What Makes a Useful Report? Clear Purpose, Data and Context Help

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The SIPA Europe Chapter met on Feb. 7 on Actionable Information: Reporting for Performance and discussed the business reporting that publishers and information executives need to help drive smart and efficient decisions.

They exchanged ideas on what makes useful performance reports and dashboards, how to improve report presentation of them for faster comprehension, and action and ideas for useful KPIs.

The group—chaired by Julian Turner of Cofunction and Robin Crumby of Novatum group—also came up with six questions to ask that can help make reports most useful in business.

Of those six, "Does it tell a story?" resonates the most for me. We hear a lot about storytelling today in almost all facets of publishing. The fact that reports should tell one as well makes sense. As I heard Sarah Redohl, an editor in London for Immersive Shooter, once say in a webinar, "We're surrounded by our stories—but we're not always telling them."

Consider inviting your members/subscribers, their staff and clients, your volunteers, and maybe even your suppliers and sponsors to tell their stories. You can then choose wisely. The voices and faces of stakeholders will warm up your report, extend its reach and shelf life, and inspire audiences.

Here are the five other questions for creating useful reports that the SIPA Europe Chapter came up with during their meeting. (Thanks also goes to Julian Thorne of the Big Wheel consultancy for his insights and experiences.)

1. Is it prompting action? Good reports nudge you to the appropriate next action. Does it pass the "so what?" test?

2. Does it help make a decision? A good report contains data that is reliable and meaningful enough to base a decision on. Also, its purpose should be clear to the reader from the beginning. Identify whether the intent is to persuade the reader to do something.

3. Is the purpose of the report understood? Reports may describe lag indicators (ie past performance, such as historic renewal rates, management accounts) or lead indicators (i.e. data that predicts future performance, such as number of relevant meetings achieved, registrations of interest); or is it a dashboard summary, a snapshot in time?

4. Is the data clear? Bad reports often have headings which are unclear or ambiguous—how much time is wasted by asking what a particular column means? Good reports avoid clutter from unnecessary information or spurious detail—revenue forecasts which go down to single units of currency imply a level of precision that is inappropriate. A good report draws you to the most important information through design, color-coding or intelligent commentary from someone close to the data.

5. Does it provide relevant context? Any number can appear less meaningful when it is out of context. A good report contains a relevant comparator, whether that is based on time, geography or a benchmark. 

Lastly, it's usually best to be concise. Including filler content distracts from the point at hand and wastes the reader's time—especially in this time-crunched age. A report should use a minimum amount of words to make a clear point. Write a first draft and then come back to it in a couple days. Believe me, you'll find excess language.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…