Your 9 essentials for a great annual report

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Annual reports are often considered the ‘thoroughbreds’ of corporate document production: they need a steady hand on the reins to get across the finish line.

Over the past 15 or so years my company has been involved in the plain-English editing, writing, layout and design of over 50 annual reports. This includes three for NAB, four for the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, and five for Sustainability Victoria, as well as others for Rio Tinto, Australia Post, EPA and many more. During this time, we’ve picked up a thing or two about best practice in annual report production, which will help get you out of the starting gate!

  1. Stay on brand: The tone and style of your brand needs to be evident in your annual report through the design, layout, images and writing. It’s no good trying to convince people your brand is a champion if your annual report resembles a hack. The more on brand you are, the more consistent you appear and the more familiar you’ll be. But it’s not an advertising spiel. Given the serious and regulatory nature of the document, you can afford to rein it in a little. Essentially, your annual report is the form guide for your company and brand, a record of its past performance and future potential. And, as a front-runner in your corporate communications stable, it should clearly sport that stable’s colours. It’s no good saying your main point of difference is that your imaginative if the language and layout of your annual report is anything but.
  2. Less is more:Learn to edit. You may want to include every last entry but people don’t necessarily want to know everything. Stick with one simple rule: annual reports are a lot easier to read (and digest) if they’re well structured and have something interesting to say. What is the story? Decide what you want to focus on, and align that with your company’s key messages and brand. And include the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve advised many leading corporations on how to present both good and not-so-good news.
  3. Statistics can tell great stories: Graphically speaking, of course. Decide which statistics best represent your main narratives, and use them to highlight your strategy and performance. consider highlighting your key achievements with a ‘this year in numbers’ page. Case studies and also very useful and of course info graphics are, as Zoolander’s Mugatumight say, “so hot right now”.
  4. Use stand out text:‘Pull-out’ text in a larger font can introduce the key messages on a page, and it’s a great way to catch the attention of a roving eye. For example, “Why we’ve doubled our IT investment,” or “Our UK business is looking up”. Case studies can also be very useful to engage the reader with the story behind the scenes.
  5. Going digital:Given the wholesale access to modern technology, printing an annual report is no longer a proven race winner. A PDF download is much cheaper, and a more effective means of getting the most eyes on this crucial document. It allows for videos, interactive infographics, even animations for more effective messaging. And you can still offer a print version on request — just fire up the colour printer and binder, lick the stamp and drop it in the mail. Whether you go digital, hardcopy or both depends on your budget, time constraints and, naturally, your shareholders/stakeholders particular preferences. A quick survey should reveal all you need to know.
  6. Digital reports and analytics:Presenting your annual report online means you can track every download — from identifying the most popular pages and animations or videos viewed to what infographics got the greatest number of clicks. In other words, what worked and what didn’t. It’s vital insider information that enables you to get the jump on how best to present your results.
  7. Screens, screens and more screens:Yes, many people these days will read your report on an iPad, smartphone or other device so be sure to design for this. Highlight your best stats and key performance points, have lots of white space and, above all, be concise.
  8. Consistency is essential:Tailoring information to your target audience is a golden rule, as is consistency in your company’s message. An engaging and comprehensive annual report should act as a stable mate to your overall communications strategy. For example, a report we completed for a major bank strategically reflected and amplified its upcoming 12-month plan of community activities.
  9. Picking a writer/designer: Writing and designing annual reports is a specific skill, and your approach and budget will dictate how you run that race. You may simply need someone to plain-English edit your supplied copy and lay it out in an on-brand design for the sprint down the home straight. Alternatively, you may decide on the long-distance runner, and have a company like mine come in plan your annual report strategy from go to whoa. Either way, annual reports are highly technical documents and you need a steady hand so always opt for experience.