Writing a Successful Business Case, Proposal or Report

Email: carlaheslop@slingshot.co.nz


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How to improve your chances of a positive response

With any document, you need to keep your reader in mind. The more ‘readable’ (easy to follow and understand) you can make your document, the greater the likelihood of getting your reader onside with your message – and this, of course, means greater likelihood of approval/ acceptance/ contribution/ compliance.

People generally think that getting their info ‘out there’ is the way to go – that once a reader reads what they have written, they will leap on board. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Readers are busy people; reading has to be made easy for them and the benefits pointed out – and it’s best to do this early in the document rather than at the end because not every document is read in its entirety, particularly if the reading is arduous.

      Things that make a document easy to read

  • A concise overview and/or summary
  • A good layout – info packaged into memorable bits with short, easy-to-understand headings and sub-headings
  • Bullets
  • Jargon kept to an absolute minimum
  • Definitions of sector-specific terms
  • Short sentences (whenever you can)
  • Simplicity – give simple explanations, use smaller words rather than longer ones, avoid wordiness. For example, I recently edited an exciting new business case where the writer got a bit carried away and wrote about ‘transformational change’ and ‘aspirational goals’. Don’t say something in 10 words when you can say it in five
  • Easy-to-follow tables, graphs or diagrams used to break up (and pretty up) the text. (Tables don’t all have to go at the end)
  • Glossary – if you are including a lot of sector-specific terms. Keep definitions simple and brief

You might think that this reader-friendly approach is unnecessary, that once your reader reads the info you’ve presented, the facts alone/ your line of reasoning/ the altruism or commonsense of your cause will do the job. Maybe, maybe not. Even with ‘worthy causes’, not everyone prioritises them in the same way – the fact that more money is spent on warfare than welfare is a good example of that. A well-organised, easy to read, easy to understand, enjoyable document is a subtle, practical way of helping someone put your name at the top of the list.

I’ve mentioned ‘enjoyable’. There is no reason why a high-powered business document should be a hard read. Where appropriate, you can apply the following techniques to let in a bit of sunlight

  • Business anecdotes, case studies or relevant examples from your personal experience
  • Colourful adjectives – just because a topic is dry doesn’t mean your language has to be
  • Use ‘street’ phrases if they suit your message – with care of course
  • Use interesting metaphors if they are appropriate
  • Even though less is more in long documents, 4 small words are often better than 2 multi-syllable ones

Remember the person reading your document will be a person very much like yourself, with a lot to do and not quite enough time to do it in. Take it easy on them.

Ten tips for preparing and writing a reader-friendly document

One thing I have noticed from proofing lots of different documents is that things the writer thinks are perfectly obvious frequently aren’t. With important documents, you don’t want your readers having to guess what you mean – in case they get it wrong. Nor do you want to make your document a gruelling read. You want a sympathetic, enthusiastic even, response from your reader at the end of it. Here are ten tips to maximise your chances of both.

1.    Have an outline WRITTEN DOWN of what you want the report to cover. (This will form the basis of your overview when you come to write up your report.) You know yourself how much you appreciate a well-structured, easy-to-follow document.


2.    Headings should cover areas you have decided in advance are important – and will guide your managers on the info they collect. E.g. Overview, Proposal/Target, Implementation Plan, Timeline, Problems with Implementation, Benefits, Costs, Glossary (if necessary.)


3.    If your report will consist of more than one section – say you have several initiatives on the go at once, or you have several options for a client to choose from, or your report will consist of input from more than one manager – then make sure you have your headings worked out and standardised. If the layout is the same from one section to the next, this makes it easy on your CEO or client if they want to compare sections or just be able to follow the flow of information. Headings should be the same for all sections and in the same font and size. Sub-headings can vary and should be smaller than headings to avoid confusion.


4.    Allow a realistic time frame for collecting info, drafting, review, editing and proofreading. Final presentation is important.


5.    For a long document, or one covering a specialised field, a Style Sheet is necessary and should be prepared as you write your first draft. This is an info sheet which tells the proofreader how you want certain words to consistently appear in your document(s). It covers spellings, especially those specific to your field, or more general, e.g. coordinate (or co-ordinate), healthcare (or health care); capitalisations; numerals etc. In less specialised fields this can be left to the proofreader.


6.    The start of the report is very important. Make sure you provide a concise overview of what your document will cover. (No, this is not covered by the Contents page. No one actually reads this!) The introduction should briefly introduce the reader to the topic of the report, contributors and how info was collected. Omit if not necessary. The overview should consist of a brief statement or paragraph summarising the purpose of the report and then 4-6 headings summarising the different areas to be covered. (Each heading can have bullets which will be sub-headings later in the document.) Brevity is important here because it is easier for your reader to keep the purpose of the document in mind if it is summarised in a single statement, and easier to remember objectives/initiatives if they are 1-3-word headings than if they are sentences.


7.    Define key terms at the start of your document – or, if you are using a lot of sector-specific terms, prepare a glossary for your reader. (This is a list of terms and meanings in alphabetical order.) It is often a good idea to include a separate, unattached, photocopy of the glossary so the reader doesn’t have to keep flicking to the back of the document for definitions.


8.    Keep content concise. Less is more these days. Don’t make your report any longer than it has to be. Don’t add unnecessary adjectives or phrases like: “…which will achieve our overall aim of…”. This sort of thing goes without saying and should already be covered in the Intro or your statement of purpose. The addition of business anecdotes, case studies and/or relevant examples can make a document a lot more interesting than just the facts and figures.


9.    Keep language simple, straightforward and clear. (I recently proofed a document where the author forgot the simplicity rule. He included the phrase “during the hours that offices are closed”. He meant “after hours” and that was all he needed to say!) Always keep the reader (who the document is written for) in mind. If you are using specialised vocab – i.e. sector-specific terms – provide a definition at first mention and at logical places during the document, so the reader doesn’t have to break his/her concentration by referring to the glossary.


10. Make sure tables and diagrams are easy to follow and use the same terminology as the text that explains them. Tables/diagrams can be used to break up the text, add colour and make your document more attractive. They don’t all have to go in appendices at the end. A well-presented diagram or graph can have more impact than a thousand words.

The following point is so important, I am repeating it: writers always need to keep their reader(s) in mind. If you are the writer, make allowances for the fact that your readers might not know what you know, that they might have a number of similar documents to read, and that they might have had a late night! Make your business proposal or report the one that’s really easy to read and remember.

Email: carlaheslop@slingshot.co.nz