Chapter XXI. Business Reports
§ 101. On two successive days this spring I heard from two very different officers the same exclamation. One was the president of a woman's club; the other was a manager in a large business establishment. The exclamation was: "I wish that our people knew how to write a decent report!" But on being asked what was the trouble with "their people's" reports, the two officers responded differently. The woman said, "A delegate sent to a confederation meeting comes back and reports everything except the important thing." The man said, "The boys send in the essential facts, but the slovenly appearance of their reports is a disgrace."
The citing of these remarks is not meant to suggest a sweeping generalization between the feminine and the masculine mind. It is meant to suggest that there is more or less complaint about business reports, and that the general rules for writing business English cover the subject of writing reports. There is no such thing as a special report-English, nor is there any magic recipe for a good report.
§ 102. Nine tenths of all reports are written to superior officers or bodies. The other tenth are not called reports; they are called directions. But it is obvious that the sales manager who gives the salesman directions is bound to do some reporting. He reports to the salesman what he knows about a given territory and the customers who inhabit it. A new salesman in particular must be informed as to what dealings the house has had with a given customer up to date, and this information makes all the difference in the salesman's approach.
And the specific personal information written out for him by the manager is not the only kind of report from above that a good salesman will study. The reports of managers to the firm are of use to him. Here is an incident told by Mr. Walter D. Moody, in his "Men who Sell Things":
I remember on a certain occasion issuing a statement to our traveling force, which was intended to inspire in them an optimistic survey of the month upon which we were about to enter. The statement contained facts and figures of the month just ended, showing the percentage of increase in various departments, and wound up with a forecast of the month to come as viewed from the standpoint of the managing staff. The men were all in from the road, winding up a period of house trade, and about to depart for a "filling in" trip.
A few minutes after the letter had been distributed, I chanced to saunter down "Salesmen's Row," the name the stock-boys had given the aisle that skirted their long row of desks. My approach was unnoticed by a group of salesmen clustered about the desk of one of our "Sons of Rest," who happened to have the distinction of being the ringleader of a small coterie of professional critics.
'He was reading aloud to the others from my statement, and had reached the part concerning the forecast of the coming month, when he laid the paper down and in a voice of withering sarcasm said, "Umph! The idle dream of an office man."
Catching the exclamation on passing, I wheeled and squarely faced him. Perceiving me standing there for the first time, he became confused. His eyes sought the floor as he blurted out, "A fine letter, sir, and right to the point Hit the nail right on the head. Yes, sir, hit the nail right on the head."
Six weeks later the man who led the force in point of sales and general efficiency bustled into my office, just in from his trip. Warmly extending his hand, he said in tones of deep appreciation:
"That statement you compiled just before I left home did the business. It helped me wonderfully. It was tough work landing business this trip; but on one occasion when I had sweat blood with a dealer in my sample-room without being able to sell him, I pulled out your letter and read it to him. Stamped as it was with the authority of the house, it made an impression, helping me to get some hard orders that otherwise I would have lost Send me that kind of stuff as often as you get it out"
§ 103. This incident points out that reports are made to rise, and that fact is very important. The writer of a report must never lose sight of it. Once more we run upon the situational or functional nature of business English. The writer of a report may have authority to make recommendations or he may not. But his stuff must be readily grasped by the man who is to use it, and if it is rightly done it has all the force of a recommendation.
The situation I what a variety of business reports it creates! Reports are demanded of salesmen, managers, committees, executive committees, secretaries, treasurers, presidents, experts, attorneys, accountants, market-reporters, consuls. No officer is exempt.
In literary quality they vary all the way from the accountant's report, which is mostly figures, to the consul's report, which (at least it was so in the good old days when Mr. Howells represented us at Venice) may begin with a few remarks on the crops or the export trade and then run off into all sorts of human interests. In length they range from the daily page sent in by the salesman to the big volume signed by the president of a corporation or a university,
§ 104. They include every type of discourse, but the basis is narration. This fact throws light on the complaint made by the president of the woman's club referred to above. Her del-legates followed the time-order, and told everything that hap-pened, much as if they were writing a letter of personal gossip. But a trained reporter saves gossip for personal letters, and keeps it out of his report. It requires great judgment to select from the doings of a convention the few things that are intensely interesting to your constituents, and narrate them in such a way as to show their importance. Like Burbank, a good reporter throws away a thousand plants for every one he keeps.
The narrative of a report may be personal or impersonal, according to the type desired by the superior office or body. If a personal narrative is demanded by the nature of the events, then to avoid it is only a mark of inverted egotism. How absurdly majestic it sounds to write "A ticket was bought for New York" when you simply mean "I bought a ticket for New York."