What you’ll learn to do: Create an informal report
Informal reports in the business setting are usually shorter in length and have fewer sections than a formal report. Employees in most organizations create and use informal reports. Almost all informal reports are for internal use. Some institutions have prescribed formats and others do not. As we’ve previously discussed, an informal report fits in one of two large categories:
- informational report
- analytical report
An informational report provides background and information without reaching an evaluation. These include simple reports like meeting minutes, expense reports, and progress, or status updates. An analytical report provides much the same information as the informational report along with evaluation or recommendation. These reports may include feasibility studies, justification reports, and proposals.
Most organizations have specific forms and policies for the simplest reports, such as a mileage reimbursement report. Other simple reports are not as restricted.
- Differentiate among typical types of informal reports
- Discuss different methods of sharing informal reports
- Discuss the purpose of common sections of an informal report
- Determine how to organize an informal report based on audience analysis
- Discuss how to write an informal report
Informal reports are the bread and butter of reports. It is likely that all employees will be responsible for many informal reports over their careers.
Types of Informal Reports
The following are typical types of informal reports. Keep in mind that there may be some overlap with formal reports (i.e., some report types can be informal or formal).
- Meeting minutes are a type of informal report that summarizes the discussion and results from a meeting. These reports are informational. They are summaries, not a direct collection of all statements from all attendees.
- Expense reports are informal reports that nearly always have a prescribed format. These reports consist primarily of amount of expenditures by type of expense. There is little to no free writing.
- Status updates may be internal to a company in addressing a business situation, or they may be external in providing the status of a project to another organization. These reports are short and tightly focused to the purpose. They are informational reports.
- Trip or conference reports are used to summarize and transmit learning from a trip or conference. They are informational, and they increase the value of the trip or conference as they share what was learned with others.
- Proposals or feasibility reports for smaller or simpler projects can also be considered informal reports. These are analytical, as they provide analysis and propose a direction to take.
Dena, who manages a team in her company's social media department, wants to consider changing the layout of her team's workspace to include more collaborative workspaces. She wants to know if this will cause any employee dissatisfaction or cause team members to feel as if they don't have time to focus on personal projects. Dena has asked her assistant, Angela, to conduct a focus group of seven employees to talk about the impact of this possible change. Which type of informal report would Angela most likely write?
- feasibility report
- meeting minutes
- conference report
Sharing Informal Reports
Informal reports may be delivered in a variety of formats including letters, memos, emails, and digital postings (such as a blog). While your delivery method may impact the format of your report, the writing and purpose will stay the same.
An informal report may be something as simple as a completed standardized form designed by the company; it can also be something more complex, such as an informal proposal. Informal reports may be informational or analytical.
Informal reports may have internal or external audiences. The format of the report should align to the recipient:
- Memos are used for internal communication.
- Letters are used for for external communication.
- Web postings are typically used for external communication, but institutions that have private networks may use these posting for internal communication.
- Email may be used for internal or external reports depending upon company policy.
Regardless of the mode of transmission, the structure and content of your report will be based on the type of the report.
Angela has finished her report about the potential change in workplace layout and now needs to share the report with Dena, who asked for the report. Angela should ________.
- send an email with the report as the body
- print a copy of the report and have it bound at a print shop
- print a copy of the report and put it in Dena's in-basket
send an email with the report as the body
Sections of Informal Reports
Informal informational reports typically include the following three sections:
- Introduction or background
- Support or reasons
Informal analytical reports typically include the following four sections:
- Introduction or background
- Support or reasons
- Conclusion or summary
Introduction or Background
A short section introducing the reader to the “why” of the report. In more complex reports, the introduction may include a background, a problem statement, specific objectives, or all of the above.
Support or Reasons
This is where you’ll include your facts, findings, and data. Writers new to reports may make the mistake of providing lists of data and other information found as a result of research. However, most business managers can find the information on their own with time. The purpose of this section of a report is to present a summary of main ideas from the research—it’s not simply a collection of raw data.
If more detailed data is needed, an appendix is the most likely place for key selections of raw data.
This section may include the methodology of the research.
This section is only found in analytical reports; it shows how data supports the recommendation given in the report. Essentially, the author connects the logical data items in a way that points to the recommendation.
Remember, the readers are expecting a recommendation with supporting data; they’re not expecting to work through all the data on their own.
Conclusion or Summary
This short section wraps up the report and gives a quick summary of the information provided therein.
Sophia has noticed that the customer check out lines at her store have been much longer than they used to be on Sundays during the typical quiet “church time.” While there have been no ugly scenes, there have been some disgruntled customers. Sophia asks her morning manager, Valerie, to track the number of customers at each checker stand for the next 30 days and compare it to last year’s numbers. Sophia wonders if this new change is due to the performance of the local football team or due to population growth in this suburb. Valerie collects the checker stand data and starts her outline for the short report. Which major sections should she start with?
- introduction, support, summary
- opening, body, close
- introduction, support, recommendations, summary
introduction, support, summary
Organizing based on Audience Analysis
The logic of report organization is the same as the logic discussed in Module 2 for shorter messages. Reports analyze the audience the same way. The difference lies in the depth of information needed. Thinking about your audience, or the stakeholders, is one of the most crucial considerations when creating a report. It’s important to keep in mind that your audience may be broader than you expect (remember the discussion on types of stakeholders from earlier this module): your potential readers have an interest in the report’s content for many reasons based on their unique job functions.
To determine which types of sections you should use in your informal report, think about the purpose of the report (these sections can take inspiration from the standardized sections used in formal reports, which we will discuss in-depth later) in relation to your audience.
Organizing Your Report
If your audience is expected to react neutrally or positively to your message, then your conclusion or recommendation should be offered near the beginning of the report. Thus, your report would be laid out like this. First you would write the introduction, background, or problem section. Next come your conclusions or recommendations. These are backed up by the support or reasons section, which details facts, data, or findings. The final section is typically some sort of further discussion, analysis, or summary. Remember that introducing these sections with a descriptive heading can help your readers, especially if the sections consist of multiple paragraphs.
Figure 1: Informational Report Organization
If the audience is expected to react negatively to your message, then the conclusion or recommendation is offered towards the end of the report. This alternate organization allows the reader to reach a similar conclusion to yours based upon the research and logic offered. Thus, your report would be laid out like this: First you would write your introduction, background, or problem. The next section will be the support or reasons section, which details facts, data, or findings that led you to your conclusion. Next you would include discussion, analysis, or summary. This sections is where the logical or emotional arguments that may influence the reader’s understanding are made. Your report then concludes with your conclusions or recommendations. Remember that introducing these sections with a descriptive heading can help your readers, especially if the sections consist of multiple paragraphs.
Figure 2: Analytical Report Organization
Formatting the Report
While informal reports may not use extensive or standardized labeling of sections, nor do they have required length of individual sections, each section has a unique purpose. However, these “sections” may be a couple of paragraphs rather than a fully separated section with their own headings. As the report starts to exceed a page or two, headings will provide a tremendous benefit to the reader, and to you, as the reader better understands and retains your main ideas.
a quick comparison: using headings?
Take a look at these two dummy texts to compare the structure of an informal report without headings and an informal report that uses headings. (Note that these examples only show the formatting of a report, not the ideal way to write one.)
Headings can be a useful tool for helping your readers navigate directly to the information they want. Notice that the headings catch your reader’s eye much more easily than phrases such as “in my research . . . ”
Chris’s boss, Yasmin, wants to consider changing the work schedule from 40 hours over five days a week to 40 hours over four days a week. She wants to know if this will cause any employee dissatisfaction or increase the cost of overtime. Yasmin tells Chris that other institutions are doing this, and she expects that Chris’s research will find that this change makes sense. Chris expects to write an informal analytical report that Yasmin can use to support the decision to make this change. If Chris finds support for this change, which organization makes the most sense for his report in this situation?
- introduction, support/reasons, recommendation, conclusion
- introduction, recommendation, support/reasons, conclusion
- introduction, recommendation, conclusion
introduction, recommendation, support/reasons, conclusion
How to Write an Informal Report
Writing informal reports follows the same steps of any other writing task. First is the plan. Second is the writing. Third is the revising.
Planning Your Informal Report
When asked to create an informal report, first check to see if your organization has a form or template that should be used. Then verify your understanding of the report’s purpose.
For example, say you are a shift manager at a grocery store, and there has been an increase in customer complaints about fruit that seems to spoil more quickly than it used to. Your store manager has asked you to create a report on this issue. You need to determine whether your manager wants to know causes of fruit spoilage (including items such as time each type of fruit stays fresh from date picked, types of shipping containers, or temperature of storage units), or if your manager wants to know what is happening in the store after the fruit is received (how the fruit is handled, how much fruit can sit on top of other fruit, or temperature in the various storage units). The purpose of a report will impact the amount and type of research to be done.
Next you’ll complete any data gathering needed; by the end of the project, you should have more data and knowledge than you started with (and possibly more than you need for the report itself). You’ll use that data to create the report’s outline. Writers must take care to provide only what is needed for the purpose of the report: avoid wandering to interesting side issues or presenting everything you learned whether or not it’s relevant.
In the process of writing a report, or almost any business writing, the planning step should take at minimum 25–30 percent of the time or effort of the full report.
Writing Your Informal Report
With the detailed outline created in the planning process, the actual writing of the informal report should go quickly. In this step, you’ll focus on paragraph structure, wording, and phrasing using the lessons found in Module 2: Writing In Business.
Sometimes, writers hear the term “report” and think their writing style must change. What works well for short messages also works well for informal reports. The primary difference is that a report requires a bit more depth to appropriately communicate its message: there are more words and paragraphs, but the words do not need to be longer or more complex sounding. Write with the same skills taught in Module 2: Writing In Business.
writing for your company
Different companies have different styles for writing reports: you should always match they style of your current institution. Some companies accept a more casual style of writing. This may include the use of personal pronouns such as “I recommend . . . ” or “we completed a survey of 20 people.” Some companies accept use of contractions as in, “The Customer Contact team couldn’t reach a conclusion on types of bags to use,” while others do not.
In all cases, remember that a report may be retained for a long time and may be viewed by many readers. With your current credibility and future credibility possibly at stake, it is generally better to be safe by using slightly more professional tone.
Formatting Your Report
In writing your report, remember that headings guide the reader, but like an email subject line, they are no substitute for clear, descriptive writing that helps the reader stay on track. While writing your report, you should use summary statements as each paragraph or section closes to avoid a jerky, disconnected feel in your writing. Ensure that each new section below a header has a good topic sentence that serves as an introduction to the section.
When writing your report, you can take your preexisting outline (from the planning step) and use your word processor’s pre-formatted heading styles to create the headings for your report. This provides two benefits: it quickly organizes your report in a pleasing way, and it meets ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements.
When writing a report, writers often tend to add sections simply because they are “supposed to be there,” rather than focusing on the purpose of each section and how it might support the report.
A stronger writing skill is to look to the type of report and the outline prepared for the writing, then select headers that suit the content, rather than content suiting the header. With informal reports, the style is somewhat relaxed, so headers should focus on making information easy for the reader to access.
When writing a report, or in almost any business writing, the writing step takes about 40–50 percent of the total time or effort for the full report. This may surprise many writers who think that this step is all you need to complete for a report. However, if you spend the time to ensure the planning step is well done, writing goes much more quickly, and you’ll produce a better report.
Revising Your Informal Report
As with most documents, the final step in creating a report is the one most frequently skipped or only partially completed by writers; in fact, writers will often intentionally skip this step, likely because it is at the end of a long process, and they are often eager to submit their work to the requester.
Additionally, their familiarity with the content can lead to them seeing what was intended versus what is actually written. For example, the sentence, “In summary, the store should now implement the new plan” can accidentally be typed, “In summary, the store should notimplement the new plan” to disastrous results. To combat this, you can use word processing proofreading tools, which will catch some spelling errors. Then, no matter how long it takes, read the report aloud. A team member or peer is an excellent additional reviewing tool.
Another way to fail on this step is to read only for proofreading and grammar mistakes. However, revising should also include going back to the original request for the report and back to the original outline to see if the report is directly focused on the planned purpose. Along the way of data gathering and finding new ideas on a topic, there can be some unintentional shift in the focus of the writing. Look to ensure that just the information needed to address the topic is present. Ensure that the primary purpose comes across clearly in your writing.
In the process of writing a report, or almost any business writing, the revising step takes about 25–30 percent of the total time or effort of the full report.
Chris’s boss, Yasmin, wants to consider changing the work schedule from 40 hours over five days a week to 40 hours over four days a week. She wants to know if this will cause any employee dissatisfaction or increase the cost of overtime. Yasmin asks Chris to look into it and prepare a report. She then asks Chris how long it will take to complete this work. Chris thinks of the time each step takes. These big steps to the report’s creation include ________.
- introduction, recommendation, reasons, conclusion
- plan, write, revise
- create and outline, write the body, find the supporting research, proofread
plan, write, revise