Instructions & objectives
If you are studying a subject such as management or tourism, you will probably have to write a report on a particular subject as if you were actually doing a job in a company or organisation. You might get a topic like this:
Outline the key challenges facing P&O in the cruise market in the next five years and devise appropriate strategies. Or like this: Make a plan for introducing performance-related pay into a salaried company.
You should read this as a set of instructions that raises questions or problems which your report will attempt to answer or resolve. Answering the questions or finding solutions to the problems is the objective of your report and everything in the report should be focused on that objective.
Unlike an essay, there is no room for saying something like “It is interesting to note Professor Blogg’s theory…” Imagine you are presenting the report to your boss or the board of directors. In a real business or organisation, no-one has time just to be interested: they want answers and solutions to business issues.
The first thing to do is to clarify the objectives of the report.
Once you have received your instructions and clarified the objectives of the report you can begin to the report writing process. Follow each step carefully and remember that each step follows on from the preceding one and leads to the next one:
Defining the problem. Let’s use the P&O cruise question as an example. To complete the objectives, you need to start by considering all the relevant factors: competition, markets, destinations, customer age-groups etc. Some of these factors will be more important than others; and some may not be crucial to a five year strategy. You need to decide what is important and what isn’t and whether there is a logical order to the factors. If, for example, one of your key cruise destinations is in a country which has announced a huge rise in taxes before the start of the new season, then this might need to be considered first. Defining the problem clearly and thoroughly will determine how and what information you need to collect.
Researching the problem. Clarifying the objectives of the report and defining the problem in more detail should help you to formulate how you will gather information to meet those objectives. You need to ask yourself a number of questions: What information do I need? Where and how do I get it? What are the sources?
The answers to those questions will help you to think about another important aspect of the report process. They will help you to prioritise the information you need to collect; and decide the best order for that collection. You will be able to make a plan for collecting the information.
Analysing the information. Once you have gathered all the information you need to ask yourself if it fulfils the objectives and answers the problem. If it does not then you need to go back to the research and information collection stage and fix it. If, for example, you have decided that there are five key challenges facing cruise operators in the next five years, you will need to make sure that you have information about all five challenges.
You will also need to interpret the information to make sure that it fulfils the objectives and answers the problem. For example, if you have market research reports or market sector analyses you will need to decide which parts are relevant to your report. You may have to summarise the information you have gathered in order to present it in a clear and concise fashion.
You may also find that some of the information you have gathered puts an entirely new perspective on the objectives you clarified and the problem you defined. If this is the case, you will need to take account of it.
Conclusions & recommendations. All reports have conclusions and recommendations. Conclusions lead to recommendations. Recommendations are always actions to be taken. Let’s imagine in our example about cruises that you have a conclusion and recommendation about the age of customers as this is a key factor in future planning.
Your conclusion is: Market research shows that the average age of customers is 50+. This gives cruises an image problem for younger people.
Your recommendation is: Advertising targeted specifically at people 30 – 50; and cruise packages aimed specifically at the same age group.
Your reader should be able to see how you have reached your conclusions and recommendations. You should also make sure that your conclusions and recommendations refer back to everything in the rest of the report. If you began your report by listing five key challenges in the cruise market then make sure you have a conclusion and recommendation for each one. Similarly, don’t include a recommendation that has nothing to do with objectives or the information you’ve gathered.
Presentation. A report does not look like an essay. For example, you can use lists of bullet points to outline key points instead of developing a careful argument. You can write relatively short paragraphs. However, everything you say must be supported by appropriately sourced information. If you say that “Market research shows that the average age of customers is 50+” you must say where that information came from. Remember if you were really presenting the report to your boss, then she or he would want to know where the information came from because the company’s future actions would be based on it.
Key features – checklist
- Show that you understand the problem by clarifying the objectives and defining the problem in detail.
- Show some evidence of original ideas in dealing with the problem through your recommendations.
- Present all your information clearly and logically.
- Be concise and be precise. Do not make generalised statements or personal judgements.
- Include relevant information so that readers can see what your analysis, conclusions and recommendations are based on. Include graphs, statistical tables, charts and maps where relevant.
- Explain where your information came from. If one of your recommendations is based on a customer survey that is several years old, then you need to flag that up and make sure that there is nothing more recent available.
- Make sure your report contains enough numbers. This is a business report and if you were really presenting the report to your boss, then she or he would expect to see costs, percentages and predictions of profits.