How to Write Better Business Reports and Presentations
It's a Journey
In business, we are often called upon to write a report or memo or to give a presentation. Here are a few tips to help you be a more effective communicator.
Let’s think of this task as a journey. There are things to do at the beginning of a journey, things to do to make the journey easier and more enjoyable, and things to do at the end of a journey.
Starting the Journey
Before embarking on a trip you may want to collect information, for instance researching transportation and lodging options and obtaining brochures for the destination. Similarly, the first stage for preparing a business report or presentation is collecting and organizing the information about the facts and data you want to include.
Here are some tips to help you get started.
Let's Get Started
Start With an Outline.
List all the points you want to make in your report, memo, or presentation. Group them into topic areas. Decide which points are your conclusions and which are your supporting evidence.
This is your road map. Map out your route—how you will get from the start to the conclusion. You may find a better route as you go along, so feel free to make changes as you progress.
Put First Things First.
If you plan a trip, there are certain things you have to know first before you can proceed. For instance, you wouldn’t decide what clothing to pack before you decided on your destination.
Likewise, in a report, your points must be presented in their proper order. Don’t start discussing a point before you have introduced all the information that your audience will need in order to understand that point.
If you will be using a technical term that your audience might not be familiar with, you should define that term before you introduce it into the report or presentation.
Go From Big Picture to Details.
If you were on a road trip, you would start with the interstate, then move to the state roads, and finally arrive in the city streets or dirt roads.
When writing a report, you want to start with the big picture--the major issues, the most important points. From there, you will move to the details and less important points.
Conclusions Should Be Followed by Supports.
Here is where your outline will come in handy.
Each paragraph should start with a conclusion. Next, you will provide the evidence that supports that conclusion. Each conclusion should have two or three supporting statements.
If you have a long list of supporting statements, you need to rethink your outline. Perhaps you are trying to jam two or three different conclusions into one conclusion. Try to regroup your points into two or even three headings instead of putting them all under one heading.
It’s OK to Start in the Middle.
When you are traveling, you can’t start in the middle of a trip. Fortunately, when you are writing, it is just fine to start in the middle.
Sometimes we have writers’ block. We just can’t find the right way to begin. When that happens, look at your outline. Find the part that you are most comfortable with. Write that part. Once you have that done, the rest will often flow easily.
You can rearrange the parts of the report or presentation later to get the right flow.
Traveling in Style
On a trip, it is always nice to travel in style—if you can afford it.
Luckily, it doesn’t cost extra to write with style. You should always write with style because how you write or speak can be as important as what you say.
Here are some tips to write and present with style.
Style is Important
Use Plain English.
Forget the buzz words and jargon. You may be trying to sound like an insider or trying to impress your audience, but you may end up just sounding pompous.
Use ordinary language that everyone can understand. Take a conversational tone as much as possible. This advice is not just for presentations, but also for written reports and memos.
Be Concise and Straight-Forward.
Keep it simple. Give the conclusion and the supporting statements and then move on. Don’t be repetitive. Don’t pad the presentation. Don't overload it with gimmicks.
If you are using charts or tables, limit the amount of information on each one to the bare essentials.
- Try to have only one to three columns in a chart--five should be the maximum. You can always provide the remaining data in another chart or table.
- The reader or viewer should be able to take in the chart or table at a glance. You can provide detailed tables in the appendix of your report or in a separate handout.
Don't Abuse Power Point.
Just because the Power Point software comes with a lot of bells and whistles, doesn’t mean you have to use all of them in one presentation. You don’t want to dazzle your audience; you want to inform them.
Keep the slides minimal. Sometimes one word or a brief sentence is enough. The purpose of the slide is to act as a cue for the point you want to make and to focus the audience's attention on the topic.
- You don’t want people reading your slides while you are talking.
- Additionally, when there is a lot of text on a slide, the text becomes too small for those in the back of the room to see.
If it takes two or three slides to complete the point you wish to make, repeat your header on each slide. Repeating the header lets the audience know that you are still making the same point. For instance, let’s say I want to report a list of sales figures for twelve major markets. My header is “Sales Figures,” and I would repeat that header for each slide with only three or four markets listed on each slide.
Make Sure Your Formatting Works Well.
Don’t let the slides end up looking “too busy.” If you want to use pictures or special effects, keep them to a minimum.
Decide on a formatting scheme, and be consistent throughout your report or presentation. Your final review should include a format check.
- Use only one font. If you vary the size of the font, be consistent. For instance, a header might be in a larger font. If so, check to see that you have used the same size font for every header.
- Are you using indents or bullet points? If so, check to see that this format is used in a uniform way and that the number of spaces indented is the same.
- Are you using special-effects in PowerPoint? If so, choose only one special-effect and use it in a consistent manner. For instance, support statements might fly-in, but not headers or conclusions.
If you are using an outline format, don't go past two levels. If you do, your text will be so far to the right it will look like it is about to fall off the page.
Make White Space Your Friend.
Dense pages of text are not reader-friendly. The white spaces are like the little rest areas by the side of the highway.
Keep your paragraphs short. Keep your charts short. Use indents to set off the supporting statements from the conclusions.
Getting to the Destination
You are almost there--Just a few more stops and your journey is complete.
Here are some tips for a “happy landing.”
Reach Your Destination
Write for Your Audience.
Did you write for your audience? Did you consider what they already know and what they want to know? Did you address any misperceptions that they might have? Are you telling them information they will be happy to hear or will they want to refute you?
Review your text with these questions in mind and make changes as needed. You want to anticipate questions and objections and answer them in the course of the report or during the presentation.
Tie It All Together With a Summary.
The executive summary is not a place to repeat the data shown in the main part of the report or the presentation. It is a place to retell the story. It is a place to tie it all together.
In a written presentation, the summary will usually precede the text. In a presentation, it will come at the end. It is a summing up.
Avoid using numbers in the summary. Instead report the meaning behind the numbers. Hit the highlights and discuss the implications of the information you have provided.
You don’t need to present the facts in the same order that you used for the report. That’s a rehash, not a summation. Mention the facts in the order that best tells the story. Eliminate the tangential or unimportant information.
Use the summary to explain any contradictions in the data. If you can’t explain contradictions in the data, you are not ready to submit your report or give the presentation. Work with the data until you find the answers.
Accomplish Your Objective.
Where do you want your readers and listeners to go? Is your goal to advocate a course of action? Do you want your audience to reach a certain conclusion?
You may have set your objective before you started to write, but sometimes the objective is not clear until you have worked with the data. When you have completed your first draft, review your work and edit to ensure that you are accomplishing your objective.
Think of yourself as taking your audience by the hand and leading them step by step to where you want then to go. When you get to your final conclusions or recommendations, you want your audience nodding yes, yes, yes. You have brought them exactly where you want them to be.
You are telling a story, not spewing a bunch of data. The audience should be able to see how all of the pieces of the story fit together. Like the plot of a story, each piece of information leads to the ending.
As you present each new fact, show how it fits together with the other previously–given facts.
Enjoy the Trip
Celebrate with a Mai-Tai on the Beach
If you have followed the above advice, you will feel confident when you submit your report or memo or when you deliver your presentation. Just as importantly, your audience will be happy.
So now you can have that mai-tai on the beach. You've earned it.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 Catherine Giordano