Historically, the terms data report or business report haven’t got the crowds excited. Data reports have always been important for business. However, they have been a necessary evil, created by analysts and consultants. The term usually conjures up images of static PDFs, old-school PowerPoint slides and big tables. It doesn’t have to be this way. The business intelligence industry has been revolutionized over the past decade and data reports are in on the fun. The rise of innovative business reporting tools means you can create data reports people love to read. Read on to see why data reports matter and our top data reporting tips.
Data Reporting Basics
Data analytics is the science of examining raw data with the purpose of drawing conclusions about that information. Data reports present the data, analyses, conclusions, and recommendations in an easy to decipher and digest format. These business reports can cover a wide variety of topics and objectives and can vary greatly in length, content, and format. It can be annual reports, monthly sales reports, reports requested by management exploring a specific issue, reports requested by the government showing a company’s compliance with regulations, progress reports, and feasibility studies.
Historically, creating these business reports was time and resource intensive. Data pull requests had to be made to the IT department and a significant amount of time was spent analyzing, formatting and then presenting the data. Because this task was so resource heavy, it couldn’t be done often. Also, by the time the data was presented, it was generally out of date. The emergence of real-time cloud-based business intelligence reporting tools has changed the data reporting game. Now a wider range of business users can act as analysts, even performing advanced analytics. The right BI platform can blend multiple data sources into one report and analysis: enhancing business insights and better-informed decision making. These cloud-based tools allow organizations to collaborate on a report, bringing various subject matter experts (SME) to the same table. Modern business dashboard tools allow a wider audience to comprehend and disseminate the report findings. Users can also easily export these dashboards and data visualizations into visually stunning data reports that can be shared via multiple options.
OK, now you are sold on how new data reporting tools are making data reports easier to build, more encompassing of disparate data sources, visually powerful and easier to share in various formats. They are also increasing analytic capabilities. Let’s look into some tips and ideas to keep in mind when you start building data reports.
Define the Type of your Data Report
What type of report do you need to present? Having this definition ahead of time will help set parameters you can easily stick to. Here are the most common data report types:
1) Informational Vs. Analytical: First determine if this report is just providing factual information. Otherwise, if it is providing any analysis or recommendations, it is an analytical report.
2) Recommendation/Justification Report: Presents an idea and makes suggestions to management or other important decision makers.
3) Investigative Report: Helps determine the risks involved with a specific course of action.
4) Compliance Report: Shows accountability by providing compliance information for example to a governing body.
5) Feasibility Report: An exploratory report to determine whether an idea will work.
6) Research Studies Report: Presents in-depth research and insights on a specific issue or problem.
7) Periodic Report: Improves policies, products or processes via consistent monitoring at fixed intervals, such as weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.
8) KPI Report: Monitors and measures Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess if your operations deliver the expected results.
9) Yardstick Report: Weighs several potential solutions for a given situation.
Know your Target Audience
Knowing your audience will help determine what data you present, the recommendations you make and how you present the data. Your audience may be upper, middle or line management, other departments in the company, coworkers, the client, potential clients, the government or another company in the same market. Knowing your audience helps determine what type of information to include in the report. If a report is internal facing, branding such as colors, font, and logo aren’t as crucial. If it is a one-time live presentation, formatting for printing isn’t key. Determine ahead of time if your audience needs persuasion or education. If your audience is C-suite level or the board, you may want to present mostly high-level data with specific call outs and action items. If the report is more exploratory in nature, you may want to include more granular data and options to interact with the data. Ramon Ray, tech evangelist and founder of Smart Hustle magazine, recently wrote about how to best present your data to a wide audience. He focused on keeping text simple, use visualizations whenever possible, including video and animation when appropriate, and making your reports/presentations interactive. Knowing your audience before you start your analysis – and even more importantly before you put together the report – will keep your reports focused and impactful.
Have a Detailed Plan
We are going to sound like a broken record here, but have a data report plan before you start your analysis. What information does the management need for its effective decision making? What data and insights do your shareholders require? Understand the scope of data required and think about how you will want to use that data. Utilize as many data sources as possible. But don’t go data crazy and get bogged down in unnecessary data. Of course, you have to remain agile and may have to adapt the plan, but a robust plan is crucial. Remaining purpose-driven will focus your work, save you time in the long run and improve your business reporting outcomes.
Be Objective, When Possible
A good business report describes past, present or possible future situation in an objective and neutral way. Objective means the report states facts, not an opinion. Keep the opinions minimal. It helps to combine them in one section, possibly titled “Suggested Actions.” Also, using a passive voice in a data report will help keep the report formal and objective. For example:
Active: The managers need to make changes in their management style.
Passive: Changes in management style need to be made.
Be Visually Stunning
Data visualization is extremely powerful. Analytics presented visually make it easier for decision makers to grasp difficult concepts or identify new patterns. Data presented visually are easier for humans to perceive and digest. Data reports should include data visualizations over text whenever possible. Just make sure you are choosing the most appropriate data visualization to tell your data story and that you are following BI dashboard best practices. With the right data reporting tool, anyone can create meaningful visuals and share them with their team, customers and other shareholders. All this can be accomplished without involving a data scientist.
Also, make sure your report remains visually stunning, no matter how it is shared and disseminated. Your report should look good on a computer, tablet, PDF or even a mobile.
For reports like annual reports that will be printed and widely shared, the extra focus should be spent on design principles.
Have Content Sharply Written
While the focus should be on visuals, some data report types obviously also need text. Make sure your data reports use persuasive and even-toned business writing. Use concise, active and engaging language. Use bullet points versus long paragraphs. Use headers and provide legends and supplementary text for your visualizations. Also, you should always proofread!
Make Sure The report is Actionable
Prescriptive versus descriptive analytics is becoming increasingly popular. Make sure your report has a conclusion. When necessary, provide recommendations. Data reports should be objective but the best ones are also actionable. Intended audiences should walk away with next steps or greater insights.
Keep It Simple and Don’t be Misleading
While data should be objective, formatting, filtering, and manipulation can be easily misleading. Make sure you are being consistent and reliable with your reporting. Also, keep it simple. The boom of data visualization and reporting tools has led to some crazy visualizations… that don’t tell a data story. You shouldn’t need 3-D glasses to read a data report. Sometimes, a simple chart is all you need. You also don’t need to go nuts with colors and formats. You can easily overwhelm your audience this way. Choose a couple of colors that are easy on the eyes. Keep to one font. Don’t go crazy with highlighted, bold or italicized text. You don’t have to create a “piece of art” for your data report to be visually stunning and impactful.
Start Building Your Data Reports Now
Reporting, analytics, and information delivery can have a transformational impact on an organization if implemented correctly. Luckily, the mind-numbing task of manually creating daily or weekly reports is a thing of the past. With the right plan and business reporting software, you can easily analyze your data and also create eye-catching and remarkable data reports. Just follow these steps and recommendations and you will be well on your way!