Tips for writers: Writing reports part 3. How to present data

In part 1 of Writing reports I discussed the importance of creating a simple and appealing visual appearance using several techniques, and in part 2 I discussed consistency of style.

In this final part I will discuss how to present data. Lack of space prevents a full analysis of the ways to present textual and numerical data, so the following is just a brief summary.

Tables

The use of tables can avoid repeating the same phrases or units of measurement as column headings can be used for this purpose – for instance a table of numerical values can have m2 (for square metres) and % (for per cent) in the headings to avoid them being repeated on each line of text within the table, or within ordinary text. Separate lines can be used for different categories, such as departments or regions.

Graphs, charts and diagrams

A wealth of material can be presented in pictorial form, which is often easier and quicker to take in, and more easily understood and remembered than a mass of text.

  • Graphs can be in the form of bar charts – horizontal or vertical bars to plot values to show changes over a period, geographical distribution, etc., or line charts to plot similar data.
  • Dot charts can be used to plot correlations with or variances from a plotted line.
  • Pie charts can be used to show proportions of a round, two-dimensional, segmented circle, or as a slice being lifted from a ‘pie’ three-dimensionally.
  • Flow charts can be used to demonstrate the stages in a process and organization charts to document the various personnel and departments and how they interact in a business or organization.

Microsoft Word and Excel programs have facilities to insert graphs, charts, and diagrams (GCDs) into text and should be used to add colour and depth to reports as much as possible.

Boxes

These are useful for specialized data or text such as case studies and can be formatted differently than the main text.

Appendices

It is important to include hard facts and figures within your report. However, you may not wish to include all the supporting data and research backing up your proposals or arguments as this could unnecessarily clutter up the main report. The solution is for statistics, equations and calculations, technical specifications, and other peripheral data to be included separately in appendices that can be numbered and referred to in the main text. However, appendices should not be used for the sake of it in order to bulk out the report – the reader appreciates quality over quantity.

Final note

If you want to emphasize data, or even text, do not be tempted to use all the features that your computer program possesses. The judicious use of underling, bold, or italics is sufficient in text, tables, and some GCDs, with colour also a useful tool for emphasis in GCDs. Remember, as with all things in life – moderation in all things.