I’ve spent a good deal of my professional life trying to get the people I work for to notice my reports. I’ve also spent way too much time reading reports that don’t do their job.
Here are 10 things every good report must have when you present it to senior executives:
1. A message: What’s the takeaway you want your readers to remember? Are you producing the report to win support, get a bigger budget or change the way things are done? Whatever it is, that key message must flow throughout your report.
2. A story: Don’t obsess over the charts, graphs and numbers. They’re only there to illustrate your story. The story is what people will remember, so make sure it’s the right one.
3. A “so what?”: Anyone who has ever put down a report and thought, “So what?” will know what I’m talking about. The report says, “We got this many hits, xx were positive,” then lists all the stories along with their full text. What conclusion could you come to other than, “Why did I just read this? It doesn’t tell me anything.”
PR and social media agencies are particularly guilty of this terrible habit. Do I really have to remind you that you get paid for your advice and good judgment? Of all people, you should be able to digest the data and tell your clients the context of the results.
4. A “now what?”: The biggest failure of most reports is they don’t share the lessons learned from the data. What should you do differently next time?
5. A standard format: Humans like consistency. They like knowing where to look for that one key metric that will tell them how things really went (or are going).
So, establish a standard format. It might look like this:
Page 1: Report parameters, methodology and key numbers
Page 2: Overview of all numbers that matter (and only those that matter)
Page 3: Trend chart showing progress over time
Page 4: One page that shows the most dramatic numbers that reinforce your message
Page 5: Conclusions and recommendations
Make sure you use colors consistently: Red is negative, green is positive and gray is neutral. If you are doing competitive analysis, make sure you use the same color for a competitor throughout the report.
6. A thorough methodology: Maybe no one will pay attention to it the first time you present the data, and when they pass it around a month later, they’ll need a refresher.
7. A constant reminder of the timeframe on which you are reporting. Clearly label every chart and graph with the data and what you’re analyzing.
8. Page numbers: I know this sounds sophomoric, but you’d be surprised how many reports I’ve seen without them.
9. Pithiness: If your report has a prayer of ending up in the boardroom, you have to appreciate the value of the real estate you’re aspiring to. Most board members do not have long attention spans (slightly longer than a kitten’s, but shorter than a 3-year-old’s). Don’t push your luck. Every word must have weight and support your message. Throw out any slide, chart or graph that doesn’t reinforce your message. I don’t care if “it’s always been in there.” If it doesn’t help tell the story, throw it out.
10. References: If you cite a study or reference a data point, make the source available, at least through a link in the presentation.
A version of this article originally appeared on Paine Publishing.