Annual report steering group members face a delicate balancing act. The document must meet reporting, legal and supervisory requirements, while also providing a detailed accounting of the company's activities and financial performance and a comprehensive overview for stakeholders and meeting internal demands from the Heads of Reporting, Investor Relations, Corporate Communications and Central Works Councils. Oh, and it should be interesting.
Creating a compliant, inclusive, focused, clear and well-written annual report is challenging but not impossible. Here are 15 ways to end up with a high-quality product. (Some inspiration and material for this post came from Sarah Harvey's Financial Management piece "Advice for Managing the Length of Financial Reports."
1. Plan ahead and start early
Good planning helps streamline the production process. If there is a set date for submitting the report, start with that date and work backwards. Build in time for multiple rounds of revision as the editing often takes more time than expected.
Advice: Plan fortnightly meetings with the steering group between October and December and weekly meetings from January until publication to discuss strategy, numbers, key messages, opportunities and pitfalls, and track progress.
2. Discuss key messages
Was it a good year or an average one? Do you want to be cautious or optimistic about the future? What do you want to say about your sustainability strategy? Will it be an integrated annual report? Introduce a thematic line that underpins the overall focus of the annual report.
Advice: Every company will have its own set of hot topics. Sitting down at an early stage to understand these will save time later.
3. Agree on the writing style
Your organisation probably has a clearly defined tone. If not, the steering committee must decide how you want to present the organisation in writing. This needs to reflect brand and culture.
Advice: Write an example paragraph or two in a number of different ways, so senior management can get a good feel for what you mean and to agree to it before the writing starts.
4. Decide on the annual report structure
I live in the Netherlands, where financial reports follow the same general format – Executive Board Report (sections on Strategy, Risk, Funding & Capital Management, Leadership (Management Section and Supervisory Section) and Governance Report of the Supervisory Board and Annual Financial Statements, including the audited Company Annual Financial Statements.
Advice: Use case studies and professional photographs to illustrate particular USPs, such as the importance of people.
5. “Make it shorter please!”
HSBC managed to reduce its annual report length from 502 pages to 284 pages in just one year. This didn't happen automatically. The company made every department reduce pages by 20 percent, streamlined disclosures and moved sections like the index online.
Advice: Shorter is better.
6.Tell a story
A strong narrative helps make your story compelling. Don’t mention everything the organization did last year – only list accomplishments that relate to the mission.
Advice: Interview key people early and write down stories. It will bring the content to life.
7. Be self-confident
What are your most impressive practices? What did your people do best? How were your clients or customers positively affected by your practices? Your annual report is more than a requirement – it is an opportunity to shine.
Advice: Ask the steering group about points of pride from the last year
8. Prepare the structure of the page
Consider the four levels of writing: narrative, paragraphs, sentences and words. Start with the main thought and use powerful imagery. Weave points and thoughts through a paragraph and make your writing ordered. Keep sentences simple and short. Use sharp, appropriate and rhythmic expressions, including evocative words that jar the reader out of complacency.
Remember: Verbs are the engine of language, nouns are the cargo, adjectives and adverbs the packaging. Assemble with care.
9. Start writing!
Keep your sentences short and simple, but not so short that they become staccato. Use compound sentences (using and, as, but, or, so, yet) and always use a short word instead of a long one. Keep the verb close to its subject. If you overload content with heavy nouns and weak verbs (‘to be’), the writing becomes sluggish.
Advice: In the editing rounds delete as many adjectives and adverbs as possible. Start with ‘ongoing.’ Avoid double negatives and jargon such as ‘full-service solutions provider’, ‘cost effective end-to-end solutions’, ‘value-added services.’
10. Write, rewrite and rewrite again
There are several layers of editing in an annual report – an overall edit to ensure consistency in voice, a line-by-line edit to ensure language is tight, and editing for legal, audit and technical accuracy.
Advice: Plan proofreading and plenary reading sessions.
11. Include a CTA
People should not get to the end of a 200 page document and say, 'huh.'
Advice: Make it clear what you'd like your audience to do once they've read the report.
12. Think mobile
Highlight your biggest stats, use infographics, video, lots of white space and keep your report concise.
Advice: Recognize that many millennials and managers aren’t going to print out a 100 page document and read it on the train.
13. Think Analytics
Which pages of your report are the most-read, which stories were the most popular and how many people decided to get in touch with you as a result of reading your report? Every PDF downloaded can be tracked.
Advice: Use Google Analytics online.
14. Use infographics, videos and animations
Bring your content to life.
Advice: Infographics typically take a month to design. Don't want for final copy to begin planning.
15.Don’t forget the press release
Annual reports must be published via a press release and by making use of media that guarantee a fast and effective distribution of the information.
Advice: Again, start writing the press release early.
Jan Jaap Omvlee is a strategy director and writer at Cognito Media Amsterdam. He is a seasoned annual report writer and financial writer in English and Dutch.