A report can make or break a research project. A lot of time and skill goes into a good report. Well, we would say that.
Here are 50 tips for writing research reports that have impact. Why 50? No idea.
1 Give yourself time
A good report will take time. You need time to stew on findings and piece things together. Dog walks are good for this.
2 Get to know your data before jumping in
Make notes and observations on things that stand out to you or that you think are interesting.
3 Think about your audience
Who is the report for? What do they need to know? What will they be interested in? What assumed knowledge do they have?
4 Check the original research objectives
Make sure you’re answering the original key questions you had at the start of the project. But don’t just blindly use these to structure your report.
5 Involve your ‘stakeholders’ early
They’re key to the development of your report, whether that’s a client, manager or internal department. Find out what they’re expecting before you start.
6 Agree branding and style at the outset
Make sure you’ve spoken about branding in advance - colour palette, font, tone of voice and more. It’ll save you some pain further down the line.
7 Think about format
We prefer a slidedeck format rather than the traditional A4 report. You’ll have your own style.
8 The best research reports tell a story
A research report should be more than just charting up some data and a few bullet points.
9 Mixed methods research often tells the best story
Bringing quantitative and qualitative findings together can be really powerful. But it's not easy to seamlessly blend the two.
10 Get together with someone and talk about the research
That’s where you’ll start to see stories emerge. Do this again as your report develops.
11 Giving your report some structure can make life easier
Set out your structure and approach before putting too much time in. It can make a big piece of work feel a bit more manageable.
12 But don’t worry about ripping the structure up
As you start writing up your analysis, different stories and connections will emerge that you didn’t see at the start.
13 Variety can keep a report interesting
Find different ways to present data and feedback through your report. 50 bar charts might lose its impact...
14 But there’s a time for consistency
Consistent use of charts and colours can help readers digest findings, such as when you use the same response scale for several questions.
15 Less can be more
Simple slides with strong messages are good. This could centre around one big statistic or qualitative comment. Don’t be afraid of white space.
16 What you think is interesting might not be...
You might get drawn into an area of analysis that you find interesting but doesn’t really fit with the research objectives or add much to your report. Get some feedback and be prepared to let go.
17 If in doubt, leave it out
If you aren’t confident in the point you’re making, there’s probably a good reason.
18 You don’t have to include everything
Just because you asked a question, doesn’t mean it’s going to result in something interesting or useful. If it’s not adding anything, don’t put it in (or at least stick it in an appendix).
19 You can change the order too
If you’re reporting on the results of a survey, forget about the order you asked questions in. This might have worked for your survey design; but it won't necessarily work best for your report.
20 Tell people what to look out for
Make their life easy. A summary up-front is a good idea. We also tell readers what to look out for at the beginning of each section in a longer report.
21 Don’t worry about repeating yourself
If there’s a strong finding in your research, you might need to bring this out in different parts of the report. Go into more detail in the main body of your report and pick it up again in some final reflections.
22 Help readers to navigate your report
If it’s a bigger report, make it easy to navigate. Link to relevant sections in another part of the report. Repeat the navigation at the start of each section rather than having to go back to a contents page each time.
23 Be smart with headers
Use headers for snappy, powerful observations. They can tie a story together through your report.
24 Tell people what they’re looking at
Not everyone is comfortable with data and charts. Explain what you want them to look at.
25 Make the language simple
Explain technical terms, put it in language that people understand and means something to them. There’s no need to overcomplicate things, regardless of your audience.
26 Dig into your data
Find significant differences and highlight them. If you’ve got the numbers, don’t just settle for headlines.
27 Give the reader confidence in your data
Let them know where it has come from. What is the source? How was a question worded? How many responses is a statistic based on?
28 Consider the format of your data
Using percentages might not be best if you have a tiny sample. There might be a better way to help your reader understand a statistic, particularly in a summary: 75.2% or 3 in 4?
29 Use maps to present location-based data
If you have the skills or know someone who does, this can be a great way to show differences by area.
30 Icons can work well alongside observations and data
They can help a reader digest the topic quickly and add some consistency if it is repeated through a report.
31 But make sure it is accessible
Some people will be reading your report on a screenreader so give any images or icons an alt text description. Group elements on a page so it’s read in the right order.
32 Use of colour is important too
The colours you use will have an impact on people with visual impairments or colour vision deficiencies. Use tools that test the accessibility of colour combinations. Make sure there is enough contrast.
33 Use human stories for impact
If you’ve done some qualitative research, pull out stories and case studies that highlight the key points you’re trying to make.
34 Allow quotes to make your point
A quote from a respondent (either from a response to an open question or from qualitative research) can be powerful. Sometimes you don’t need to say anything else.
35 But keep quotes short and resist the urge to include too many
If there are too many and they’re too long, they will lose their impact.
36 Make sure you tell a cohesive story
When reviewing your report, think about what each page is trying to convey and how this links to the previous and following pages.
37 Play around with the structure
It takes time to make your story flow naturally throughout the whole report.
38 Consider pulling out key highlights as a separate summary report
Some people aren’t interested in the details and just want the big stories. Give the people what they want.
39 Give them more
Use an appendix for extra context which might be useful. Link to additional sources and resources. It’s better to do this than try to cram everything in.
40 Be brave
This isn’t for everyone, but some of the best research reports will be challenging and won’t shy away from difficult findings.
41 Be honest
Research often isn’t perfect. Give readers the context they need. There’s nothing worse than trying to make your research out to be something it isn’t.
42 Take breaks
We’re not down the coal mines, but writing a report is still tiring. Don’t try to slog your way through it, the quality will show.
43 Think about yourself
Depending on the topic, research can be incredibly emotive and upsetting. You might need some support or to go easy on yourself for a while.
44 Know your limitations
If you don’t have the skills, don’t half-arse it. Either get someone to help or stick to what you’re good at. There’s nothing wrong with doing simple well.
45 Present it
A good report will speak for itself. But be prepared to present it to your audience. Help them understand it.
46 Share it
You want your report to reach as many people as possible. Make it easy for people to share it. Online reports are good for this.
47 Use it
Easier said than done. Particularly if you’re writing it for a client. But you can help the people you’re working with to understand what actions they can take as a result of the research.
48 Check in on progress
Often research findings are complex. It can be 6 months, 12 months or even longer before things change. Don’t forget to follow-up. We want our research to have impact, after all.
49 Learn from it
“There’s no such thing as perfect”, as the saying goes. Are there skills you’d like to improve? Did you try something that didn’t really work? Have you had some feedback? Be ready for your next report.
50 Speak to us
We’re pretty good at writing strong reports for research and evaluation. If you need some help, you know where we are. Whether it’s a bit of extra advice or someone to do it for you.
Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or book a 30-minute Unoffice Hours call with Adam (he keeps his calendar free once a week to talk to anyone about anything)