How to write a report (part one)

If you’re anything like me, you’re an office drone who types for a living.
It isn’t as important as making things or healing people, but it IS a living.


One of the main tasks of modern-day typists like me is writing a report.

So it is surprising that it is done so badly when it is done so often.
Never fear! We here at ThinkPurpose have addressed the issue and here is the definitive guide to writing a report! Not sarcastic either! This is us speaking the truth! So listen up!

First, the purpose of writing a report is not to write a report. Look here at the order things happen in…

  • Reporting is done by machines for people to analyse.
  • Analysis is done by people for the purpose of producing insights.
  • Insights are for decision-makers to act on, should relate to purpose and should have few if any numbers. [link]

In that order. If data is there, in a machine, then get it out of there. Thats a report. It’ll probably be in something nasty like CSV format or worse.

Then if you’re like most people that write reports you stick the data into some charts, do some tables, spray loads of maths words like “correlation” and “statistically significant“, add plenty of words inbetween and an executive summary, spellcheck it and you’re done.

This is not achieving the purpose of writing a report.

Reports that are pages of tables and numbers with no insight are like a kid doing his maths homework who includes all the workings out but doesnt give the actual answer.

Instead, show your workings out and your answer!


Remember the purpose is to generate insight, not provide loads of numbers.  So, what is an insight? How would you know what to look for? Insight is something found out about the world that was not known before. In work it’ll relate to customers, purpose and why you’re all there, it’ll be something that you want to know because it’ll affect what you choose to do.
Here are some real insights that I’ve come across in work…
“it takes up to one hundred days to process a claim, not the 20 days we thought it did”
-“IT close and re-open as a new call work that hasn’t been finished properly, to meet target times. The targets are making service worse and the numbers unreliable ”
-“there are no examples in the organisation of measures being used to manage and improve work “

These are sentences that say something. Not tables of numbers. Numbers are how we find out about the world, words are how we tell others what we have found.
So how do we get the right answer?
You get the right answer by asking the right question.
This means whoever asked for the report, or whoever you will give it to, go and speak to them and ask them what they want to know. They might not know exactly what they want to know. In which case ask them what they might DO as a result. Then work back from there.

Am I patronisingnising? No, virtually nobody does it. People are told to “do a report on…” and so they do. This is destined to fail. You need a question before you can provide an answer.
And you need the best question before you can provide the right answer.

In short….


Hang on, that’s TWO things a report has to do.

1: Gain insight
2: Share insight

So all you wordsmiths with your paragraphs and your number tables, listen up.

It’s not just finding the insight and then hiding it inside the paragraphs and numbers where the unwary might stumble across it.  It is finding and SHARING the insight.
Think of the last time somebody shared something with you. A bag of sweets, maybe, they made it easy for you didn’t they, holding it out right in front of you, giving the bag a shake.


“have a sweet…, not a red one….or a blue one…and I’ve licked all the chewy ones”

That is the job of sharing an insight, making it easy for somebody to pick it up.

However a typical report gives the reader all the data and numbers they would need to do the analysis, and expects them to do the analysis and produce the insight themselves!

This is giving the reader of a report the ingredients to a cake and expecting them to bake the cake themselves!

Make the message easy and irresistable by making it STICKY. This is something I’ve banged on about at length, I’m not going to repeat it here.

So, that’s the purpose of a report, but how do you operationalise it?

Don’t produce tables of data and charts and leave it to the reader to do the analysis and produce the insight

Do say clearly and succinctly what the insight is right at the very top under the title.

Do answer the right  question to produce the best insight. If there isn’t a question, go find out what it is!

Do the right analysis. You know what I mean. No binary comparisons, seperate out signal from noise etc

Don’t just state the insight in a formal plain sentence.

Do make the insight sticky, by communicating  it in a way that is simple, concrete, unexpected, emotional, credible and preferably use a story in there.

So, there you are. The purpose of analysis is insight, so find the insight and share the insight, that’s how to write a lush report.


“Hang on…This can’t be right.”

Robert’s right, there’s something not quite right about this, there’s something missing…. Find out next week in Part two of How To Write A Report!
Exciting times!

This entry was posted in communication, public sector, purpose, systems thinking, thinking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How to write a report (part one)

  1. Henrik says:

    Love your posts! Thanks for writing!


  2. Tiredoflazythinking says:

    People I work with keep asking for icing on the cake and I always say you haven’t built the cake yet! (they don’t know what works and what doesn’t – crikey don’t go too near the work). In relation to a complaints system we started a work system increasing everyone’s capability to deal with a complaint but because the logging system costs too much in terms of licences we are going to turn most peoples access off, what do you think will happen to the numbers in the report? Why don’t people want to know the truth?


  3. Tiredoflazythinking says:

    By the way – like the festive snow


  4. Charles Beaurgeard says:

    Great advice in this post – advice I will actually use. It does assume, though, that the right people actually read the report. At times I’ve considered a Van Halen style test (like you’ve blogged about before: to check. Maybe throw in the occasional swear word or some other oddity and see if anyone points it out to me.


  5. Pingback: How to write a report (part two) | thinkpurpose

  6. Pingback: 3 reasons why I hate pretty graphs | thinkpurpose

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