30 Tips to Take the Pain Out of Reporting
Reporting. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s a necessary part of work life. Regardless of where you fit on the love/hate spectrum for reporting, there is always something you can do to make it a little less painful, more engaging, and helpful for everyone involved.
Below are 30 tips to ensure that your reporting feels less like a trip to the status dentist and more like a lunch at a colorful data buffet.
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1. Know Your Audience
Every report has a purpose and specific audience. It’s important that your report is catered to the needs and tastes of each audience who sees it.
Andrea Fryrear, CCO at Fox Content and editor in chief of The Agile Marketer says that all it takes are minor modifications to break down the data into what is most impactful to each audience. An analyst, designer, or engineer will need nitty-gritty details. An executive might just need a summary.
She adds: “Consider what each reader might try to do with the contents of your report. What are their goals, needs, and/or frustrations, and how can you help with them?”
2. Focus Only on The Most Important Data
This simply means know when to say "when." Including every thought or semi-related piece of data could result in confusion during a presentation or muddled interpretations when anyone else tries to read it later.
The purpose of each report isn’t to shove everything into it so you can prove you’ve been busy.
“Just because you’ve got information on a particular metric doesn’t mean it belongs in every single report you provide,” says Fryrear. “Include only what will help your audience achieve their goals or answer their questions.”
3. Clarity is Critical
A good work culture creates dashboards and reports that add clarity instead of confusion. The way to do this is to make sure that the context of the report is provided using clear and general definitions and descriptions of what the reader will find in it.
Avoid jargon or other uniquely departmental vocabulary. Randall Bolten, author and Silicon Valley CFO, says:
“Choosing the right words can mean the difference between reports that readers grasp instantly, and those that take an annoyingly long time to understand—if they are understood at all.”
4. Be Receptive to Feedback
For reports the data might be difficult to argue with, but the way it’s presented can be done in a variety of ways. Before you present a report to a large group, gather feedback from the team to make sure the report is clear and easy to follow and not just the data you want to show.
This is especially true for status reports in particular.
“Be open to the fact that the status report of the projects of the business may also need to be tweaked to best reflect the review needs of the leadership team,” says Mark Price Perry, founder, SVP of operations, BOT International.
“A good status report is one that meets the needs of the reviewer, not just one that is aligned to best practice standards.”
5. Request Feedback Well in Advance
So you received your feedback. Great! But it was on the day you're presenting the results of the project. Now you don’t have any time to make adjustments. Oops.
Much like reviews of creative work and content, a pre-presentation review with trusted team members a few days or a week before the meeting will give you enough time to incorporate feedback and improve the report.
“Ideally, your critic should be someone who isn’t familiar with the data or the project it came from,” says Fryrear.
“This outsider’s perspective will reveal whether or not you’ve achieved the simplicity and clarity that are the hallmarks of great reports.”
6. Edit, Edit, Edit
What if you’ve focused on the audience, tailored the info, revised based on feedback, and it’s still a snoozefest? This could mean it needs the benefits of another efficiency tip: editing.
AirPR’s CSO Rebekah Iliff writes, “Try whittling it down to 30 percent of its original form to deliver the ideas more efficiently. I like to call this the ‘70 percent noise-reduction rule.’ It’s difficult to do at first, but it really forces you to be direct.”
7. Keep the Executive Summary a Summary
People at the executive level benefit most from a summary of the report. This doesn’t mean 10 pages of data. Or even five well-formatted pages. To give the summarized version of a longer report, create an outline of your findings on one page.
“Your goal in the executive summary is to be clear and concise; if the reader isn’t hungry enough to consume the entirety of your report, they should be satisfied with this overview.
"It shouldn’t leave them with unanswered questions,” says Fryrear.
8. Provide a 10,000-Foot View
The c-suite have their summaries. Some of them might even read it. But it’s still a good idea to provide a holistic high-level view of the report using a few simple graphics or charts.
This isn’t meant to take the place of a well-done full report. Rather, it can be used as a way to refresh people’s memories about what’s in the summary or full report.
“You have to assume that some of the execs and managers involved aren’t even going to read a short summary,” writes Brad Egeland, solution designer and PM consultant.
“Forget about words. You want to get into symbols or colors ...This is mainly for the higher-ups who want to know how your project is doing in 20 seconds or less.”
9. Engage your Stakeholders Early
The most successful projects don’t get created in a vacuum. This is also true when reporting. Your report will have data from many different teams and departments, so don’t expect to gather all the data and interpret it yourself, even if you could.
Involving department and team leaders in the processing of the results will give your reports more balance and nuance. Project accountant at Thames Water, Mervin Nkole, ACMA, CGMA gives this piece of advice:
“The key is to have strong relationships with the people who are closest to the projects, and to network as much as possible...
"When gathering the data for your report, make sure you ask your sources as many questions as you can.”
10. Agree on Which Metrics Matter
A completed report won’t be any use to anyone if the people assembling it just pull any data they want to or display how many pizzas were eaten during the completion of the project.
Effective reporting cultures stem from an initial agreement between teams about what the crucial KPIs are and how they will be most effectively reported.
“Come to an agreement on what wins look like and the metrics you’ll use to gauge success,” Iliff writes. “One of the main reasons why we report in the first place is so we can use data-driven insights to inform future work.”
11. Adhere to Corporate Style Guidelines
If your company is enterprise level or organized enough to have a brand and style guide, double check your report against the guidelines whenever possible. This ensures it’s on the mark and uniform with other reports from other teams or departments.
No style guide? No problem.
Iliff says, “A broad framework of preferred fonts, deck templates, and the like can help streamline information consumption so your teammates’ brains can focus on the content, not the flair.”
12. Presentation Matters
It’s OK if you’re not a graphic designer. You can still make your presentation better using a few beauty tips.
For example, DesignShack.net says additions such as proper alignment, clear headers, limited use of color, zebra stripes, and extra padding will take your report spreadsheets to a more readable level.
The ProjectSmart blog adds that writing in bullets—not paragraphs—and avoiding unnecessary use of titles, colons, and adverbs/adjectives will improve the report’s readability.
Finally, “First impressions matter… so take a few minutes to help your data look its best,” writes Fryrear.
13. Keep it Easy to Read
With the development in reporting tools, dashboards, and other work-improvement tools, there is no longer an excuse to report using Excel.
“Excel sheets are quickly becoming a thing of the past for good reason,” says the SocialBakers blog. “Your managers want attractive, well-organized visualizations of your data.”
This is not just because it’s pretty. Studies found that almost 65 percent of visual information is retained after three days compared to 1-20 percent of written/spoken information.
“Use a format that makes sense and that is easy to prepare,” Perry writes. “But take ample time to ensure that the project status report is pleasant on the eyes of its recipients.”
14. Keep it Short
Fit your report to one page, if you can. “This is more than a tip. This is a rule.”
15. Open with the Critical Points
This isn’t a Hitchcock movie. Your reports or report presentations don’t need to save the best for last or include a twist ending.
Kick off the report with the highlights, top learnings, and takeaways then get into details as you continue. Iliff says, “List the most important information at the beginning instead of writing the content in a chronological way.”
16. Make Reports Easily Accessible
You and your team put a lot of time into making sure the report does its job. It would be a waste if no one could access it. Once you’ve done your job and sold the management team on the results of your work, put the report somewhere everyone can get to it and make it easy to find it.
“Don't just file your status report away on your PC hard drive and don't just email it as an attachment to your boss,” Perry says. “Make your status report available to all those that have a need to know about it.”
This can be in Dropbox, Google Drive, or, better yet, in the document storage and sharing feature of a work management platform.
17. Simplify How Reports are Shared
There is a hierarchy of reporting methods. We think Excel is at the bottom, while being able to build, display, and share your reports in one graphically robust tool is at the top.
When you have a tool that gathers the data for you based on your requirements and allows you to share it with those who need it with a few clicks, that makes everyone’s work life better. The simpler the method, the better.
“Excellent status reporting means that managers are fully informed of your projects' health and overall direction without having to get involved themselves,” says writer and IT manager Rob Redmond.
“Even on relatively less important projects, effective status reporting allows your boss to spend only a few seconds skimming your report to determine what sort of progress you have made.”
18. Don’t Be Afraid to Improvise
We don’t mean make up data or spew non sequiturs for comic relief.
While your report may have covered the necessary information, you should still be able to use pieces from it to help support or clarify things that may not have been in the original plan or agenda.
Fryrear says, “It’s up to you to combine and customize them to fit your unique situation. And don’t be afraid to mix things up when the situation calls for it.”
19. Cut the Prose
With reports, the story is in the data. It’s best to keep the report and any presentation of the report and its information to graphical representations, bullets, or other easy-to-scan content.
“So many write as though they were authoring a novel and create a report that management must spend inordinate amounts of time with in order to get what they need,” Redmond writes.
The last thing you want to do is frustrate managers and executives with verbose content when all they need is the most important details.
20. Connect the Report to the Big Picture
Reports that show how information benefits the team are helpful for team meetings and reporting up to your manager.
Mark Stouse, founder and CEO of analytics and marketing software Proof, says it’s important to show how it works in conjunction with company goals and milestones: revenue, margin, cash flow, market share, and other key metrics.
“If you are a marketing or PR pro, being able to compute and communicate the business effects of what you do is the only path to that seat at the table.”
21. Compare Your Results to Competitors
“To objectively evaluate your activities, it is necessary to compare your results with competitors,” SocialBakers blog says. “The best way to set realistic goals is to benchmark your performance against industry averages and competitors.”
Not only should you be applying what you learn and comparing it with past results, you might also want to take the time to compare your progress and results to that of your competitors, if that data is available.
22. Include the One, True Super-Metric
Are you on track? No matter what metrics, work style (Agile, Waterfall, etc.), or reporting method you use, this is what everyone viewing the report will ultimately want to know.
The Agile Reporting Guide says that as long as you answer this question you and your report will have done the job. “All else is either exceptional or supporting information, or just plain background noise.”
23. Use Your Findings Often
You worked hard to get the results in your report. In order to get its full value, use it whenever you can to support initiatives and business goals in your meetings, discussions, and content marketing.
“Seek to use your status report whenever the occasion rises to share information about your project,” Perry writes. “The more you use your status report, the better it will be.”
24. Turn the Bad News into Good
Sometimes the results of the KPIs aren’t good news. But after holding a post mortem session, you can review the data and apply it to the next project or initiative. Making adjustments is critical to a healthy reporting culture.
“Reporting what didn’t work with your strategy is just as important as showcasing what did,” says Iliff.
“Senior leaders will feel more confident in their investments … if they know you’re iterating and evolving your strategy frequently.”
25. Report More Than Once a Quarter
If you’re only reporting quarterly, you’re doing it wrong. Whether it’s marketing performance, project status, or product epics, regularly reporting on what worked is better than finding out just four times a year.
“What worked last month might not work now,” says the SocialBakers blog. “Assess the accuracy of your reporting … Continually evaluate your progress and create realistic goals.”
26. Automate Your Reports
Think of how easy it would be to report more than once a quarter if your reports were automated.
If your tool allows you to set up reports that automatically update 24/7—or at least at the push of a button—and send the results to stakeholders and managers on a set schedule, then you and your team will have more time to work on critical projects instead of pouring over numbers the week leading up to a report deadline.
Fryrear says, “The key emphasis here should be real-time or close to real-time updates for both project managers and the management team of progress, potential pitfalls, and status.”
27. Use a Comprehensive Dashboard
You may not have a tool that provides a dashboard. If not, you will need to make the other tips work to your advantage. Or bribe your graphic designer to make your data visually interesting.
If you do have a dashboard, Eric Morgan, CEO of Workfront, suggests that dashboards are critical in reporting and in helping IT leaders get their team and product vision back:
“Dashboard reporting can also be extremely effective to reveal the company’s position in a wide variety of business units, including marketing and digital projects, sales, and IT implementations.”
28. Be Agile
Yes, this means the methodology. But whether or not you use Agile where you work, it can also mean being open and flexible in your reporting. Being flexible in how you report on your work and the results of it might be one of the most critical tips.
”Agile teams should be agile in reporting as well as delivery; they can add charts for whatever they need to track, such as defects or customer acceptance, and can augment this minimum reporting set,” writes Rick Freedman of TechRepublic.
“Most important is to maintain open collaboration and communication and to avoid making the process more important than the product.”
We’re not talking about a high-level view here. This refers to reporting on all the bananas.
Whatever your chosen method to show all the data, scope changes, backlogs, burndown rate, project status, or other KPIs, it can get overwhelming to those reading the reports if there is too much going on.
Create these reports using graphs, charts, and other visuals and consolidate based on the need of your stakeholders. This will be easiest if you allow your team to customize dashboards in a work management tool so they can monitor their effectiveness and productivity.
30. Use Software That Puts All the Information at Your Fingertips
While we try to give you tips regardless of your software or tool situation, sometimes, like we’ve done with dashboards above, we think it’s crucial to have certain features and we make that known.
One of the best ways to report effectively is to have software that takes the stress, complexity, and confusion out of your reporting.
With Workfront, you gain instant perspective into how work is accomplished in your organization with information about who is completing the work, how long projects take, and what happens when you add new initiatives to the workload.
You can also build real-time reports in elegant dashboards that you can then set to automatically send to those who rely on the information.
For more information on helping your organization gain the insights you need to increase productivity and decrease reporting burnout, click here.