How to Read, Write, and Present Internal Reports
Making a report has never been easier. Most of us sit on mounds of data waiting to be mined for its precious insights. Back in the day, you had to break out your SQL skills and join a bunch of tables together to get the data required. Report writing was a tedious task because it required us to dig deep into the data architecture and determine what went where. Although tedious, this was a valuable exercise. I uncovered many nuances when data and digging into the guts of a system. All reporting allows the business to monitor trends, analyze the state of the business, and identify anomalies. Below are some tips and tricks on how to take advantage and not get fooled by reports.
Reading a Report
Reading a report should be a simple task, but it often time isn’t. One major challenge of presenting a report is that everyone will see something different. Additionally, most people are looking for the hidden gold nugget within the report. When they find this faux gold nugget, everyone drops what they have been doing for two weeks and finds “fools data.” The original perceived problem was a misunderstanding of the People or Process behind the report. Every report is chock-full of tribal knowledge and political angles, and the key to reading the tea leaves is to be curious and ask a lot of questions.
- Is this an ad hoc report, or is it a scheduled report delivered weekly, monthly, etc.?
- Who are the people behind the report? All reports are an abstraction of what employees or customers are doing.
- What processes drive the report? For example, the people are working within a process, so how does this appear within the report metrics.
- Where is the data from, and is it standardized? In other words, can the report be refreshed without any human manipulation? Of course, human manipulation is terrible if it is a scheduled report because it can be expensive and can’t scale.
- What will people do to make the report good? Reports can have unintended consequences. Business reporting has trade-offs, and people will naturally follow the most advantageous route to look good. So be mindful.
- How long does it take to create the report?
- What was smart about the report when it was created? How has the business changed since then?
When reading a report, the most common error is losing sight of the underlying people, processes, and systems that drive the report. I can’t tell you how often people want to fix the report without considering what drives the data. Therefore they throw people at fixing the report and add complexity to the process without fixing the real problem.
Writing a Report
Writing a report can be very different and more complicated than simply reading a report. It can involve using tools like Salesforce, Tableau, PowerBI, and a plethora of other tools. If you build this report for yourself or your team, you will have a leg up over when you are not familiar with the people, process, or systems. For this example, we will assume that the report request came from your manager in an area you are not familiar with. Not having this knowledge and being asked to create a report exposing a “Perceived Problem” can be challenging. That is why it is essential to get clarity on your expected deliverable.
- Ask what action the report will drive.
- Ask if this is a one-time analysis or an ongoing scheduled report.
- Get clear on dates. Most of the time, people ask for a report and do not provide a date range. Provide a recommended date range if one isn’t provided.
- Who will deliver the report, and how will it be delivered. The best solution is almost always a refreshable report or one that can be delivered automatically.
- Get the delivery deadline(s). Most reporting platforms can email scheduled reports when you can leverage this functionality.
- Make sure you filter out bad data and notate all of your assumptions.
- Make an MVP report and share it with some close colleagues unfamiliar with the data. Sharing your draft report can be very insightful because they will see things that you miss.
- Share the new report with your manager before any meeting. It is better to clear up any possible miscommunication than have a meeting spiral out of control.
Presenting a Report
You have a blind spot in your vision, and your brain fills in the gaps, so it is unnoticed. These blind spots are widespread when presenting a report to a group, so don’t assume your audience knows what you know. Presenting a report is a tricky balance because you don’t want to talk down to the people in the room. Therefore, when presenting a report, share the story of the people and the process behind the report.
Spotlighting the Story
- Simply acknowledging that people won’t have your context will help you infuse the correct information.
- Charts that are up and to the right are good. The upward graphs show growth which is usually a good thing. If your chart is down and to the right or sporadic, you will need to provide more explanation.
- Tell the story of the people and the process behind the report.
- Circle the most important part. I cannot understate this enough, draw a big red circle on what people should remember.
When presenting a report, tell the story and circle the 1 or 2 crucial parts, and you will be amazed at how much simpler it is to get people to remember your key points.
The proliferation, creation, and presentation of reports have never been easier and, at the same time, more easily misinterpreted. Use these tips to ask the right questions when presenting a report and presenting the correct information when creating or delivering a report.