Producing a Report of Findings

The importance of being able to present clearly the outputs of research work or consultation cannot be emphasised strongly enough. This stage will be the key to communicating to the target audience what has been learned.

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How to do it

The key points include:

  • 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 when presenting information in written form. 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 thread of logic from beginning to end. As a result many reports adopt a structure comprising:
    • introduction (which includes the aims of the work)
    • method
    • key findings
    • conclusions
    • recommendations
    • with an executive summary at the beginning.

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 conventional 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 are helpful. The value of visuals (including charts, graphs, data tables and photographs) in a report is not to be underestimated. The guidelines for using visuals include: only use visuals that relate to your message; make sure each is titled; use a key or labels to make sure the visual is self-explanatory; link the visuals to your text (for example figure numbers are helpful here); make sure they are legible and make sure they are still effective when printed in black and white (colours on graphs can often be a challenge here).

Acknowledge

  • Your work will have benefited from the efforts of others and will be part of a much bigger picture for your organisation. Acknowledge those who have supported the work (some authors include a brief acknowledgements page at the start of the report), and reference any other research and/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

Some final thoughts:

  • Make sure your report has a title, a date, a project reference and/or version number (if appropriate) and it is clear who are the authors.
  • Numbering will be helpful for people trying to navigate around your document (for example pages, sections, sub-sections, figures, 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, as 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.
  • Time spent on spelling and grammar checks is always valuable (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 append copies of questionnaires, topic guides or other research tools.

Top Tip

  • 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), but a well written shorter report normally benefits from focus and pace, which makes it more engaging for its readers.

Sources and further information

This guide was provided by Link opens in a new windowFMR Research Ltd, Applejak Studios, 113 St Georges Road, Glasgow G3 6JA. Tel: 0141 332 2647, Text/Fax: 0141 332 2920.