An annual report is of one the most important marketing and communications projects any organization can produce. Primary audiences for an annual report include people who have the greatest impact on an organization: top leaders, board members, investors, government officials and the press. In fact, because annual reports are so visible, it is entirely possible writers and designers who produce this important internal/external marketing tool, and their supervisors, will be meticulously judged based upon their successful or unsuccessful work on this one project.
For marcom staff, the high profile nature of annual reports means continually looking for things that can go wrong. It’s often the same things that go wrong. This article addresses six of the most common problems marcom staff encounter when working on annual report projects.
Annual Report Writing Mistake #1: Too much text
Overwriting messages is always a problem in marketing and communications work, but it’s even more of a problem these days when readers’ attention must be split between many resources in a constant stream of information. The trick is to craft impactful text in quantities that fit each situation appropriately. For example, the annual report’s message from the president/CEO/Executive Director has traditionally consisted of several paragraphs of first-person narrative. If you make it too short, it will seem as if the executive director or CEO doesn’t care and is not engaged. If you make it too long, he or she could seem arrogant, ponderous and self-absorbed.
The same goes for text throughout the body of the annual report. Remember the habits of the modern reader. Write enough to get the job done, but then quit. Don’t be tempted to add text solely for the purpose of sounding nice or showing off. It’s okay to include creative text that sets the stage for stories or provides perspective, but keep it brief and to the point, or it may not be read at all.
Annual Report Writing Mistake #2: Too much sentiment
It’s true that an annual report is one place where a company can share emotional, philosophical messages. However, some organizations take it too far. Every organization has a mission, and those responsible for the mission are serious about it. They likely care more about the organization’s concrete accomplishments than how people feel about their work. It can be a fine line when you getting ready to sit down and write annual report copy.
This doesn’t mean sentiment doesn’t have a place in an annual report. The people who are highly invested in your organization would not put in the time and effort they do without having strong feelings about the work. It simply means neither design nor copy should dwell on sentiment. Make the point sincerely, visually and verbally, then get on to the next part of the story.
Annual Report Writing Mistake #3: Too few dynamics
There has been a movement toward simpler, cleaner design and messaging, not only in annual reports, but in all marketing and communications materials. There is a good reason for this: we don’t have time to dig through extraneous material. However, as is natural with many things in life, it’s tempting to swing too far the other way. In an annual report, this shows up as too little color, too few illustrations and photographs, under-developed messages, a lack of meaning, disconnected ideas and limp statistics. This can create a negative or uninspiring image of the organization in the minds of people who need to see the richness of what you do to understand, be inspired by and support your organization.
Often, the reason for a lifeless annual report is a condensed production schedule. If marcom staff members do not begin working on the annual report at least three or four months ahead of time, depending on the size of the report, there is a risk of becoming rushed and not developing the meaningful material needed to appeal successfully to these important audiences. Powerful articles might be taken off the list and a halfhearted effort made to complete graphics and text. Staff might be tempted to justify a bare-bones annual report, citing budget, time and current graphic design styles. However, these needs should not be primary drivers of the project.
Annual Report Writing Mistake #4: Diction too high or low
The diction of an annual report is slightly different from other marketing materials. The content is informative, not directly persuasive, for one thing. Word choices should be different, too. Some companies make the mistake of filling annual reports with high diction—big words and corporate phrases meant to sound sophisticated. It’s true readers sometimes subconsciously believe complicated language aligns with deeper knowledge. But high diction or technical language also can make it difficult for readers to understand the message. Remember, some of your important audiences do not understand the nuances of your industry the way you do. Complicated language also can convey a sense of arrogance—or, ironically, make readers feel you are creating a smoke screen and really do not know as much as you pretend.
Low diction is a problem, too. Conversational writing is effective in mediums such as blogs and social media posts, but it’s not always appropriate. Using conversational language in a formal marketing piece such as an annual report can make serious investors feel you are not taking their investment as seriously as you should. If the report is held side-by-side with a competitor’s more distinguished report, it might reflect badly on your organization. To find the right balance, get into a serious frame of mind as you work and think like your investors.
Annual Report Writing Mistake #5: Too much focus on money
One of the purposes of the annual report is to outline the financial successes of the previous year. When there are no successes or weak successes, the annual report helps put things in perspective, diplomatically offering causes for problems in the past year and encouragement for the year coming up. Data—usually in the back of the report—quantifies the financial health of the organization and provides other measurements of success, such as numbers of constituents, new product introductions and employee counts. Sometimes the annual report team receives an abundant amount of financial information and it can be difficult to pare it down.
If too many financials are provided in the annual report, it can dim the focus on things that matter most, so distill facts and figures down to the most meaningful metrics. If the marketing group doesn’t have enough insight to determine financial reporting priorities, it’s critical to find out from someone who knows. That probably means someone in finance, accounting or treasury. If you guess or get advice from personnel who don’t really know what they are talking about, you risk publishing figures that are meaningless to investors and board members or, worse yet, reveal your ignorance. For audiences who aren’t familiar with financials, provide clear translation—again working in tandem with someone who knows. Make it real by connecting the numbers with meaningful, people-oriented accomplishments.
Annual Report Writing Mistake #6: No clear call to action
The primary purpose of an annual report is to tell the story of the past year and establish a framework of understanding for your organization, not to get people to take action. However, the spotlight on an annual report makes it a great opportunity to communicate appropriate calls to action. If your organization is a non-profit, you can use the annual report to share ways people can become involved, for example. If you work for a commercial enterprise, the annual report can include information about upcoming events you want people to get involved in.
For the most part, calls to action in annual reports should be indirect to avoid turning the annual report into a glorified brochure. Keep the focus on your organization’s story for the purpose of informing and inspiring VIP audiences.
Pulling Annual Report Pieces Together
In addition to being an important communications tool, both internally and externally, the annual report is one of the largest writing and design products to come out of marcom departments, along with proposals and business plans. It can be a challenge to bring all the pieces together when writing an annual report. Keep things simple so you can get it done fast, and write annual report messages that are clear and powerful. Build in time for several editing and proofing layers to ensure your annual report is as polished as possible.
Split annual report production into pieces, so it’s not overwhelming and so you can maintain a focus on one piece at a time and do the best job possible. This is especially important if your annual report production schedule is condensed. Different pieces of an annual report can be worked on at the same time. Splitting the annual report project into pieces also gives you a chance to allow your entire staff to be involved and share in the kudos when it is complete.
When is Professional Help Called For?
Because of the importance of annual reports, it’s not uncommon for marketing departments to hire professional help for certain stages of the process. An outside writer/editor can provide a fresh, objective view to increase the report’s effectiveness and bring in more kudos for you as well. It’s common to assign a contractor to either (1) research and write some sections of the report to save time and free up staff for other things — or (2) edit the first draft to improve content clarity and then proof the layout for accuracy. If you’re going to spend money on outside help this year, the annual report is one of the best places to earn healthy long-term ROI.
Foster Executive Writing & Editing specializes in annual reports. Our experience includes annual report writing and editing for international government-funded institutions and Fortune 500 companies, as well as local non-profits, universities and B2B corporations. For a free analysis of your project to help you create a plan, email Kindra Foster at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Links to helpful resources:
Non-profit annual report: http://nonprofit.about.com/od/nonprofitpromotion/a/annualreps.htm
Commercial annual report: http://www.richardhollins.com/blog/how-to-write-an-annual-report/