and defines the scope and limitations of the investigation.

A foreword provides a similar function to a preface, abstract or a terms of reference—it lets the reader know why you’ve written it.

Contents

List the headings in the report with page numbers. Front matter and back matter are often numbered using Roman numerals.

Executive summary

The most important part of a report. It may be the only section that some readers read in detail. It should:

  • generate interest to lure readers in
  • contain a complete overview of the message in the report
  • put the document in perspective so readers know why it matters to them
  • say everything that matters most with energy and lively language
  • create a call to action.

(transcribed from Natalie Canavor – Business Writing for Dummies, 2013.)

Conventional business writing lore dictates you should write this last, but if you know your results and conclusion, it can be worth drafting it early. Just bear in mind it needs your maximum focus.

Main body

Introduction

Your introduction should:

  • Give readers enough information about the subject to understand the forthcoming results and analysis.
  • Provide background details and definitions, history or theory, to provide context.
  • Tell people the purpose and the scope (the amount of detail you’ll cover).
  • Preview the development of the subject to allow readers to anticipate how it will be presented.
  • Give a basis for evaluating how you arrived at your conclusions or recommendations.

Keep it relevant, factual and concise.

Methodology/Procedure

Outline how you investigated the area and gathered information (from where, and how much).

If you used a survey, say how you carried it out, how you decided on the people to study, the number of people you surveyed and method of survey (by interview or questionnaire?)

Findings/Analysis/Results

How to write a report

This is the part where you show what you’ve discovered. Present your information with clear subheadings, and keep in mind good visual impact.

Use:

  • short paragraphs within each section to cover one aspect of the subject at a time
  • subheadings to help guide your reader through the information.
  • plenty of charts, graphs and other visual material to help your readers.

It should contain:

  • a logical sequence, moving from the descriptive to the analytical
  • sufficient information to justify the conclusions and recommendations that follow
  • you might also want to talk about what risks are involved.
Conclusions

Draw these from the analysis in the previous section and make them clear and concise. They should link to your original purpose and may include recommendations, judgements, predictions or a summary.

Don’t give any new information at this stage. The conclusion should state what you have deduced about the situation.

Recommendations/Action Points/Call-to-Action

How to write a report

Clearly state what needs to be done as a result of your work.

Your readers will want to know what they should do as a result of reading your report and will not want to dig for the information. Be specific.

Back Matter

References

List publications or work that the report refers to.

Bibliography

List additional material not specifically referred to, but that readers may want to follow up.

Appendices

Use these to provide any more detailed information that your readers may need for reference, but do not include key data which your readers need in the main body of the report. Appendices must be relevant. Number them so readers can refer to them from the main body.

Glossary of Terms

Provide a glossary if you think it will help your readers, but don’t use one as an excuse to include jargon in the report that your readers may not understand.


I run a one-day Effective Report Writing course. You’ll take part in engaging activities to learn how to plan, draft, structure and use clear, concise, correct and persuasive language.

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