Learning & Development, Talent

Clear Communication: Using Summaries for Long Reports

In a previous post, we discussed the use of color coding in reports as a means of drawing attention to key pieces of information and illustrating trends in data at a high level.

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Another useful way to demonstrate key points of a large data set or report is by simply stating that information or those conclusions in a summary. Here, we discuss some best practices for summarizing reports.

Beginning or End?

Initially, it’s important to consider the location of a report summary. While it might seem logical to treat a summary as a conclusion and put it at the end of a document, we strongly recommend putting a summary at the top of the report.

Think of this as an executive summary. The rationale for this is that people are busy, and those presenting the report have limited time to keep their attention.

Expecting a busy manager or executive to read through an entire report to reach the conclusion is unrealistic. Put the key findings at the beginning, and let readers decide if they want to dig into the details.

Tone of the Summary

The tone of a summary will depend on the purpose of the report. If the report is informative, the summary should be objective in tone, simply presenting information.

If, however, the purpose of the report is to influence a decision, the summary can be used to help frame an argument—for example, “As you will see in the following data, safety incidents have increased by 15% in the 7 months following the change in the previous process.”

Provide the Context

The summary can also serve as an introduction and background section for the data to follow. Don’t make readers guess why the data are presented. Tell them upfront—for example, “The following data represent the monthly report of overdue invoices for review by the CFO and president” or “The data below demonstrate the growth in sales of Product Z following the January marketing campaign.”

Highlight Any Key Findings

If there are results in the report that need readers’ attention, highlight those in the summary rather than hoping readers will find them on their own. These could include concerning spikes in errors, drops in revenue, or missing information, among others.

Note Any Factors Impacting the Credibility of the Findings

Sometimes it’s difficult to get all the required information, and decisions must be based on incomplete or imperfect data. Report summaries are a great place to call those potential issues out. If there was a limited sample size, incomplete reporting from departments, or another concern, note that in the summary so those reading the data can make informed decisions.

Employees can spend a lot of time and effort putting reports together only to have them glossed over by busy managers who don’t have time to sift through mounds of data. An effective summary can save the reader time while ensuring key points are communicated.