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Know What Goes in a Report

Imagine this scenario: You got approval and budget to attend a four-day work-related conference. You're back now, and your boss says, in passing, "I'd like a report on the conference. Can you get it to me by tomorrow at 2? I want to share highlights with our VP." 

Your mind is still swimming in an ocean of conference details and experiences. What should you put in the report?  

This scenario captures the experience of a woman–let's call her Victoria–in a writing class I led. Victoria showed me the report she had created: around six pages of single-spaced, dense text. Yikes! How could her boss find any highlights there?

How would you decide what to include? Before scrolling down to my suggestions, think about your answer. 









You can apply these suggestions anytime you need to determine what to include in a report: 

1. Recognize the report's purposes. In the scenario, the director wants highlights to share with an executive. So Victoria should convey high-level experiences and information, not all the details–not the number of conference sessions, the name of the hotel, etc. 

That's to meet the reader's purpose. But the writer's purpose may be different. Maybe Victoria wants to show the value of the conference to get approval for training in next year's budget. In that case, she would also focus on the benefits of the conference, her plans to apply what she learned, etc. 

When you plan a report, write one or two sentences that state its purpose, and use those sentences to help you recognize what to include and what to leave out.

  • Will your director use the report to make a decision about financing a project? Then offer information that will make that decision clearer, things like benefits and costs and how the project supports company goals. 
  • Will your peers read the report to incorporate information into a proposal? Include details that will deepen their understanding of the client's needs.
  • Will the report go into a file to document a current situation? Provide all the details that will help future readers understand what happened.  


2. Imagine that instead of a report, the individual wanted to ask you a few questions on the topic. What do you think he or she would ask? If you know the individual, recognizing the likely questions may be easy. In the scenario, Victoria's director might ask: 

  • What was the focus of the conference? 
  • What were the hottest topics?
  • Did you attend any sessions led by industry experts? If so, who? On what topics? 
  • What did you learn that you could apply in your job or in our company? 
  • What did you learn from the expo? 
  • Did you see any of our clients or competitors there?  
  • Overall, how useful was the conference? Would you attend again? 

To write the report, Victoria would answer the questions, keeping in mind that the director wants to share highlights with the VP. Her report sections could be:

[Title] Report on the XXXXX Conference, December 10-13, 2017, San Diego, California


Conference Focus
Hottest Topics Presented 
Sessions by Industry Experts 
    Joe Smith, Session Title, Key Points
    Gloria Gomez, Session Title, Key Points 
    Panel of John Nu, Eva West, Aaron Cho, Title, Key Points
Lessons Learned That Apply to Us
Expo Highlights
Other Attendees
Overall Assessment of the Conference

This answering-the-reader's-questions method can help you recognize what belongs in any report. Here are sample questions for a trip report on a visit to a division of your company, a client's office, or a customer's plant: 

  • What was the purpose of your trip?
  • Where did you go?
  • When did you travel?
  • Who traveled with you?
  • With whom did you meet there? At what facilities?

The questions above are the basics, which you can cover briefly. Below are meatier questions. 

  • What did you accomplish on the trip?
  • What did you learn?
  • What do you recommend based on your trip?
  • Overall, how useful was the trip?
  • Does anyone need to follow up on the trip? If so, who? How?

Here are sample questions for an update:

  • What is this report about?
  • What time period does this report cover? Are things on track?
  • What has been accomplished since the last report?
  • Have any important events taken place?
  • Have there been any problems or obstacles? If so, how have they been managed?
  • Is there anything I need to worry about?
  • Where can I get more information?

If you are writing a very important report, such as one to the president of your organization, you may want to have someone else review your list of questions to see whether you are on target before you write the report.


3. Ask for a sample report if you are unsure what your reader wants. In the scenario, Victoria might ask her colleagues who are good writers if anyone has an example of a report on a conference.

Especially if you are new in a job or have never written the kind of report requested, ask whether sample reports are available. Review those examples and notice what works for you as a reader. Pay special attention to the kind and amount of information included.


4. Recognize that your readers have asked for a report–not a book. To restrain yourself from including too much, try these approaches:

  • Leave out any information that does not answer a reader's question. For instance, if Victoria's director would not ask whether she had any great meals or how much free swag she received, she should not include those details.
  • Avoid using chronological order to report. Chronological order will cause you to include irrelevant details just because they happened.
  • Use headings, preferably descriptive headings such as "Recommendation: Send a Team to the 2018 Conference." Headings will stop you from including information that does not belong in that section.
  • Summarize. In the scenario, Victoria should not give details about all the sessions she attended–just a summary and highlights. 
    In a report on a client meeting, do not include he said-I said details. Instead, report agreements and outcomes.
    In a financial or technical report, do not include raw data in the body of the report. If it's essential, put it in an appendix. 
  • Include links to more information and offer to provide more. In Victoria's report on the conference, she can link to the conference program and offer to provide certain handouts and slides.
  • Use fewer examples. One or two powerful examples can achieve your goal. Additional examples provide length–not strength.
  • Use tables and charts rather than sentences to capture numerical information. Graphical illustrations help you leave out extraneous information. Be sure to label each graphic so its relevance is clear to you and your reader.

When you succeed with a report, keep it in an electronic folder of model reports. Its success will give you confidence, and its strengths will inspire you the next time someone asks for a report.

Do you want to write more effective reports and other pieces? Take my online self-study course, Business Writing Tune-Up. It includes getting my expert feedback on your writing. Try the free trial to decide whether the course will meet your needs. 

What are your tips on knowing what to include in reports? 

Syntax Training


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

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