Reports are a flexible genre. A report can be anything from a one-page accident report when someone gets a minor injury on the job to a 500+ page report created by a government commission, such as The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. Your report could be internal or external, and it could be a printed document, a PDF or even an email.
The type of report is often identified by its primary purpose, as in an accident report, a laboratory report, or a sales report. Reports are often analytical or involve the rational analysis of information. Sometimes they report the facts with no analysis at all. Other reports summarize past events, present current data, and forecast future trends. This section will introduce you to the basics of report writing.
Audience Analysis in Formal Reports
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. 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 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 reports, it is necessary to know your audience. Will you be expected to write a one-page email or a formal report complete with a Table of Contents and an Executive Summary? Audience analysis will tell you.
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.
One of the trickier parts of report writing is understanding what your audience expects. Why is your audience reading the report? Do different parts of the report serve different purposes? Will you be expected to follow a specific template? Make sure that you have specifically responded to the expectations of your boss, manager, or client. If your audience expects you to have conducted 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). As we’ve discussed in the chapter on persuasion, research will contribute to your ethos and your confidence.
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?
- Do you have only one audience or multiple audiences? Do they have different levels of knowledge about the topic?
- How much research does your audience expect you to have done?
- How current does your research need to be?
- What types of sources does your audience expect you to have?
- 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?
- Is there a template or style guide that you should use for your report?
- What is the cultural background of your audience?