Common Business Reports
Last update: 21 August 2002
 
Each organization has its own specific requirements for particular kinds of reports. Because reports are pieces of functional writing designed to help a reader or readers make a decision, the presentation of the reported information will vary to meet the needs of different readers. The types of reports discussed here are nearly universal, though their formats may vary from organization to organization.

Some business reports are identified primarily by their physical form: memo reports, letter reports, and formal reports. Others are identified primarily by purpose or content: justification reports, proposals, progress reports, expense reports, and personnel evaluations. Some reports do not fall neatly into any of the standard classifications, and a report called one thing at one organization may be called something else at another.

Fortunately, most of the same writing techniques apply regardless of the specific function or format a report requires. Many of the simple reports are periodic, or maintenance, reports and are required on a regular basis in most organizations. They are often available as printed forms or computer templates, which the writer simply completes. The reports of greater complexity are usually special, task reports, assigned to solve a specific problem. Such reports usually require at least some research, and the report writer frequently must draw conclusions and make recommendations. Because they are longer and more complex than routine reports, they employ more of the special techniques discussed in Report Forms and Functions.

Memo Reports

Memo reports (memoranda, memos) are currently the most common means of exchanging written business information. Memos are short, informal messages that provide a rapid, convenient means of communication between employees within the same organization. In some ways, they serve the same function within an organization as letters serve for communication outside the company and employ the same general structure and many of the same strategies. (See Writing Short Documents.)

Memos are used to communicate vertically (from superiors to subordinates and from subordinates to superiors) and horizontally (between personnel of equal rank). They also serve to communicate messages that range from the extremely informal to extremely formal. The majority of memos are brief (no more than one page) and differ from letters in format only, as Sample 3, Sample 7, and Sample 10 illustrate. Some organizations use letter format to convey important, formal information that might otherwise be communicated in memo format, such as the negative message illustrated by Sample 24.

When memos are used to convey complex information, they include the special techniques used by more formal reports, including headings, itemized lists, tables, and graphic aids, as Sample 43 illustrates.

Letter Reports

A letter report is simply a report written in the form of a regular business letter. Unlike internal memo reports, which remain within the organization, letter reports are typically used for external communication. They may be used for personnel references, credit evaluations, or auditor recommendations. Many letters requesting and transmitting information are essentially letter reports even though they may not be called reports unless they are fairly long and use headings or other common report-writing techniques discussed previously.

Like other reports, letter reports need to be accurate, reliable, and objective, so they are more factual and tend to be less persuasive than typical business letters. Their objective is to provide information as clearly as possible so that the reader or readers can make an informed decision. Graphs, charts, tables, or drawings may be used to illustrate specific points, as Sample 46 illustrates.

Agenda, Minutes, and Itineraries

Agenda, minutes, and itineraries are common informational reports. Because they provide information without analysis or conclusions and recommendations, they are frequently written in semi-outline form. Also, because most organizations have standard formats for such reports, they are among the easiest to write.

Note that agenda, a plural word, is usually considered a collective noun, taking a singular article. It may take either a singular or a plural verb.

Agenda

An agenda, sometimes called an order of business, is a list of topics arranged in the order they are to be discussed at a meeting. The following order of business is typical of most meetings:

  1. Call to order by presiding officer.
  2. Roll call.
  3. Minutes of the previous meeting.
  4. Reading of correspondence.
  5. Officers' reports.
  6. Reports of Standing Committees.
  7. Reports of Special Committees.
  8. Unfinished business.
  9. New business.
  10. Announcements.
  11. Adjournment.

Minutes

Minutes are the official record of a meeting. The format may vary from organization to organization, but the content and order are standard.

  1. Name of the organization.
  2. Date, time, and place of the meeting.
  3. Attendance (members present or members present and members absent).
  4. Name of the presiding officer.
  5. A record of
      a.  All announcements.
      b.  Reports.
      c.  Motions.
      d.  Resolutions.
  6. Date of the next meeting.
  7. Time of adjournment.

Depending on the organization and the type of meeting, minutes may need to be a complete record of all that took place during the meeting, or the minutes may be a summary, as Sample 47 illustrates.

Itineraries

An itinerary is a combination of travel and appointment schedules. In recent years, travel agents have been providing fairly complete travel itineraries showing both travel and hotels, and most business travelers keep itinerary-type information in a paper-based day-timer or an electronic personal information manager (PIM).

The usual travel itinerary shows when, where, and how a person will travel. It may also include daily appointments and contain helpful reminders of where the individual is to be at certain times, of names of people he or she may encounter in the course of conducting business, and—in the case of foreign travel—of local customs. The itinerary gives the day, time of departure, name of airport or station, flight number, time of arrival, and hotel names and addresses as can be seen in Sample 48.

Expense Reports

Expense reports are almost always printed forms because they are used on a regular basis and the same information is required each time for the organization's financial records. Regardless of whether your organization provides a form, be sure to keep a complete record of all your business expenses, regardless of your organization's policy of reimbursement. If you exceed your organization's per diem (daily) allowance, the overage may be tax deductible.

Personnel Evaluations

Managers routinely evaluate employees to provide them with feedback based on their job performance and to inform higher management of each person's abilities and promotability.

Most organizations use forms to help ensure objectivity and thoroughness in the evaluation process. The forms typically define the performance measures as functions of the job duties and provide a rating scale to evaluate an individual's performance. The forms may also provide space for comments by both the manager and the person being evaluated. The concerns expressed in the evaluation forms will vary from organization to organization and specific job functions.

Objectivity and thoroughness may be especially important when an individual's performance is not up to standards or expectations. Substandard personnel evaluations and other written evidence of poor performance may be required to demonstrate justification for dismissal.

Progress Reports

A progress report is an informational report on the progress of a specific project. Most organizations use progress reports to track the various projects underway at any given time. In small organizations, many project reports are delivered orally. Those working on the project provide their supervisors with a report of their progress at the end of the day, the end of the week, or at some other convenient time. In larger organizations, and for large projects in particular, written reports are required.

Written progress reports typically provide management with the following information:

  1. A brief background of the project.   The background helps put the report in an appropriate context.

  2. A detailed account of the time period covered.   The period covered will vary depending on the nature of the project.

  3. A projection of the work remaining to be completed.   Managers need to know whether a project is on schedule and whether the work can continue on schedule.

Progress reports help management track what is going on and determine whether resources are being allocated appropriately to ensure the timely completion of various projects. When research is involved, progress reports frequently contain preliminary findings and tentative conclusions. Formats for progress reports vary a great deal from organization to organization. Some are printed forms (sales reports, for example, are often forms). Progress reports that remain within the organization are typically prepared in memo format, although progress reports on major projects may be prepared as short, formal reports. Progress reports sent to client organizations often use letter-report format.

The content of progress reports will also vary depending on who is going to receive the report and how the information will be used. Progress reports may need to explain and justify delays, other problems, or unusual expenses. Most are arranged chronologically according to (a) what has been done, (b) what is being done, and (3) what will be done. Others may be organized according to topics or areas of concern, although time sequence is usually emphasized within each of the topics. Sample 49 illustrates a typical progress report.

Recommendation and Justification Reports

Recommendation and justification reports present a problem and then provide the evidence required to justify a recommended solution to that problem. Unlike most reports, which are written at the request of management, recommendation and justification reports are often initiated by the writer, who has observed a problem and wishes to suggest a solution. They employ deductive structure and begin with a clear statement of purpose or a problem to be solved.

Recommendation reports, more often than justification reports, may be assigned tasks. Whether reader-initiated or writer-initiated, however, a recommendation report employs the following structure:

  1. Problem:  What is it, and how will the reader benefit if it is solved?

  2. Facts:  What is known about the situation? Where and how was that information obtained?

  3. Assumptions:  What can be assumed on the basis of the facts?

  4. Recommendations:  What should the reader do, and why will that action (or those actions) solve the problem?

As is true for all headings, the headings in a recommendation report should be specific rather than general:

Use your headings to specify what problem, facts, assumptions, and recommendations. Use generic headings only when your reader expects to see them.

Justification reports serve essentially the same function as recommendation reports. The problems they attempt to solve, however, are usually financial—solving the problem will result in saving money. Also, unlike recommendation reports, justification reports typically use the following generic headings:

  1. Purpose.

  2. Cost and Savings (or Advantages).

  3. Method (or Procedure).

  4. Conclusions.

  5. Discussion.

The conclusion of a justification report should show convincingly that the recommendation is justified by the advantages that will be realized.

Proposals

Unlike other reports, proposals attempt to persuade. They may be either requested or volunteered, but they always propose to solve a problem for the reader, and they are written because the writer will benefit if the reader accepts the proposal.

In spite of their persuasive component, however, proposals should still be accurate, reliable, and objective so that the reader can make an informed decision. Whether based on a request (usually called a request for proposal, or RFP) or submitted without specific solicitation, proposals should be clear about the problem to be solved and the procedures for solving it.

Proposals usually contain the following parts:

  1. A summarizing introduction.  Give the reader a broad but quick overview. This may be the only part of the proposal your audience reads, so do it well. Articulate your objective and approach, present your reasoning with as little technical material as possible, state your own viewpoint and opinions about the problem, summarize your proposed solution, and give the main reasons you are the best person to solve the problem.

  2. A detailed problem statement.  Because every proposal is written to provide a solution to a problem, your writing should indicate a thorough understanding of the problem. Whether the proposal is a response to a request or an initial statement, the problem statement should include both the problem as the reader sees it and your problem as you wish the reader to see it.

  3. A work statement.  Tell your reader what you will do to solve the problem. Be specific. Include the results and conclusions of your preliminary research in the text, and place documentation (computer printouts, questionnaires, engineering calculations, and other supporting evidence) in an appendix. Give reasons and reader benefits behind the facts and figures.

  4. A project management statement.  Tell your reader how and when you propose to accomplish what you have said you will do. Who will report to whom? Who will do what jobs? Who will provide materials and other resources? How long will the project take? How will you measure your progress? At what intervals will you inform your reader of your progress?

  5. A statement of qualifications.  When you are not well-known to your reader, a statement of your qualifications and those of your organization are necessary to provide credibility. What training do you and other personnel involved have? What resources do you have? Do you have the facilities required? Include resumes of key personnel.

Any one of these parts may be omitted or modified depending on how much the reader (or readers) already knows or wants to know. Formal requests for proposals may specify additional details or alter the order of presentation. If you have an RFP, be sure to follow its directions exactly and completely.

Whether requested or volunteered, a proposal typically competes with others for acceptance. Your organization, for example, may submit a proposal to construct a building according to a set of architectural specifications. Other organizations would also submit proposals—or bids—for the work. In addition to cost, the architects and engineers who would review the proposals would be influenced by their confidence in your ability to do the job, to do it correctly, to do it on time, and to do it for the amount specified. Your proposal needs to show that you can deliver what you promise.

If accepted, your proposal and the acceptance may constitute a contract, so be sure that you actually can meet all the specifications you include.

Formal Reports

In addition to informal reports using memo format and letter reports, many organizations require formal reports on a fairly regular basis. Formal reports are almost always special assignments, and they are almost always analytical. (See Report Form and Function.) Because they deal with topics important to the organization and because they become an important part of the organization's operations and records, the physical presentation of these reports is more formal than those discussed in the preceding sections.

For these reasons, formal reports include some additional parts to help the reader keep track of the mass of information. Formal reports typically include prefatory parts, a report body, and supplemental parts, arranged in the following order:

In general, the longer the report, the more of these parts it would include. A short formal report (fewer than ten pages) would probably include only a title page, letter of transmittal, abstract, and bibliography in addition to the body.

Prefatory Parts

The prefatory parts function to protect the report and to orient the reader to the report itself. Each of the parts has a specific function:

  1. Cover.  As a rule, only the longest, most formal reports have a separate cover, which protects the report and announces the title. Covers may have designs to attract attention, but they should be simple. Keep the cover title short—no more than eight words.

  2. Title fly.  The title fly, the first sheet following the cover, carries only the report title. Only reports having covers have a title fly. The title should be worded to include the how of the report and as many of the five W's (who, what, where, when, and why) as possible.

  3. Title page.  The title page includes the title of the report, the name and professional title of the person (or group, department or organization) for whom the report was prepared, the name and professional title of the person (or group, department, or organization) who prepared the report, and the completion date. The sample title page illustrates a traditional format. Modern word processing equipment makes a great deal of variety possible, but the basic components of the title page and their relative importance should remain the same.

  4. Letter of authorization.  The letter of authorization authorizes the investigation of the problem. It states the problem and the objectives of the investigation clearly and, in addition, specifies the scope and limitations of the problem. Letters of authorization are more common when one organization is being hired to prepare a report for another, as is true for the sample letter of authorization.

  5. Letter of acceptance.  Although the letter of acceptance is not usually included in the report, it is the answer to the letter of authorization. It may change or revise the scope of the work requested in the letter of authorization. The two letters—authorization and acceptance—serve as a contractual agreement between the person (or group, department or organization) requesting the report and the person (or group, department, or organization) conducting the investigation.

  6. Letter of transmittal.  The letter of transmittal sends, or transmits, the report from the person conducting the research to the person who authorized it. In addition to saying, in effect, "here is the report," the letter of transmittal may state other relevant issues: (a) the authorization for the study; (b) the statement of the problem, its scope, and its limitations; (c) methods and procedures; (d) a summary of the findings, conclusions, and recommendations; (e) acknowledgments to individuals who helped with the project; and finally, (f) an offer to discuss the project further or to conduct future studies. The sample letter of transmittal illustrates many of these elements.

  7. Contents.  A contents page should be included if the report is lengthy (ten pages or more) and has several subdivisions. The purpose of the contents page is to show the reader at a glance on which page a particular division or subdivision begins, and, because it shows page numbers, it must be prepared last. Because it is obvious that the table of contents is a table, the title for the page should simply be Contents.

    If the report contains several charts, tables, and illustrations, a separate list may be made for each of them. These pages would be called Figures, Tables, and so forth.

  8. Abstract.  The abstract (or synopsis) is a brief overview of the entire report. Because it is a summary, it must be prepared after the report is complete. It should be no longer than one page. Short reports may include the abstract in the letter of transmittal, reports of intermediate length typically include a separate, one-page abstract, and long reports often include a three- to five-page summary known as an executive summary.

    A descriptive abstract describes the contents of the report; it tells the reader what is there. A summarizing abstract relates the information contained in the form in reduced form; it shows the reader what the report contains. Because summarizing abstracts are generally more useful, they are more common than descriptive abstracts, as the sample abstract illustrates.

    For more information on abstracts and summaries, see the material on summaries in the section on “Special Considerations” in The Form and Function of Business Reports.


Body of the Report

The body of the report generally consists of an introduction, the text (including explanations, methodology, and findings), a summary, conclusions, and recommendations:

  1. Introduction.  In addition to giving the reader the background of the report and detailing its authorization and subject, the introduction orients the reader to the problem, purpose, scope, limitations, and procedure. It also defines key terms. How much of an introduction is required will depend on the report and the reader's familiarity with the problem, but, in general, the introduction should be brief and should follow the complete title, as can be seen in the sample pages.

  2. Text.  The text of the report presents the data gathered and the analysis. This is the central and largest part of the report.

  3. Summary.  The summary of the report restates its main points. It serves as a reminder to the reader of the research and analysis presented in the text.

  4. Conclusions.  The conclusions are objective statements based on the findings of the report. This section of the report should introduce no new concepts but should be based entirely on material previously presented.

  5. Recommendations.  The recommendations are somewhat subjective statements suggesting a particular course of action based on the conclusions.

Supplemental Parts

The most common supplemental parts are the appendix and the bibliography.

  1. Appendix.  Appendixes (or appendices) contain copies of the letters, questionnaires, forms, or blueprints used in obtaining the information for the report. They also contain other supplementary materials not actually used in the report itself. The report may direct the reader to an appendix for further reference or clarification. Because readers do not usually read appendixes, nothing important should be put in one. They serve primarily to support report data for those who have an unusually strong need for additional background information.

  2. Bibliography.  The bibliography lists all the references—books, periodicals, journals, speeches, interviews, newspapers, and online sources—used in the report.

 


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