Producing a report of findings
Being able to clearly present the results or findings following a piece of engagement is extremely important.
A well-written report is key to communicating to the target audience what has been learned.
Write with the audience in mind
Start by considering who your audience is going to be. The most effective communication is one that relates to its audience as closely as possible. For example a management group might appreciate a shorter summary, while a practitioner group might appreciate more detail and information. A professional audience will be more conversant with technical terminology which is unfamiliar to a lay audience. Often, you will need to prepare more than one document for the same project, because the needs and style of your target audiences are too diverse for your messages to be communicated effectively in one document.
Start with your main point
You can then support this with additional information as necessary. This applies to the construction of a full report (where the executive summary will bring together the main points at the start of the report); sections within a report (where your opening paragraph will explain the purpose of the section); and paragraphs themselves (where your opening sentence carries the key point of the paragraph). You can progressively add as much detail as you wish to your report, using footnotes, appendices and references to avoid the main text becoming bogged down with detail.
Have a logical thread
There is no one best way to structure a document, but the accepted practice is to make sure there is a logical progression from the beginning to the end. Many reports use the following structure:
- executive summary
- introduction (which includes the aims of the work)
- key findings
Presenting information capably
Projects may involve either or both of two types of data – quantitative and qualitative.
Quantitative data are numeric. They involve the use of numbers to describe the issue under investigation. Your findings and insight will be grounded in your interpretation of these numbers. With quantitative data come some health warnings that result from the relatively high authority people seem to attach to numbers, especially percentages. Make sure you indicate the actual numbers when quoting percentages – it is usual to show the actual number of responses in brackets after quoting the percentage exhibiting those responses – some will quote the 'base', which is the total number of responses upon which the analysisis based. You may choose to carry out statistical checks to help illustrate the reliability of quantitative findings, but even if you don't you should be aware of and accept the limits of numerical data, especially where your results are based on the views of a sample of people (rather than the full population).
Qualitative investigation is usually used to explore what’s behind the numbers, focusing on the answers to the 'why' questions. Qualitative data are often words, and qualitative data analysis usually involves looking for themes or patterns in the sentiments expressed by the research participants – the process of coding and comparison.
The usual output of a qualitative analysis is the researcher's written summary of this interpretation, often with reference to the codes or themes used in the analysis. Instead of using numbers to indicate what the data are saying, qualitative indicators are usually verbatim comments or quotations (these are called indicators, as they provide a first-hand indication, or illustration, of what you are saying in your text). These can be presented in italics and/or speech marks to distinguish them from the main text.
Do not feel obliged to include every comment or quotation in your report; they should work in support of your own text but not replace it – a mere list of quotations is not a written-up qualitative analysis. It is not usual to mention any individual by name when presenting qualitative data (there are confidentiality issues) but attributing a quote to a type of respondent (for example using job role – unless this renders the respondent personally identifiable) is helpful to readers. This attribution is normally shown in brackets or italics following the end of a quotation. The quotes you choose to include should be a fair reflection of the general sentiment, so beware of using statements that are sensational as they are likely to attract a disproportionately high degree of attention.
Visuals like charts, graphs, data tables and illustrations help to make information more understandable, and break up large blocks of text. Only use visuals that relate to your message. Make sure each visual has a title or caption. Use a key or labels to make sure the visual is self-explanatory. Link the visuals to your text, for example using figure numbers. Make sure any visuals are legible and make sure they are still effective when printed in black and white; colours on graphs can often be a challenge here.
Your work will have benefited from the efforts of others and will be part of a much bigger picture for your organisation. Acknowledge everyone who supported the work; some authors include a brief acknowledgements page at the start of the report. Reference any research or relevant policy documents you have drawn on.
Also acknowledge the shortcomings and limitations of your own work, be they in terms of method, the sample of people with whom you've engaged or the general applicability of your findings.
Close the loop
Make sure your report addresses its aims and objectives. State these clearly towards the start of your document. It is also good practice to refer directly to the aims and objectives when making your conclusions. In this way, your report closes the loop from what the project set out to investigate to what it found out.
Your recommendations should follow your conclusions, and be focused on the implications of your work, and this is usually the final part of the main text. This enables your work to finish with a future focus, thus enhancing its potential practical value.
Keep the housekeeping right
Make sure your report has a title, a date, a project reference and/or version number (if appropriate) and it is clear who the authors are.
Numbering will be helpful for people trying to navigate around your document, including pages, sections, sub-sections, figures and list of recommendations. Some authors number their paragraphs.
A contents page is a useful inclusion.
It is usual to write up research method and research findings in the past tense. By the time you are writing up the findings, the research has already taken place.
If you are unsure of the order in which to present the findings, you are unlikely to go far wrong if you use the questionnaire or topic guide to give you this.
Always check and recheck spelling and grammar. Having someone other than the author to do this usually works best; total reliance on a computer spellcheck is rarely sufficient.
It is customary to include copies of questionnaires, topic guides or other research tools in an appendix.
It is more difficult to write a short report than a long one. Some organisations stipulate a maximum number of pages for a research report. A well-written shorter report normally benefits from focus and pace, which makes it more engaging for its readers.
This guide was provided by FMR Research Ltd.