Business Research, Reports, Executive Summaries, and Presentations

For many students, their first job after graduation involves performing research and eventually preparing and presenting business reports. The following is a short-cut guide to help in the preparation of a formal business report and some pointers on presentations.

          This is not a comprehensive guide, but it does give the reader some simple rules to follow. Typically, organizations have their own preferred format for reports, so this is only intended as a guide.

 

Business Research

The two generally accepted forms of business research are qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative research involves descriptive reporting of information. Common methods of collecting this information are by observing, interviewing, and focus groups. Quantitative research, on the other hand, involves the collection of numerical data for analysis. This is often accomplished with surveys, experiments, or content analysis.

          Care must be taken when using qualitative research because the quality of the information is only as good as the researcher’s ability to “read the situation” and is subjective as to the interpretations of reality. At the same time, the validity of the quantitative research can be heavily biased without anyone knowing it.

          The two principal methods of collecting information for business reports are primary research and secondary research. Primary research involves conducting original research. This is usually only undertaken when secondary research is not available. Secondary research is information that has been compiled by someone else, and others use this information to analyze the situation.

          We must be concerned with gathering relevant and accurate data from both internal and external sources. Internal sources include company records, reports, managers, and so on. Stakeholders (e.g., customers, suppliers, etc.) are examples of external sources.

          We must consider what method of collecting information to use and the type of research to analyze. This will depend on many factors, including time, money, concern for validity, and so on. The general rule is that we should use proven methods until they prove to be unreliable or outdated.

 

Business Reports

Components of typical business report are:

  1. Title page
  2. Executive summary
  3. Table of contents
  4. Report
  5. Appendices
  6. Works cited/bibliography/references

Title Page
The title page is intended to communicate the following information to the reader:

  1. Name of the report (this should represent the nature and purpose).
  2. Who the report is presented to (including name, title, and organization).
  3. The name of the person who is submitting the report.
  4. Date of submission.

          Formatting of the title page will depend on the expectations of the organization that requests the report. Generally, at a minimum the above information must be included. Exhibit 1 is an example of a typical title page.

Executive Summary
An executive summary highlights the report’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations. It is a condensed version of the report. It is important that the executive summary is labelled as such (i.e., Executive Summary) so that the reader can identify it.

          The executive summary is a stand-alone document (i.e., the reader may never read the actual report); therefore, you must include what you did, how you went about doing it, what you found out (with enough support), and your conclusions and recommendations.

          The components of the executive summary include the objectives/purposes of the report, a review of the points to follow, methodology (how the research and analysis was completed), the main points of the report with support, and conclusions/recommendations.

          Generally, the length is anywhere from one paragraph to two pages in length. A helpful hint when writing the executive summary is to use your table of contents as a guide to ensure that you have covered the major points of the report. The executive summary process is as follows:

Table of Contents
The purpose of the table of contents is to provide the reader with an overview of the report topics and to help the reader to locate the topic. The listings in the table of contents are usually the headings that are used in the report and their initial page numbers (i.e., their starting page number). It is important that the table of contents is prepared after the report is prepared; otherwise, mistakes are probable.

Report
Business reports typically have an introduction to the report, the body of the report, conclusions, and recommendations.

Introduction
The introduction of the report sets the scene for the report to follow. It should include:

Body of the Report

The body of the report is the principal section of the report. The purpose is to discuss, analyze, interpret, and evaluate the research findings or solutions. It is best to use clear headings for each major section to help the reader to navigate through the report.

          It is important to use your words economically; do not repeat yourself except for emphasis, and do not pad the report with words that do not contribute to your message (e.g., instead of “in order to be able to provide…” use “to provide…”). Other hints for the body of the report are to be consistent with the name or acronym you choose to refer to the target of your investigation, use it throughout the report (i.e., do not use variations), and keep the person and tense consistent (e.g., if the subject is “the company” then the subsequent pronoun should be “it” not “they”).

Conclusions

The conclusions tell what the findings mean. This must be tied to the discussion within the body of the report (i.e., do not make conclusions that are not discussed in the report). The conclusions are often combined with the recommendations.

Recommendations

When requested, the recommendations give precise suggestions of different courses of action and their justifications. The writers of the report must use appropriate language (e.g., “The following recommendations are supported by the findings and conclusion of this report.”).

Appendices

Appendices are used for incidental or supporting materials that are relevant to the findings of the report and important to some readers but not necessarily to all. Using appendices helps send the message that you have done a thorough job.

          Use appendices to expand, highlight, and detail, but do not repeat what you have said in the report. Label the appendices Appendix A, Appendix B, and so on. The order of the appendices should coincide with the order they are mentioned in the report.

References

The purpose of the references is to help the reader to locate the sources of ideas of the report and to give acknowledgement to the originator of the materials or ideas. If you are using information that is not widely known, cite it. Use “Ibid.” to repeat a citation on the same page.

          Generally, in the social sciences and business, the APA (American Psychological Association) format is used for citing the sources of ideas mentioned in the report. The other two main formats are the Modern Language Association (MLA), used in language papers, and the Science format, used in the sciences and medicine. Regardless of the citing style used, you must include the author, title, publication, date of publication, page number(s), and other significant data for all ideas and quotes that are not your original thought or common understanding.

          Whenever you are unsure of the format, check the Web site of Dartmouth College for examples.

 

Below are some examples of proper citation.

Guide to Bibliographies and Reference Notes
Referencing is an integral part of your work term report. Any material that you use that is not your original thought or common knowledge must be referenced. Remember to reference interviews, company publications, Web sites, and CD-ROMS.

          The following examples of referencing are taken from the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.1 This manual contains over 70 examples of how to reference material from journal articles, CD-ROMS, proceedings of meetings, television broadcasts, and other sources.

          Remember that reference style is not as important as actually referencing. Regardless of the citation method used, you must be consistent.

Bibliography
All of the material that you used in your report, whether cited in the text or not, must be listed in the bibliography. Following are examples of bibliographic citation for various media.

Books
Mitchell, T.R. & Larson, J.R. (1987). People in organizations: an introduction to organization behaviour. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Journal Articles
Brown, S. (1990). The wheel of retailing: past and future. Journal of Retailing, 45 (2), 143-147.

Magazine Articles
Serwer, A.E. (1994, October 17). McDonald’s conquers the world. Fortune, 103-106.

Newspaper or Newsletter Articles (Author Unknown)
Partnerships for the commercialization of technology. (1997, Summer). Network, p. 1.

Newspaper or Newsletter Articles (Author Known)
Howes, C. (1997, January 25). Jobs: but nobody to fill them? The Calgary Herald, p. H1.

Web Sites and Other Electronic Data Sources
List the author, full title of the document, title of the complete work, date of publication, full http address (URL), and date of visit:

Burka, L.P. 1993. “A Hypertext History of Multi-User Dimensions.” MUD History.(5 Dec. 1994).

Remember that anybody can create a Web page on anything. Web site information has generally not undergone any scrutiny whatsoever to ensure its accuracy.

 

Reference Notes
Any direct quote, reference to a specific fact (event, date, etc.), or paraphrasing of an argument made by the author of a published work should be referenced. This can be done by means of traditional footnotes or endnotes, but an easier and more contemporary method is to put the author, date, and page number(s) in brackets, as in the following example:

Scotiabank is said to have opened branches in many countries because “the depth and experience of the international staff enabled the branch to make money in countries where its competitors could not” (Cleveland and Huertas, 2004: 263).

          Any direct quote must also be enclosed in quotation marksæif you fail to do this, it is plagiarism even if you provide a reference!

Newspaper references can be cited as follows:
(Globe and Mail, July 9, 1990: B5)

          Web sites can be cited by providing the author and the URL of the exact page where you found the information (not just the home page). For example:

http://www.haskayne.ucalgary.ca/coop/coop_handbook.html

Be sure to include all referenced works in your bibliography. You must have both reference notes and a bibliography. Most students don’t reference everything they should. If in doubt, reference it.

 

Plagiarism and How to Avoid It
Below is an extract from Struggle for South Africa: A Guide to Movements, Organisations and Institutions by R. Davies, D. O’Meara, and S. Dlamini.2 It is followed by an unacceptable rendering found in a recent student paper, and then by two versions that make it acceptable through (1) use of quotation marks and (2) paraphrasing.

The original source material is as follows:

“Whites, or more especially the Afrikaans-speaking section of the white population, popularly known as the Boers, are presumed to suffer from intense racial prejudice, and this system of racial discrimination is the result. It is certainly true that most whites are highly racially prejudiced, but this explains little. [...]
          
In other words, the various complex and intersecting class struggles through which capitalist forms of production and relations of production were developed and consolidated under colonialism in South Africa, themselves generated racist ideologies and a racially structured hierarchy of economic and political power. The national oppression of black people in South Africa is a product of, and was indeed the necessary historical condition for, the development of capitalism in that country.
          
[...] Fundamentally it, like the segregationist policies which preceded it, is a system of economic and political relations designed to produce cheap and controlled black labour, and so generate high rates of profit” (Davies, O’Meara, and Dlamini, 1984, p. 2).


          The following is an unacceptable rendering in student paper (plagiarism). Note that the student did not use quotation marks.

It is certainly true that whites, or more especially the Afrikaans-speaking section of the white population, popularly known as the Boers, are highly racially prejudiced. However, the various complex and intersecting class struggles developed and consolidated under colonialism in South Africa, themselves generated racist ideologies and a racially structured hierarchy of economic and political power. The national oppression of blacks in South Africa is a product of, and was a necessary historical condition for, the development of capitalism in that country.
       Fundamentally, apartheid is a segregationist policy - system of economic and political relations designed to produce cheap and controlled black labour, and generate high rates of profit.
       [Another paragraph followed that ended with a bracketed reference to the source.]


Here is an acceptable rendering using quotation marks:

As Davies, O’Meara and Dlamini (1984) observe, “whites, or more especially the Afrikaans-speaking section of the white population, popularly known as the Boers... are highly racially prejudiced.” However, they maintain that “the various complex and intersecting class struggles developed and consolidated under colonialism in South Africa, themselves generated racist ideologies and a racially structured hierarchy of economic and political power. The national oppression of black people in South Africa is a product of, and was a necessary historical condition for, the development of capitalism in that country.” They therefore conclude that fundamentally, apartheid, like earlier similar policies, is “a system of economic and political relations designed to produce cheap and controlled black labour, and so generate high rates of profit” (p. 2).

          Here is another acceptable rendering of the same material. This time, the student has used paraphrasing.

Many South African whites, particularly Afrikaners, are very racially prejudiced. Marxist observers such as Davies, O’Meara, and Dlamini (1984, p. 2) explain this racism as being rooted in a struggle between social classes in which blacks were subjugated to a white power structure to provide a ready supply of cheap labour. Apartheid was thus a means of earning large profits and thereby strengthening the development of capitalism in the country, and not simply an outgrowth of racial prejudice.

          It is not acceptable simply to take sections (even sentence fragments) from an original text and splice them together to write your paper. If you are using phrases from an original work, they must be put in quotation marks and footnoted. Note that of the two alternatives given above, the paraphrased version would generally be considered preferable because it is shorter, omits jargon (which many readers may not understand), and shows that the writer has understood the gist of the original source, and is not simply parroting the material.


Presentations3
Below are some helpful hints to ensure successful presentations:

  1. Have an introduction to the presentation that tells the audience what will be discussed and in what order.
  2. Process for the presentation: tell your audience what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them (i.e., provide an introduction, presentation, and summary).
  3. Use an appropriate colour scheme (e.g., do not use a yellow background).
  4. Use bullets consistently.
  5. Check spelling and grammar.
  6. Prepare backups. Things happen (e.g., incompatible technology, etc.)!
  7. Dress conservatively. The focus should be on the presentation, not how you are dressed.
  8. Remove jewellery that could make noise or could get caught. Also, there is a tendency for presenters to play with their jewellery; this is distracting.
  9. Empty your pockets.
  10. Secure long hair
  11. Go to the washroom prior to the presentation - is an opportunity to check your appearance.
  12. Use presentation notes for reference only. Please do not read them - you must address your audience.
  13. Use index cards for notes, not bigger sheets of paper (they are noisy and will shake if you’re nervous).
  14. Don’t hide your notes, if you are using them - they are, what they are!
  15. Look at an audience member who appears friendly and supportive if you are nervous during the presentation.
  16. Scan your audience to include everyone. Do not focus on one part of the room - look around.
  17. Do not read from the slides on the computer or the screen. You must address your audience to show them respect and to retain their interest.
  18. Keep your hands out of your pockets and do not fold your arms. Other mannerisms to avoid include jingling your keys/coins, swaying back and forth, rubbing your nose, and so forth as these can be very distracting.
  19. Do not chew gum or anything else during your presentation. It interferes with your ability to deliver the presentation in a clear voice.
  20. Be sure to keep to the time limit.
  21. Make sure that you and (if applicable) your group have rehearsed the presentation —rehearsing helps in meeting the time limit.
  22. Have a backup plan prepared for your presentation, both in regard to the visuals (e.g., in case the technology fails you) and the actual presenters (e.g., if a presenter does not show).
  23. Do not walk in front of a presenter.
  24. Make sure that your audience can read the slides. The font size must be large enough for everyone in the audience to read comfortably.
  25. Check the design template for your slides. Make sure that the slides enhance the presentation and are not the presentation, or do not interfere with the message that you are trying to project.
  26. Be sure to project your voice - everyone in the audience needs to be informed.
  27. Use an open hand to gesture - do not point.
  28. Be yourself!

 

1. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 4th ed. (Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 1994), pp. 194-222.
2. R. Davies, D. O’Meara, and S. Dlamini, Struggle for South Africa: A Guide to Movements, Organisations and Institutions, 2 volumes (London, Zed Books, 1984), p. 2.
3. Wilson, K., (2002). Presentation 291 Tips (University of Calgary: Haskayne School of Business), December 4, 2002.