We’ve all been there. Staring at the monitor, reading an email: “I need a report next week.” Now your cursor is blinking; appearing and vanishing like each spark trying to ignite an idea on how to deliver on that report. Before you get too lost in the omniscient white screen in front of you, there are a few things that you should keep in mind when building reports for upper management.
Understand Your Audience
Is this report going to be presented to a C-level executive or a highly technical analyst? These certainly are not the only two types of audiences, but they can help represent how knowing who the reader is should shape messaging in the deliverable.
Executives are generally a less-technical audience. It is important in these types of reports to include a glossary of terms, or at least a written explanation of technical terms in the body content. For this audience, context is everything. You should start with the most high-level reporting and work your way into the detail. As you move further along in your reporting, the detailed section should always echo thoughts that were raised in the high-level portion.
Here are a few topics that are commonly covered in executive reports:
- Brand/program definition
- Trend analysis
- Directional strategies
Technical analysts live and breathe the subject matter. They are aware of existing strategies and require little context, but large amounts of explanation. Why did a spike occur in our trending? Which customers are most profitable, and what is their margin compared to the next most profitable segment? This is the audience that is likely to be “in the weeds” and will offer up more strategic conversation or suggestion.
Here are a few topics that are commonly covered in technical reports:
- Quantitative explanations
- Deep-dive analysis
- Statistical analysis
- Tactical strategies
Support Your Reports With Visual Aids
The most obvious suggestion here is to include graphs and charts. Sometimes, however, a simple picture or personification of a consumer works just as well. Whatever you choose, it should always enhance the point you are trying to make, not distract from it.
Charts and Graphs
Charts and graphs make their way into almost any report. Humans interpret, comprehend, and retain information more effectively when it is presented in a visual format. That’s why even the most technical analysts use data visualization software. However, the pitfall that some analysts can make is over-complicating visuals. More often than not, simple bar, line, and pie charts can effectively communicate the point you are trying to make. Combining these elements to provide context can sometimes make a real impact.
The graphic above shows a combination of a line chart, pie chart, and table to show the number of impressions of tweets with a photo versus tweets without. The line chart shows the trends of each over time, the pie chart displays the percent of total impressions of each, and the table shows very specific numerical breakouts for each day in the period. On this one graphic, you call out specific trends in the line chart, support them with the table, and then show how that all feeds up to the larger trend of why photos should be used to generate impressions.
Pictures and Graphics
Pictures and other graphics also help tell a story, even though they are not inherently data-driven. Most of the time these are used to provide context or a personification of a data point trying to be made.
Keeping with the example of photo versus no photo to earn impressions on Twitter, the graphic above incorporates a tweet that led to a spike in impressions on one of the dates in the period. On the line chart, we have also reinforced the cause of this spike by displaying the profile picture of the user that generated the impressions. The purpose of doing this is to link a data trend with real-life interaction. By personifying a data point, the graphic becomes more impactful and memorable.
Stick To Your Story
With data more available than ever, it’s easy to get distracted. Take a second to remember why you are saying what you are saying. A purposeful story is always better than a lengthy story. With every section that you prepare, ask yourself, “why would my reader care about this?” If you have to spend more than a few sentences explaining, your point is most likely lost.
If you need some guidance, here’s a simple structure that can keep you focused:
- What were the objectives?
- How did we measure the success of those objectives?
- What happened?
- What did we learn?
- What would we do differently next time?
Though simplistic, these basic questions can help keep your focus narrowed and on-point. No matter what audience you are reporting to, being focused and on-point will ultimately save both you and your reader time.
So now here we are, back at the same computer screen, looking at the same email. Remember, understand your audience, support your thoughts with visual aids, and stick to your story. If you keep these three things in mind, you’ll be in good shape when it comes time to turn in that report.